In the post about liturgy Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi I suggested that traditional liturgy is the place of unity of Tradition and Holy Writ in Christ, and that the authentically Christian form of Old Testament interpretation is the anagogical sense, because behind this sense lies the theology that witnesses to our Lord's identity, and which by the Holy Spirit - in the days of His sojourn amongst us - formed His human self-understanding. There are a few things I would like to clarify about that post, but I thought I should save up all the loose ends for a concluding post to this series, and press on with the next piece.
With the above notion in mind, the obvious corollary when talking of the Blessed Virgin is that Mary should be understood through precisely the same lens of reception of the Old Testament. We draw upon the Old Testament as the preceding history and shadow or type that lifts us up to the Incarnation, the union of God with man. But there is a further principle discernible in Christ's appropriation of the Old Testament - or perhaps two principles - which one might term contraction and concretion. (1) Contraction, because the prophecies and expectation of the faithful, waiting in the Temple like Simeon and Anna, were "folded up" from nation to Messiah, from the Chosen People to an Anointed Person. Some of the prophecies upon which the synoptics draw, like the prophecy "out of Egypt have I called my son" seem prima facie to refer in their original context to the nation of Israel. Such prophecies, however, receive a new and contracted purpose in the New Testament, and are seen to be primarily about Jesus. Christ's identification of the Temple as His own body is another similar example of contraction in a different context, that of the place of God's presence and man's offering. (2) Concretion, because abstract terms of God's grace to the Hebrew people are translated into the concrete language of the Gift. Take Simeon's words, for example: he says "mine eyes have seen thy salvation", but here salvation has come to mean Saviour, the baby in his knarled old arms. These two principles - contraction and concretion - are a rather clumsy way of expressing the central fact of the Incarnation, but get across the point that God's mercy and providence are now seen as emanating from the Messiah, and that the nation of Israel is chosen for the sake of the promised Seed. (These principles, I think, rather than the supposedly corrupt Greek philosophical influence on Christology at Nicaea, are the Hebraic foundation of the orthodoxy of the councils.)
Thus the covenant promises and grace of God are crystallised in the person of Christ: but this fact also gives us the greatest and most significant Marian event, which is the Annunciation. For as Israel, and as God's love, becomes personally the Son of God in Christ Jesus, the door through which the Everlasting God steps Incarnate into time is Mary. There is - according to the Fathers - a similar contraction and concretion going on with the Virgin. J.H. Newman points out the parallelism of the Fathers in their interpretation of Romans, where Mary becomes the New Eve, whose obedience to God reverses the sin of "Eva" in the "Ave" of the angel Gabriel, and from whom the last Adam comes forth, inverting the emergence of Eve from Adam's side. A number of traditional parallels in the understanding of God's electing of the Blessed Virgin could be pointed out in addition to this:
- Christ is the Son of God, the summation of the elect Israel; Mary is Israel as precursor to the Lord, the one chosen to bear Him in the faith of God's promise
- Christ is the Head of the Church, and through the Spirit and the blood its body is mystically His own; Mary is the figure of the Church in her bearing of Christ's body through the Holy Spirit's action
- Christ is the divine Logos, by and in whom all things consist; Mary is both the figure of Wisdom as the immaculate and redeemed Idea of Creation, and the void darkness of nothingness and humility brooded over by the Spirit into which the Creating Word of God is spoken: "full of grace, the Lord is with thee!"
- Our Lord's crucifixion and death enabled the gift of His flesh and blood to be given for the world; and Mary's slow and painful death to her motherhood of Christ culminated in the sacrifice and giving of her maternity to the beloved John at the foot of the foot of the cross, where the Church was mystically formed and Mary's spiritual motherhood of the Church was born
But in addition to this notion of the Old Testament prefigurings and antecedents crystallising out in Christ, and in which Mary is caught up as it were, we come back to the anagogical sense and the theology underlying it. This does underlie some of the notions I have already mentioned - for example, the notion of Mary as Israel brings us up to the Incarnation by the Holy Spirit. It must be stated however, that the theology underpinning the anagogical sense is directed towards Christ, and reflected back onto Mary as the Theotokos, the bearer of the Divine Son. I believe, however, that the theology of the anagogical sense is expressed supremely in the liturgy. It is the liturgy as the culmination of divinely communicated Tradition and Word that is the proper orientation of our beliefs about the Blessed Virgin.
But before considering where and how liturgy comes into it, I must execute a diversion. I have always found it puzzling that there is so little polemic at the time of the Reformation about the Virgin Mary, certainly in the first few generations of Reformers. There was plenty of wrangling about devotion to saints, but that was about devotion to saints in general; there was argument about asking for Mary's intercession; but that was in the context of disagreement over asking for any saints' intercession. If this seems improbable, consider the following. Zwingli, the most Protestant of the Swiss Reformers, celebrated Mary as Immaculate, and told his followers to say the Hail Mary as a devotional rather than an intercessory exercise (at that time the prayer only contained the first half of the modern Hail Mary, ending with the name Jesus). Luther preached to pilgrims to a Marian shrine and defended the Perpetual Virginity of Mary; so did Calvin. There is good evidence that some of the Reformers believed in her Assumption into heaven. If one considers the supposed medieval over emphasis on Mary, it is interesting that Zwingli gives much the same kind of warnings to her devotees as St Bonaventure: they were obviously handling the same kind of feeling with the same kind of pastoral guidance. So what has made this such a controversial matter?
