The Church of Saint Peter
Mary - A Woman for All Christians
Over the years, I have had many discussions on the subject of Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus. As an Anglican exploring the role of Mary in these conversations, I have found myself in a unique role explaining the significance of Mary to other Christian faith traditions. The Anglican Church has often been seen as a possible bridge between the Reformed Protestant Churches and the Roman Catholic Church. If the Anglican Church follows the “Via Media” or “Middle Way”, somewhere between the Protestant and Catholic traditions, I have usually found myself traveling on that middle way when discussing the Virgin Mary. Protestants are curious and a little suspicious as to the place of Mary within the Anglican tradition. Roman Catholics mistakenly believe she has no place in my faith and its practice. Sadly, many of my fellow Anglicans have given little thought to Mary’s role within their own history and tradition.
In the following work, I would like present a meditation on Mary for all Christians. My hope is that by looking at Mary in holy scripture and in the meditations, prayers and poetry of the Protestant, Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, we may get to know Mary better and by doing so we may get to know and love her son Jesus more.
Who was Mary?
We know little of the story of Mary’s life before she appears in the gospels. Her life was probably like that of any young woman living in poverty in an arid ‘third world” country of today. In Aramaic, the language of Jesus and Mary, Mary’s name is Miryam, or in English, Miriam, meaning “bitterness”. Mary would know much bitterness in her days. Life for Mary would consist of the grinding daily routines to survive. Her day would have started at sunrise with the usual chores that have changed little in the Middle East for thousands of years. She would have daily walked great distances to fetch and carry back water, milked and fed the livestock, harvested what seasonal crops were available, collected wood and helped to cook, clean, spin, weave and to look after the young and elderly of her extended family. Mary would daily experience the degrading status of women of her time and culture.
According to Jewish law of the time, Mary would have been eligible to wed at the age of twelve. Mary would have had an arranged marriage with Joseph, a poor, landless itinerant carpenter, whose profession would provide little income or security. As a traveling tradesman, Joseph was probably frequently away from home taking jobs where he could find them to make ends meet. She would know hunger, thirst and the sickness, suffering and death that made the average life expectancy of her people only thirty years or so. With her people, Mary would also share the shame and humiliation of being a conquered people oppressed in their own land by Roman military rule. Mary would have prayed and hoped for the deliverance of her people awaiting the messiah
Mary would have visited the Temple in Jerusalem and celebrated the yearly cycle of holy days and festivals of the Jewish calendar. Although undoubtedly illiterate, Mary would come to know the prayers and scriptures of her people from her family and the village rabbis. This seemingly insignificant Jewish peasant woman from two thousand years ago would come to have more church’s, cathedrals, institutions, religious orders, works of art, prose, theology, feast days, legends, folk tales, poetry and music inspired by her or dedicated to her than any other saint in the Church. Yet the scriptural writings about Mary are not extensive. This should not be surprising as the majority of the New Testament is a witness to Jesus himself. Hence, the scriptural references to Mary or the other disciples are proportionately smaller compared to the materials about Jesus’ life and ministry. This does not however diminish Mary’s significance. More importantly, whenever Mary’s life is mentioned in scripture, it is always in relation to and witnessing about Christ. It is for this reason that the Church so highly honours Mary. She remains for us the model of discipleship and witness to Jesus throughout her life.
Mary - Her Risk of Faith
… the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth to a virgin...and the virgin’s name was Mary. He went in and said to her “Rejoice so highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean, but the angel said to her, “Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favour. Listen! You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great and called the Son of the Most High.” …But Mary said to the angel, “but how can this come about, since I am a virgin?” “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” the angel answered, “and the power of the Most High will cover you with his shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called the Son of God”…”I am the handmaid of the Lord,” said Mary, “let what you have said be done to me” (Luke 1:26-38)
The story of our salvation begins with Mary’s response to God’s call to be the mother of Jesus. Before she responded to God’s call she had questions, fears and confusion. Even after the angel explained the great mystery that was about to happen to her, it is doubtful whether Mary or any of us could understand the full implications of what God was asking her to participate in. And yet, Mary said yes to God despite her fear, lack of understanding and inner struggles. Her faith in a loving God allowed her to place her whole life, and her whole body, into God’s hands to fulfill his will. Unexpectedly she was called by God. The call was filled with things she didn’t understand, things which could have a price - for an engaged yet unwed pregnant woman in a small village of the time risked ostracization or far worse - being stoned to death. Mary’s risky “yes” to God is an example and a challenge to us to listen to the unexpected and risky things God may be calling us to do. Like Mary, we will struggle with questions and fears as we seek to live out God’s calling for us. But despite the costs and struggles, may we like Mary, say to God “let what you have said be done to me.”
"Never before had a person been required to believe what Mary was supposed to believe: that God would overrule his laws of nature concerning conception and birth, and in the manner foretold by the angel, assume human flesh in her. What an impossibility! Mary, more than anyone else, was required to believe in a promise of God in defiance of all human reason. This path demanded exceptional courage on Mary’s part...She found herself far removed from every sphere of human experience. All she could do was cleave to God, to whom she was bound by the promise."
