Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Proper of the Day: St. Mary the Virgin

Today is the Major Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, Theotokos and Mother of Our Lord. Theotokos means "God-bearer" in the Greek and was proclaimed a title for Mary by the ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. The other title considered at the council was Christotokos, or "Christ-bearer," which many apparently preferred. The council decided on Theotokos because it says more about the nature of Jesus Christ than it does about Mary herself.

The Collect for the Day (a "collect" is simply a form of prayer that "collects" the thoughts or themses of the day and has a specific structure) implies what for the Roman Catholic Church is dogma, but for Anglicans is adiaphora:

O God, who have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

In the Roman rite, and acknowledged in Anglo-Catholic circles, today is actually the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, where it is believed that she was bodily assumed into heaven and did not, as I understand it, physically die. This belief is adiaphora ("something indifferent") for Anglicans because it was not a decree of one of the first five ecumenical councils and so Anglicans are free to acknowledge the belief, or not. Many people throughout the centuries have taken great comfort and strength and growth toward God via a devotion to the Blessed Mother, and I think we as Anglicans must at least recognize that such devotion has been part of Christian tradition that we need to respect. As a matter indifferent, it's up to the individual to discern how much, if any, of a devotion one wishes to engage in; one's salvation does not depend on whether one accepts the Assumption or not.

My own view is that the Mary feasts of the BCP (The Annunciation, The Visitation, and the Feast of St. Mary) strike a good balance. The first two feasts are grounded in Scripture itself. The third (today's) is the traditional day of the age-old festival in Mary's honor, and we kept the hint of its provenance in today's Collect but shifted its emphasis toward Mary's entire life and especially her role as Theotokos. We did not keep a feast of the Immaculate Conception in December because that is also adiaphora, although there's nothing to prevent it, and some Episcopal parishes such as St. Mary the Virgin in Manhattan will. Growing up in the Lutheran tradition, as I did, I confess to a bit of suspicion about the cult of the saints in general, in that devotion toward a saint may tend to take away from one's devotion to Jesus. (Pope John-Paul II's idea of Mary as "co-redemptrix" was perhaps the quintessential example.) Over time, though, I've come to understand there can be different kinds of devotion or worship, and to acknowledge the role the saints have had in Christian tradition over time and really from the very earliest times. So in Evening Prayer, I always include Mary in my list of saints in the final petition of the Suffrages, along with my personal patron, St. John the Evangelist, and any other saint being commemorated that day. And I am personally persuaded that Theotokos is an acceptable title for Mary and one which I can use as well.

So in the spirit of Theotokos, who points not to herself but to the One she bore, let us take the words of Mary at the wedding in Cana to heart when she advises the steward, and us, "Do whatever He tells you!"


Update: The Mad Priest has done it again (scroll down a bit and you'll see what I mean...)