On the 25
th of March each year the Church celebrates the Annunciation of the Our Lord Jesus Christ to the
Virgin Mary. Following the English Reformation, despite a deliberate turning away from the Medieval cult of the Virgin, the Anglican Tradition nevertheless maintained its observance of the Annunciation in its continued honoring of the role Mary played in salvation history. Yet today, it’s fair to say, many Episcopalians are confused about Mary, not to mention the many new Episcopalians coming from either RC or Protestant backgrounds, each with its own distinctive take on Mary. I want to write a few words about the place of Mary in Anglican Spirituality. Is she or is she not important? And if she is important, how and why is she important?
We honor Mary as the embodiment of human cooperation with God’s plan for salvation. Mary is often presented as obedient, and we know from our study of the Rule of St Benedict that obedience really means a capacity to listen and respond. Mary represents our human capacity to listen for God’s invitation to collaborate. The most ancient strain of theology emphasizes divine-human collaboration beginning with the covenant God made with Abraham and the patriarchs and renewed with Moses on Mt. Sinai. The hallmark of a theology of covenant is that God invites and then waits to see if humanity responds.
For us this idea of response to invitation lies at the heart of our reverence for Mary. She listened, received, and accepted God’s invitation to play an essential role in God’s coming to dwell within the tent of humanity in the life of Jesus. The greatest challenge any one of us faces in the Christian life is to be ready to listen for God’s invitation to collaborate and to respond by committing ourselves to working with God in the putting of the world to rights.
Why is Mary referred to as the Virgin Mary? In a patriarchal world where society was particularly concerned with establishing clear lines of heredity, a woman’s virginity prior to marriage was a prized quality. The Church, being a patriarchal institution, theologized this male anxiety. Thus, Jesus as Son of God could not be the result of an ordinary biological union between Mary and Joseph. But the problem with this male anxiety about sex as the vehicle for heredity is that it limits the meaning of the Incarnation of God in Jesus to a lesson in miraculous, abnormal biology.
At St Martin’s, we end Sunday’s Prayers of the People with a reference to Mary by using the Greek Orthodox title
theotocos or Godbearer, rather than Virgin. This is deliberate because centuries of male anxiety about female sexual purity have no place in our contemporary understanding of Mary and her role in the history of salvation. As Godbearer, Mary is the human person who carries the Son of God not only in her womb but who also bears the wait of his dead body as he is lowered from the cross into her grieving arms. In this capacity she symbolizes every one of us who bears the cross of Christ as a sign of our willingness to work with God in making the kingdom a reality in this world. I invite you to keep this in mind as we journey towards the events of Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter Day.
See you in Church for Lent IV, this Sunday!