Mary - A Model of Evangelism - Bearing God to Others
Mary set out at that time and went quickly as she could to a town in the hill country of Judah. She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. [Mary’s cousin, pregnant with John the Baptizer]. Now as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She gave a loud cry and said “Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord?…Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled. (Luke 1:39-45)
By participating in the will of God Mary not only opened her whole life to God, she opened her very body and her womb to be the dwelling place of God in Christ. Yet, Mary did not rest or withdraw into herself in this overwhelming mystery as many might. Rather, she immediately traveled to be with Elizabeth, her cousin in need. Elizabeth was pregnant at an older than usual age and in those days could be at great risk. The divine presence that Mary carried within her was so powerful that Elizabeth, and even her unborn child, experienced and felt the presence of God in Mary, by Mary just being there. This may be the most powerful and effective form of evangelism - sharing the reality of the presence of God in our lives with others. Many people we encounter may never step into a church. But we, like Mary, can bring the indwelling presence of Jesus in our hearts and lives to others through our acts of love and compassion, or just by “being there” as a testament to others of God’s presence in our world as Mary was to Elizabeth.
Like Mary, it is not enough for us to know the presence of God in a “private” or intimate way. Mary’s example of setting out to share the good news of salvation and helping Elizabeth in her childbearing calls us to go out and to share our experience of the love and power of God with others. Like Mary, we must share this love in both words and deeds. The great Anglican Divine and bishop, Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), reflected upon this as he wrote:
"She, who was now full of God in her virgin womb, and the holy Spirit in her heart, who had also overshadowed her, enabling her to a supernatural and miraculous conception, arose with haste and gladness to communicate that joy which was designed for the world…But the joys the Virgin Mother had, were such as concerned all the world [ that] she would not conceal from persons…but go and publish God’s mercy towards her to another holy person, that they might join the praises of God…[and] to be published in the communion of saints; that their faith may grow up to become excellent and great, and the praises of God may be sung aloud, till the sound strike at heaven, and join with the hallelujahs, which the morning stars in their orbs pay to their great Creator."
At the Council of Ephesus in AD 431, the leaders of the Church came to the remarkable conclusion that Mary was the Mother of God or in the Greek the Theotokos the “God Bearer”. In her womb, the fullness of Christ’s divinity and humanity came to dwell. Before this could happen we know that in Mary’s “yes” to God she had already opened her life to his will. St. Augustine of Hippo said “..she gave birth to Christ in her heart before she did from her womb.” We too are called with Mary to be “God Bearers” to others. Having the Word sown in our own hearts, we are called to daily give birth to the presence of God in our words and deeds.
The lesser known Anglican Divine, Mark Frank (1613-1664) said we can be “made blessed Marys” when we receive Christ within our hearts and bodies in the Holy Eucharist. As Mary rejoiced and exulted at having the privilege to bear God in Christ in her womb, so too Christians rejoice and are transformed and filled with grace as they receive Christ into the womb of their hearts in the mystery of the Eucharist. Echoing the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), Frank writes:
"There [at Holy Communion] he is strangely with us, highly favours us, exceedingly blesses us; there we are all made blessed Marys, and become mothers, sisters, and brothers of our Lord, whilst we hear his word and conceive it in us; whilst we believe him who is the Word, and receive him too into us…There graces pour down in abundance on us, there grace is in its fullest plenty…there we are filled with grace, unless we hinder it, and shall hereafter in the strength of it be exalted into glory - there to sit down with this blessed Virgin and all the saints and angels, and sing praise, and honour, and glory to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, forever and ever."
By fully opening ourselves to let God come and dwell within us as Mary did, we can, through prayer, the sacraments and scriptural meditation better convey God to others. With Mary as our example, may the Word become flesh in our lives, and like Mary, fill us with his grace, that the world may see in us the transforming power of God and by it be drawn into his loving embrace.
O noble Lady, speak was it humility
Mary - The Servant of the Lord
And Mary said: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit exults in God my saviour; because he has looked upon his lowly handmaid. Yes, from this day forward all generations shall call me blessed, for the Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name, and his mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear him. He has shown the power of his arm, he has routed the proud of heart. He has pulled down the princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich sent empty away. He has come to the help of his servant Israel, mindful of his mercy,according to the promise he made to our ancestors, of his mercy to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1: 46-55)
In this great canticle (also known as the Magnificat - from the Latin “I proclaim the greatness”) Mary rejoices that she has been chosen to be the mother of the Son of God. Far from boasting, she acknowledges her own “lowliness” and calls herself a handmaid, a servant. Her sense of servitude however is one that is filled with joy as her spirit “exults” and “rejoices” in serving her God. As the first disciple of the Church, her example of humbleness reminds us that such humility and joy-filled service to God and to our brothers and sisters is the true mark of discipleship. In his commentaries on the Magnificat, the reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) wrote, “Mary’s heart remains the same at all times; she lets God have his will with her and [she] draws from it only a good comfort, joy and trust in God. Thus we too should do.”
