St. Mary the Virgin

This Thursday, we commemorate the feast day of Saint Mary the Virgin. (We invite you to join us for Holy Communion at 12:10 p.m.) Mary is the mother of Jesus, and because Jesus is both fully God and fully Man, she is recognized as the “Mother of God.” (Mater Dei in the West, Theotokos, literally “God-bearer,” in the East.)

St. Mary is mentioned by name in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), and Acts of the Apostles. The central mentions of St. Mary are concentrated in the infancy narratives of Christ in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke. Stories about the beginning and end of her life are not included in the biblical record, but are discussed in early Christian writings such as the Protoevangelium of James, which gives evidence of stories about Mary’s origins and later life that were circulating in the oral tradition of the early Church.

Mary is not mentioned by name in the Gospel of John, but features prominently in scenes at the beginning and end of that Gospel: the miraculous turning of water to wine at the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11), and her presence at the foot of the Cross along with St. Mary Magdalene, St. John, and other women who were disciples of Jesus.

In the book of Acts, Mary is the only one mentioned by name that was in the upper room praying with the Apostles in the nine days between the Ascension of Christ and the descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost. That Jesus was “born of a woman” is mentioned in the Pauline Epistles (see, e.g. Galatians 4:4), and some have interpreted the woman in Revelation 12:1-6 as the Blessed Virgin Mary.

August 15 is traditionally recognized as the date of St. Mary’s death – and thus her birthday into eternal life – and so is traditionally celebrated as her feast day, as is the case with other Saints. This feast day is celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, recognizing the Roman Catholic dogma that St. Mary was taken up into heaven, body and soul, similar to the Old Testament prophet Elijah. Eastern Orthodox Christians instead refer to the “dormition” (falling asleep) of St. Mary. Most Anglicans simply refer to this day as the feast day of “St. Mary the Virgin,” choosing to not take a dogmatically defined stance on how St. Mary entered into eternal life, reflecting a variety of beliefs on the subject within Anglican Christianity: many believe St. Mary died a normal death, with some believing in something along the lines of the Assumption or the Dormition. Regardless of what one believes on this, it is considered in Anglicanism to be adiaphora: a matter that is not central and thus where liberty exists. The maxim, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity,” applies. Regardless of what one believes about the death of St. Mary, three things about her life and overall legacy in Christianity are important for us to remember:

  1. First, since she is foremost in the “communion of Saints,” that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) that surrounds us, we are grateful for her as an intercessor. Just as St. Mary interceded with her Son to perform the miracle at the wedding at Cana, she still intercedes with her Son before the throne of God in prayer on our behalf.
  2. Second, it is important to remember that beliefs about St. Mary are dependent on our beliefs about Christ. The reason Christians hold St. Mary in such high regard is because we hold Christ in the highest regard: her greatness is due to her bearing Christ into the world, and his grace being at work in her as his disciple. All Mariology (doctrine about Mary) is really an extension of Christology (Doctrine about Christ).
  3. Third, St. Mary is an exemplary disciple. Her humble, willing, and obedient response to the angel Gabriel’s message, “Let it be to me according to thy word,” serves as an example for all of us. How different would our lives be, how much better would our world be, if all Christians lived our lives in a daily, continual openness to God’s good will, as one continuous echo to St. Mary’s “Let it be”? This is the most important thing we can learn from St. Mary: not to get lost in the weeds of controverted dogmas, but to meditate on her response, her humility, her obedience, every day, and receive it as our example that we would do the same.

Finally, we conclude with these beautiful words about the Blessed Virgin Mary from Julian of Norwich:

And with this same appearance of mirth and joy our good Lord looked down on his right, and brought to my mind where our Lady stood at the time of his Passion, and he said: Do you wish to see her? And these sweet words were as if he had said, I know well that you wish to see my blessed mother, for after myself she is the greatest joy that I could show you, and the greatest delight and honour to me, and she is what all my blessed creatures most desire to see. And because of the wonderful, exalted and singular love that he has for this sweet maiden, his blessed mother, our Lady Saint Mary, he reveals her bliss and joy through the sense of these sweet words, as if he had said, do you wish to see how I love her, so that you could rejoice with me in the love which I have in her and she has in me?

And for greater understanding of these sweet words our good Lord speaks in love to all mankind who will be saved, addressing them all as one person, as if he said, do you wish to see in her how you are loved? It is for love of you that I have made her so exalted, so noble, so honourable; and this delights me. And I wish it to delight you. For next to him, she is the most blissful to be seen. But in this matter I was not taught to long to see her bodily presence while I am here, but the virtues of her blessed soul, her truth, her wisdom, her love, through which I am taught to know myself and reverently to fear my God.

And when our good Lord had revealed this, and said these words: Do you wish to see her? I answered and said: Yes, good Lord, great thanks, yes, good Lord, if it be your will. Often times I had prayed for this, and I had expected to see her in a bodily likeness; but I did not see her so. And Jesus, saying this, showed me a spiritual vision of her. Just as before I had seen her small and simple, now he showed her high and noble and glorious and more pleasing to him than all creatures. And so he wishes it to be known that all who take delight in him should take delight in her, and in the delight that he has in her and she in him.

And for greater understanding he showed this example, as if, when a man loves some creature particularly, more than all other creatures, he will make all other creatures to love and delight in that creature whom he loves so much. And in these words which Jesus said: Do you wish to see her? it seemed to me that these were the most delectable words which he could give me in this spiritual vision of her which he gave me. For our Lord showed me no particular person except our Lady Saint Mary, and he showed her on three occasions. The first was as she conceived, the second was as she had been under the Cross, and the third was as she is now, in delight, honour and joy.

(From Mother Julian, Revelations of Divine Love, 25 (Long Text), in Julian of Norwich, Showings. Translated from the critical text with an introduction by Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. and James Walsh, S.J. (New York: Paulist, 1978), 221-223.)