Mary prophesizes that all generations will call her blessed, but again, Mary points the attention away from herself and directs our attention to God’s power and mercy that is working with her and through her to bring about the Kingdom of God in her Son Jesus. Mary’s example helps us to remember to put aside ourselves, with all our egos and agendas, so that it is not we who get in the way of welcoming the Kingdom of God into our world.
Mary’s humility became a heavenly ladder, by which God came down into the world.
Mary - Prophet of the Kingdom
Mary and John the Baptizer are considered within Church tradition to be the last prophets of the Old Testament. For centuries this belief has found expression in the art of the Church as John and Mary stand on either side of the image of Christ as they direct the observer’s view to Jesus by the gesturing of their hands as if saying together “Behold the lamb of God” (John 1:29).
A prophet is one called by God to speak for God. Through a prophet God calls his people to repentance or to speak out against hypocrisy, injustice, and oppression. In her Magnificat, Mary reveals the radical re-ordering of the world that God has planned with the coming of the Messiah. In this way Mary stands beside the women prophets of the Old Testament, Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and Hannah. She shares with them the message that God is about to shake up our world. The Protestant theologian Max Thurian writes, “Mary, the first Christian women, is also the first revolutionary of the new order.” Through the advent of her Son, Mary prophesizes that the old order of sin, injustice, inequality, oppression will be torn down. “Mary’s song… is the most passionate, the most untamed, and perhaps the most revolutionary that has ever been sung...it is hard and strong-and, mercilessly humiliating princes and tearing them from their thrones. This song has the power of God and the weakness of the people. These are the characteristics of the prophetesses of the Old Testament” wrote the Lutheran pastor, theologian, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). Mary’s song is one of thanksgiving, but it is also a prophetic cry of the poor and oppressed yearning for the justice of God’s Kingdom. Mary’s song is the song of the Church. By her prophetic words, the poor, the hungry and the oppressed know that they, as Jesus promised, are the first to be invited to the Kingdom.
The Church, which the Virgin typifies [i.e. the Virgin’s humanity represents the humanity of all the people of God] cannot proclaim the good news of salvation without making the love of God concrete through the defense of the poor and needy. The Church is the Handmaid of the Lord, like Mary, when she [the Church] is poor like Mary, when she finds her joy among the poor and when she shares with them, their search for deliverance. For it is the will of the Lord, his promise and his new order which demands it.
Mary - The New Eve - Mother of All Living In Christ
…she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins. Now all this took place to fulfill the words spoken by the Lord through the prophet : The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel, a name which means “ God is with us.”…she gave birth to a son: and named him Jesus. (see Matthew 1: 18-25)
By cooperating with God’s plan and by being obedient to his will Mary conceived and brought life and salvation to our world. It was a world that had fallen into death and sin by the disobedience of our primordial parents Adam and Eve. St. Paul wrote, “For since death came through a human being the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:21,22) Paul makes the contrast between Adam, the bearer of death and Christ the bearer of life. The Church historically has viewed Mary in a similar role in our salvation history as the New Eve. As Eve’s disobedience helped bring about the events of the Fall, so Mary’s obedience to God’s plan brought about our restoration. St. Justin (AD 120-165), one of the earliest commentators on the Virgin Mary, wrote, “for Eve, being a virgin and undefiled, brought forth disobedience and death: but the Virgin Mary taking faith and joy when the Angel told her the glad tidings… answered “be it to me according to your word.” If humanity was to be rescued by Christ’s from the consequences of the first transgression by Adam and Eve, our primordial father and mother, there must be a new Adam and a new Eve. “…the knot of Eve’s disobedience received its unloosing through the obedience of Mary: for what Eve.. bound by disbelief…Mary… unloosed by faith.” wrote St. Irenaeus (AD 120-200).
The name Eve comes from the Hebrew meaning “mother of all that lives” or “mother of all who are alive.” The brilliant twelfth century Cistercian abbot and scholar, Blessed Guerric of Igny reflects this thought as he writes:
Like the Church of which she is a model, Mary is the mother of all who are born again to new life [in baptism]. She is the mother of him who is the life by which all things live: when she bore him, she gave new birth in a sense to all who were to live by his life…by virtue of this mystery she is the mother of all Christians…
Christ is our truth, way and our life. He is our bread of life and our resurrection to eternal life. His life in us is the light of all people. Mary as the new Eve is the mother of the source of our soul’s life and all who live in Christ.
Rejoice, thou through whom joy will shine forth:
Mary - Model of Faithfulness
Following the birth of Jesus, the story of Mary’s life and faith continue. In Jesus’ childhood a series of astonishing and strange events are recorded. Shepherds who had been told by angels to seek the saviour visited Mary, Joseph and the Christ child in Bethlehem. “As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:20) When the young couple brought their eight-day-old son to the Temple in Jerusalem to be circumcised, the prophets Simeon and Anna both spoke of their child as the long awaited Messiah and “..the child’s father and mother stood there wondering at the things that were being said about him.” (Luke 2:33)
Twelve years later when on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, they lost young Jesus in the crowd only to discover him three days later sitting among the rabbis discussing the scriptures. When his parents saw him they were astonished; his mother said to him “Child why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety”. He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And again we read “His mother treasured all these thing in her heart.” (Luke 2: 48-51)
What were these things that Mary pondered or treasured in her heart as she grew in her relationship with Jesus? Undoubtedly it was a mixture of astonishment, joy, unanswered questions, and fear. These were the same emotions she experienced as she began her calling as the “God Bearer” at the annunciation. Despite these three very unsettling events that would unite the lives of Jesus and his mother, Mary remained faithful. In our own journey of faith we, like Mary, are called to a life of astonishment and joyful wonder at what God can do in our lives. We too are to ponder in our hearts, in our life of prayer and to daily contemplate the unfathomable mysteries of Christ’s grace and love. There will be times in our journey of faith when there will be questions, anxiety and difficulty in understanding and we too will ponder in our hearts what God’s mysterious will is for us. There may be times that we want to run away from God’s call. It may seem too difficult or too costly. Like us, Mary did not always see or understand God’s will. Yet faith is faith and she persevered. She had placed her hope and faith in the promises of her God despite the confusing and sometimes painful consequences. “Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:45).How natural it would have been for Mary, a mother, to try and dissuade her young son from the path he was about to take. It would have been far safer, less controversial and less painful. As Jesus entered his public ministry, she must have pondered in her heart again the haunting words of the prophet Simeon that “…this child: he is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected - and a sword will pierce your own soul too..” (Luke 2:35) Yet her faith instructed her heart, as at the annunciation, to let go and place all things in God’s hands. It is this same faith that ultimately allowed Mary to have the strength to share in the sufferings of her son and stand by him underneath the agony of the cross. Despite the cost of uncertainty, fear, ridicule and the brutal loss of her son, Mary remained faithful to her faithful God.
Mary’s life was, like ours, truly human, and she was also involved in the same sort of oppressive, hopeless and often apparently insoluble social situations in which every human being is at some time or another is placed. But she showed us, by her example, how faith in the mystery of the living God is stronger than human life, stronger too, than death-even the death of her own Messiah.
Mary the Disciple
…there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee. The mother of Jesus was there, and Jesus and his disciples… When they had run out of wine… the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” Jesus said “Woman, why turn to me? My hour has not come yet.” His mother said to the servants “Do whatever he tells you.” …Jesus said to the servants “fill the jars with water…Draw some out”... and the steward tasted the water, and it had turned into wine. (see John 2:1-12)
The wedding at Cana is an important point in the life and ministry of Jesus to the writer of John’s gospel. For John, the scene ushers in images of the messianic community and is the starting point of Jesus’ ministry of revealing the kingdom of God to all who will accept it. According to John, it is at the wedding in Cana that the new community of disciples first gather as a group around their messiah. The miracle at the wedding was “…the first of the signs given by Jesus…” and it was there that “He let his glory be seen, and his disciples believed in him.” It was at Cana that Christ began the new age where the community would rejoice in the presence of the Messiah. Interestingly John names Mary first in that group.
When the wedding party runs out of wine Mary notices the embarrassment of the couple and intervenes with her son. Jesus mysteriously answers “Woman, why turn to me. My hour has not come yet.” In the gospels Jesus always refers to his mother as “woman”. The term is not as cold as it sounds. It is actually a term of endearment not easily translated into English. Although a little archaic, this term of endearment could be roughly translated as “My dear Lady”. The “hour” Jesus speaks of is God’s plan of salvation and is a foreshadowing of that “hour” (Mark 14:41) when Jesus will suffer the passion of the cross in completion of God’s plan of salvation.
By now in Mary’s journey of faith she knows what her son must do. She knows that the people must begin to see what she has come to see and believe; that her son is their saviour and messiah. Mary knows that her people probably won’t believe her son without some sign or miracle. So, she gives her son a little push in that direction. Although Jesus reminds her it is not the time for this revelation, he does what she requests anyway and by changing water into wine he reveals his glory. Jean-Pierre Prevost writes, “The plan of salvation is a guide, and Jesus’ response suggests her place in this plan. John tells us that Mary did have a problem making this transition. She quickly invites the servers at the wedding to listen to the word of Jesus.”
Mary realizes that our human plans are not always God’s plan despite our best intentions. The role of Mary as the first disciple of that new community is made clear at the wedding. Although she plays a prominent role in the gathering of disciples her intervention draws our attention to Jesus and what he can do. As disciples of Christ, Mary’s example at the wedding reminds as that if God is to manifest his kingdom among us we have to let God unfold that work in us in his own time. From the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry Mary is there. Mary is called to play a role in the birth of the fledgling Christian community, a community of faith that has formed itself around Jesus, a table and a meal. Mary’s life is embodied in her own instructions and she tells us too “Do whatever he tells you.”
…Mary wants to help. She says to her son, “They have no wine.” Jesus says to his mother, “Woman, what concern of that is to you and me? My time has not yet come.” Mary basically ignores him and says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Jesus obeys his mother and tells the servants to fill six jugs with water. When the governor tastes the water, he knows it has been turned into wine. The Bible doesn’t say “thanks to Mary”. But it is implied in the story. Mary is a good Jewish mother, who knows that wine is spirit too; she also knows from living with her son the miracles he is capable of performing, and she knows that contrary to what her son believes, his time has indeed come. So Mary, like any mother who knows what’s best, tells her son what to do.
Mary of the Cross
“Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother…” (John 19:25)
Mary of annunciation of the angel Gabriel at Nazareth. Mary of the Magnificat. Mary of Bethlehem giving birth to God in Christ. Mary of Nazareth pondering in her heart Christ’s childhood. Mary the intercessor at a wedding in Cana. Now Mary of Golgotha at the cross of her suffering son. In Mary’s Magnificat she tells us that the promise of the world’s salvation will be gained through her son. Little did she realize at that time how much it would cost both her and her son to accomplish that salvation. But she is there beneath the cross wishing to share the pain of her child, to ease his humiliations and to bear the weight of his cross. On the cross a part of her life and flesh are crucified also. She shares her son’s sufferings not only as his mother but also as a disciple of her Lord and saviour. Mary’s life was a fulfillment of Christ’s commandment “Deny self, take up the cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34). She risked her security, her reputation and even her life with her “yes” to God. As Jesus grew into manhood and began his ministry, she followed her son, not always understanding everything, but remaining faithful. At the final hour she followed him through the streets of Jerusalem as he carried his cross to Golgatha. She was there to share in her son’s agonizing screams of pain and loneliness. As the nails pierced his hands and feet she shared his passion as a sword of anguish pierced her heart also (Luke 2:35). In Mary we see a life that was a continual surrendering to the will of God. She would ultimately have to surrender her son to the cross as part of God’s plan of salvation. Commenting on Mary and her crucified son Jeremy Taylor wrote:
By the cross stood the holy Virgin mother, upon whom old Simeon’s prophecy was now verified; for now she felt “a sword piercing through her very soul”… and with a modest grief; deep as the waters of the abyss, but smooth as the face of a pool; full of love, and patience, and sorrow and hope. Now she was put to it to make use of all the excellent discourses her holy Son had used to build up her spirit, and fortify it against this day. Now she felt the blessings and strength of faith: and she passed from the grief of the passion to the expectation of the resurrection: and she rested in this death, as in a sad remedy: for she knew it reconciled God with all the world. But her hope drew a veil before her sorrow, and though her grief was great enough to swallow her up, yet her love was greater, and did not swallow up her grief.
Mary’s silent presence in scripture at the foot of the cross calls us to be faithful, to take up our own crosses and to follow Jesus and to be a witnesses to the power of his love to others. As Mary stood by her suffering son, her example reminds us that we too must stand with the Christ who is being crucified and is suffering today in the poor, the oppressed and the abandoned (Matthew 25:31-46). With Mary we stand under the cross of Jesus. With her we are called to bear the weight of the cross of discipleship. We know by faith that the cross is not the end of our journey with Christ but a new and wondrous beginning.
At the cross her station keeping
O thou Mother, fount of love,
- From the Hymn "Stabat Mater", ascribed to Jacopone di Todi (1306),
Mary - Mother of the Church
“Seeing his mother and the disciple he loved standing near [the cross], Jesus said to his mother “Woman, this is your son.” Then to the disciple he said, “This is your mother.” And from that moment the disciple made a place for her in his home.” John 19:26,27
By the beloved disciple John taking Mary into his home to be as a new mother he was doing more than providing for a sonless widow with no means to support herself. John, as one of the principle disciples, was an integral part of the greater community of Jesus’ followers. By giving Mary over to John, Jesus also gives Mary to that larger community of disciples. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved is made a symbol for every disciple, for every Christian, and so every Christian may regard Mary as their mother in the faith.
St. Paul described the relationship of Jesus to his Church as Jesus being “…the first born within a large family…” of those he called to salvation (see Romans 8:28-30). In St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, Jesus calls the family of the Church his brothers and sisters (See Hebrews 2:10-18). If indeed we are the brothers and sisters of Christ, should we not look to Mary as our mother in Christ? Martin Luther spoke of this as he writes “Mary is the Mother of Jesus and Mother of all of us even though it was Christ alone who reposed on her knees…If He is ours, we ought to be in His situation: there where he is, we ought to be also and all that he has ought to be ours, and His Mother is also our Mother.” (Christmas Sermon 1529).
As God had once called her to be the mother of salvation in Christ Jesus, so now Christ calls her from the cross to be the mother of his church and to nurture it with her presence, insight, prayers and example. Mary who once bore the body of Christ in her womb is now given a new motherhood. Mary, with the other disciples, is to now bear and labour to give birth to the Body of Christ, the Church, as it makes sense of the cross and begins to proclaim the good news of Christ’s resurrection. As we are all members of Christ, and Mary is Christ's mother, Mary is also our spiritual mother through Christ.
I praise thee O Lord with all the powers and faculties of my soul: for doing in her all thy merciful works for my sake,and the benefit of mankind. For uttering the glorious Word: yea rather blessed are they that hear the Word of god and keep it. And for looking round about upon thy disciple and saying “Behold thy Mother” and my brethren. For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother and my sister and my Mother.
Mary - Image of the Church
“…All these [the disciples] joined in continuous prayer, together with several women, including Mary the mother of Jesus… When Pentecost day came around, they had all met in one room, when suddenly they heard what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven…[and] they were filled with the Holy Spirit…” (See Acts 1:14, 2:1-13)
A careful reading of Acts lets us know who was present when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples. The “they” who were the community of believers at Pentecost in Acts 2:2 are listed earlier on in the narrative and include Mary (Acts 1: 12-14).
In the art of the Church Mary is always seen at the centre of the Christian community as the power of the Holy Spirit descends upon them. Pentecost is the “birthday” of the Church. At Pentecost the Christian community was born to new life in the Holy Spirit to be the people of God empowered to carry God’s word of salvation to the world. Yet in this stupendous miracle how it must have seemed familiar to Mary. In a powerful way in her own life she had already experienced this great mystery. At the annunciation, just as at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon her and the power of the Most High overshadowed her to bring Christ the Word into our world. As we become members of the Church in our own baptisms we experience a similar event in our own lives. We invoke the Holy Spirit to come upon us with the renewing waters of grace to give us a new birth into the community of God so that in turn we too may be empowered to be “God bearers”.
The Church has a model of vocation in the life of Mary. Like Mary, our humanity is to be touched by the divine and transformed by God’s grace. We, the Church, like Mary, are to bear Jesus to our broken and suffering world. With Mary we are called to be part of a living and active faith community at constant prayer as she was, open to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, always willing stand by the cross, awaiting with hope in the promise of the resurrection and gathered in one family in one faith, one baptism, one Lord. This we call Church, and then as now, Mary plays an important role in its life.
…Christians are reminded that Mary’s life is a miniature picture of what the life of every Christian is meant to be: a complete surrender to the will of God, a tenacious following of God’s will despite our human limitations, a faithful witness to the cross, a call to be a Pentecost people, and a lived hope of the reward of everlasting life…In every day of our Christian lives, we celebrate and remember our constant call to be like Mary, a dedicated people tenacious in our commitment to be authentic disciples of Jesus Christ.
Mary - A Women Wrapped in Silence
Rejoice, disciple of God's unfathomable will:
Rejoice, thou who in a great mystery gavest birth to the Light:
Rejoice, thou who didst reveal thy secret to none!
Rejoice, thou who art the assurance of those who pray in silence!
- Excerpts from the Akathist Hymn, from the Orthodox Liturgy
We do not know how Mary spent the final years of her life, but we can assume that she lived in or around Jerusalem under the care of John and the Christian community there. The earliest oral tradition of the Church says she died in Jerusalem in AD 48 surrounded by the remaining apostles. There is no consistently clear evidence in archeology or in the writings of the early Church that indicate a place for the tomb for the mother of Christ. So Mary, a poor young woman born in poverty and obscurity in a small Judean village leaves our world as silently as she entered into it.
Yet when meditating on the scriptures we always see her presence in the life of Jesus and the disciples. She seems to be always there, if not in the forefront of the gospel narratives (e.g. the annunciation, the birth, the Cana wedding, the cross, Pentecost) she is present in the back drop, “behind the scenes”, of the ministry of Jesus and the apostles.
We do not know how the holy family lived in those “hidden years” of Jesus’ life between his adolescence and his reappearing in scripture as a man. Scripture tells us simply that, “Jesus grew up [and] advanced in wisdom and in favour with God and men.” (Luke 2:52) What role did Mary his mother play as he grew up? We cannot say for sure as the gospels are silent about this time, but all we have to do is to see how much of Jesus’ own radical teaching can be found and reflected in Mary’s own song of the Magnificat. In these silent unrecorded years Mary offers us another model of discipleship. It is a discipleship of quiet, constant, lifelong, unobtrusive, and often unrecognized and unrewarded service. This type of discipleship may not be dramatic or heroic in the usual sense, but is also no less valued by our Lord (Matthew 25:21). Mary is the model of those who year after year do the hundreds of little things that are never recorded which make a family, a community, a parish or volunteer group a richer place. We should know who these people are, but their quiet service carries on frequently unnoticed. They are the ones who keep in touch with the shut ins, the people who call and send cards in times of celebration and sorrows, who spend that extra time listening to the children and strangers, and who always find the time to do more than their fair share. All of this they do for the love of Christ. Their silent witness to Christ in their life of prayer and commitment to their faith community are sources of strength and inspiration as Mary’s silent witness must have been to the early Church.
As mentioned previously, Mary has no tomb. Perhaps her greatest memorial is in the hearts of Christians seeking like her, to do the will of God and to intimately know her son hidden in the mundane routines of everyday life.
We may complain at times that God has told us so little about her, about her appearance, her personality, her words, her deeds. In so complaining we miss the point. God has told us what we need to know. He has included in Mary’s vocation and in her life’s work the one essential thing that lies hidden and must be revealed in every vocation and in every life’s work: to bear Christ in our hearts and carry his light to the world. This Mary did while remaining lowly and obscure, a lay woman among the people of her village, doing the daily tasks of her home, just being what God wants her to be.
Mary - A Partner in Prayer in the Communion of Saints
O God, the king of the saints, we praise you and glorify your holy name for all your servants who have finished their course in your faith and fear: for the blessed Virgin Mary; for the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles and martyrs; and for all your righteous servants, known and unknown; and we pray that, encouraged by their examples, aided by their intercessions, and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
- From the Book of Alternative Services, Anglican Church of Canada.
We do not know how Mary died, but we know that she has received the pledge of eternal life promised by her son Jesus to all those who have remained faithful in their life (see John 5:24-2711:25-26,14:1-6,23, Romans 14:7-9,1 Corinthians 15, 2 Timothy 2: 8-13). After her death, our Lord’s mother joined that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) which we call the Communion of Saints, a community where the faithful departed dwell in the presence of their Lord.
Christians have always understood that the Church includes both the living and the departed in one Body of the Church. Indeed nothing can separate us from the love of Christ which binds the community of those baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection here on earth and the Church that has gone on before us. We are reminded of this at every Holy Eucharist as we pray with them to our Lord; “Now with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven we lift our voices…”
The Church is a community of prayer. We pray for each other, the Church and our world. We ask others in the community of the church to pray for us. To aid us in this endeavor we have intercessory prayer groups. As well, we have Cycles of Prayer in which the whole Church is asked to pray for a specific person, group or cause. As we ask the prayers of our friends and the Church on earth so we can ask for the prayers of our brothers and sisters in the Church, the saints, who continue to serve and pray in heaven. The Virgin Mary and all who dwell in: the Communion of Saints are there for us to be partners in prayer as Tobit12:12 and Revelations 5:8 and 8:3-4 testify. Dr. William Benefield in his article Praying with the Saints : A Wider Intercessory Group for Christians asks;
Have you ever asked anyone to pray for you. Why did you choose to ask that person? You may have chosen someone you trust, or someone who understood your problem, or someone who was close to God. Have you ever been placed on a list for an intercessory prayer group? Why did you want your name added to their prayer list? Those are some reasons why Episcopalians [Anglicans] like many Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians ask departed saints, as well as other fellow Christians living still on earth, to pray for them.
Therefore no Christian ever prays alone for the great cloud of witnesses always prays with them and for them. Asking the intercessions of Mary or the other saints should in no way be confused as praying to them. Prayer is reserved for God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit alone. We invoke, (literally “to call upon”) the saints who have died in Christ and who now live in Christ to pray with us and for us as we would call upon all those living in Christ in our own faith community here and now. It is only in the risen Christ and through risen Christ in the unity of his One Living Body, the Church, that we can ask their prayers. Jean-Pierre Prevost wrote “The prayer of the saints has no value except in union with the risen Christ; and when we invoke the saints, we do so in order to enter more easily into communion with the risen One.” Invoking the prayers of the Virgin Mary and the saints in no way diminishes the unique role of the mediation of Christ between God and humanity (see 1Timothy 2:5-6). Rather, it is a form of mediation in and through Christ who lives in the praying hearts of his saints on earth and in heaven and unites us into one praying community. This belief is succinctly expressed in the Dublin Agreement of the Anglican -Orthodox Dialogue of 1984:
The prayers of the saints on our behalf are likewise to be understood as an expression of mutual love and shared life in the Holy Spirit…the intercession of the saints for us is always in and through this unique mediation of Christ (Luke 22:29-30): Christ is the King, and the saints share in his kingly rule. The Blessed Virgin Mary played a unique role in the economy of salvation by virtue of the fact that she was chosen to be the Mother of Christ our God. Her intercession is not autonomous [i.e. this work does come about by her own power], but presupposes Christ’s intercession and is based upon the saving work of the incarnate Word.
For nearly two millennia, Christians have particularly sought the intercession of the Virgin Mary. No one could be more intimate with and know Jesus better than his mother, and so, it is believed that as he listened to her kindly intercession at the wedding in Cana, so now he listens to her prayers for those who pray with Mary for help. The Anglican Divine, bishop and scholar Lancelot Andrews (1555-1626) wrote of this as he says “The Virgin’s key of Prayer, accompanied with the prayers of all God’s people in all ages opened the Heaven of Heavens.” When writing a sermon on the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jeremy Taylor said he felt the efficacy of Mary’s prayers for his inspiration, “And possibly her prayers obtained energy and force to my sermon, and made the ground fruitful, and the seed spring up to life eternal.”
We are indeed encouraged by the examples of the Virgin Mary and all the saints. We are aided by their prayers, and by this community of prayer we are strengthened in our fellowship with them in the One Church of heaven and earth united in Christ our Lord. If we choose, we may confidently pray : Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen
For that fair blessed Mother-maid,
Whose flesh redeem’d us; that she-Cherubin,
Which unlock’d Paradise, and made
One claim for innocence and diseased sin.
Whose womb was a strange heaven for there
God clothes himself, and grew,
Our zealous thanks we pour. As her deeds were
Our helps, so are her prayers; nor can she sue
In vain, who hath such titles unto you
- John Donne, Anglican Divine, priest and poet (1572-1631)
Mary, the mother of our Lord, has always captivated the hearts and minds of Christians. This brief work has barely scratched the surface of what could be said of Mary in the life and tradition of the Church. Much of Christians experiences of Mary is also found in the art, music, and liturgy of the Church; the scope of which
is too vast to deal with in the purposes of this little work.
Some may ask why we honour Mary or why she plays such a prominent role in the life of the Church. The simplest answer may be that we honour Mary because God raised her to that honour in choosing her to be the mother of our salvation in Christ our God. In the Anglican Church of Canada’s publication More than Words we read that “Mary, in her humility, obedience, and faith, became, through the greatest miracle of all time, the mother of Jesus, who is God the Son incarnate. For this reason we give all reverence short of what belongs to God alone.” We honour her as the first disciple of the Church. We regard her as the “highly favoured one” of God who is the model and embodiment of what it means to follow Jesus all one’s life. The Church cherishes her as the exemplar of faith, boldness, strength, courage and discipleship. For these qualities in Mary’s life and her witness to Christ we can praise God and with Bishop Lancelot Andrewes pray “Neither are we unmindful to bless Thee, for the most pure, highly blessed, the Mother of God, Mary the eternal Virgin, with all the Saints.”
In his sermon on the Annunciation, Mark Frank reminds us that giving the honour due to Mary is not a new thing introduced into Christianity, but rather, it is warranted in both holy scripture and the ancient tradition of the Church. He reminds us that we glory in the life of Mary because God’s glory shone through that life. He writes:
Give we her in God’s name the honour due her. God hath styled her “blessed” by the Angel, by Elizabeth; commanded all generations to call her so, and they hitherto have done it, and let us do it too. Indeed, some of late have overdone it; yet let us not therefore underdo it, but do it as we hear the Angel and the first Christians did it; account of her and speak of her as the most blessed among women, one “highly favoured”, most “highly” too. But all the while give Dominus tecum [Latin - “the Lord be with you” i.e. the Lord who greeted Mary] all the glory, the whole glory of all to him; give her the honour and blessedness of the chief of the saints-him only the glory that she is so, and that by her conceiving and bringing our Saviour into the world we are made heirs, and shall one day be partakers of the blessedness she enjoys…
In his work, Centuries of Meditations, Thomas Traherne, a saintly Anglican priest (died 1647) gave praise to Mary in a style reminiscent of the Eastern Orthodox hymns of Mary. In this meditation he leaves with us a beautiful and poetic answer as to why Christians should honour the Virgin Mary;
And first O Lord I praise and magnify thy Name
And yet this Holy Virgin-Mother styled herself but the Handmaid of the Lord, and falls down with all the Glorious Hosts of Angels, and with the Armies of Saints, at the foot of Thy Throne, to worship and Glorify Thee for ever and ever.
The most unworthy of all thy Servants falleth down to worship Thee for thine own Excellencies; even Thee O Lord, for thine own perfection, and for all those Glorious Graces, given and imparted to this Holy Virgin, and to all thy Saints.
Traherne says Mary is exalted by God, and therefore should also exalted by the people of God, to a place in the Body of Christ unlike any other saint. Traherne continues to explain that this exaltation in God’s kingdom was not attained by any supernatural qualities of her own, but rather her humility, obedience and by her cooperating with the will of God.
He calls her “Spouse of the Holy Spirit” reminding us of the unique, intimate and mystical relationship between Mary and the Holy Spirit in the conception of Jesus at the incarnation. She is described as the “Tabernacle of the most Glorious Trinity”. The Tabernacle was the sacred innermost part of the Temple in Jerusalem. It was the “Holy of Holies” as it was the place where the very Presence of God dwelt. As the Nicene Creed tells us God dwelt in Mary’s womb and “…became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Mary reminds us of the possibility that God comes and dwells in the humble of hearts of those who believe. Traherne also describes her as a series of mirrors reflecting to all Christians the fruit of a life of true discipleship ; humility, wisdom, devotion, modesty,and sanctity. Traherne also praises Mary as a “Light in the Church”. Mary, by her life, witness and intercessions to her son is indeed a light in the Church by which all who seek to follow Jesus may be guided. By following the path that Mary took, we can walk with her as our spiritual mother, as a fellow disciple and servant of the Lord who will guide and lead us to her son Jesus. For this and for so much more we honour Mary.
Blessed are you, O Mary, and blessed is your holy soul,
Blessed are you, who have borne, embraced and caressed as a baby
Blessed are you, from whom the Saviour appeared on this exile earth
Blessed are you, whose pure mouth touched the lips
Blessed are you, who have nourished with your pure milk
Blessed are you, because the whole universe resounds with your memory, and the Angels and human beings celebrate your feast…
Daughter of the poor, she became the Mother of the King of Kings.
She is the ark laden with the goodness and treasures of the Father,
- St. James of Sarug, Syrian Orthodox bishop and writer (AD 451-521)
By Dean Rose
Permission is granted to use and replicate this or parts of this article with the following ascription;
From an article by Dean Rose, St. Peter’s Church, Oshawa, Diocese of Toronto.