I can think of three reasons off the top of my head. The first is simply that the Reformers were living on borrowed currency, and as their reformed ideas leavened the thought of subsequent generations some traditionally Catholic elements were gradually seen as out of place - such as the doctrines about Mary. I am not so sure about this though: there doesn't seem to be any Reformed dogma that would argue against the recognition of Mary as having a unique role in our salvation history. The second is that the development of Marian doctrine in Roman Catholicism - the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception in 1848 and the Assumption in 1950 as dogma - have turned what was "pious belief" among Christians generally into something necessarily and specifically Catholic and therefore had a polarising effect. Very well: but the polarisation seems to predate such developments. One doesn't find much enthusiasm for Mary Immaculate and the Perpetual Virginity in the Puritan divines of the seventeenth century. The real reason, I think, for the Protestant scepticism may well be confounded by the above two factors, but I am pretty certain it is has a basis in a particular application of sola scriptura.
The guiding hand of sola scriptura meant that not only was the cumulative voice of Holy Scripture considered to be the guiding hand on the formulation of doctrine, church government, etc. but that the New Testament became the only reliable account of what did or did not happen in the times of which it spoke. Thus a principle of dogmatic theology (e.g. what has the Scripture to say on justification by faith?) became a notion that the witness of the Scripture to the events of the Apostolic age ought not to be supplemented by tradition, which was of course fallible tradition. Thus, (said the Presbyterians vs. the episcopal office) if St Paul did not give a clear and consistent distinction between ἐπίσκοπος and πρεσβύτερος, bishop and priest, that is because there was none, or at least the Holy Spirit didn't mean us to draw it; and (said the Anglicans vs. the papists) if St Peter did not sum up the decision at the council of Jerusalem, but rather St James, that was because of course St James was the local bishop, it was his territory and therefore his right to do so, ergo St Peter was not given universal jurisdiction by Christ as the papacy claimed. The relevance this has to the current subject is the apparent witness of the Scripture to Mary's family: there are several asides in the gospels about Jesus' mother and brothers. Previous interpreters had simply stated that these were not Mary's children, but were cousins or close relatives and were called brothers by Aramaic idiom. But that was because there was a broader narrative within which the text of Scripture fitted, and part of that narrative was Mary's Perpetual Virginity. Now, tradition's reliability having been abolished by the plain meaning of the bible, there was no good reason to find a way around the text's obvious import; and a willingness to continue to do so indicated a cavalier treatment of the Word of God to favour the errant traditions of men.
I would point out, first, the distinction mentioned previously between the bible as normative for doctrine, and the bible as an historical document. By all means, the bible and what it is to be gleaned from it is in a sense the God's last word in doctrine. All we must do now is to draw out its meaning in ever greater clarity. But by what reason drawn from the Scripture itself must one hold that its words are the only witness to events in the Apostolic age? And that nothing must be believed about the events of the Apostolic age which cannot be directly deduced from its historical record, even when the beliefs so refused do not contradict but rather enlighten the overall trajectory of New Testament teaching and its recorded narrative? That is the first point. The second is to point out the difference between traditions - as for example the story that Mary's parents Joachim and Anna presented her like the prophet Samuel to the Temple at the age of three - and Tradition.
The notion of Tradition, as I have suggested, is something quite distinct from traditions in the sense of a bunch of stories and beliefs of uncertain historical provenance. Tradition in the elevated sense is Apostolic in its authority, and is given expression in the Liturgy in which we are offered to God and He - through Christ - gives Himself to us. What does Tradition in this sense have to say about Mary? Although this is not what I wish to concentrate upon directly, there are several times the Blessed Virgin is mentioned in the traditional form of the Eucharistic liturgy: in the Confiteor (general confession), and more pertinently in the phrase from the canon "united in one communion, we venerate the memory, first of the glorious ever-Virgin Mary". The prayer then continues with a list of other saints of God. I shall come back to the phrase ever-Virgin, because what is present here is not a late addition, but a phrase present also in the canon, or anaphora as they call it, of the eastern Liturgy of St James which was the liturgy of the Church of Jerusalem, i.e. a predominantly Jewish Church, and is traceable - allowing for the timidity of modern scholars - to circa 200 years after the last Apostle died (some Orthodox Christians say it is unquestionably Apostolic). A likely context for pagan notions about virgin mother goddesses to attach to the mother of our Lord? I ask you.
This reference to the Perpetual Virginity aside, it is the context of communion - "united in one communion" - within the Eucharistic rite that interests me most. In the Eucharist, our offering of praise, prayer, bread and wine is taken up by Christ and united to His all-sufficient sacrifice on Calvary. The Church, His mystical body, is presented spotless to God in heaven in this rite. That includes the Church militant, although I'm not sure that we Christians nowadays particularly qualify for that martial epithet, and the Church triumphant, present with Christ at the Father's right hand. Mary, as the spiritual mother of the Church, and the one who (so to speak) enfolds the Church's existence through the Annunciation, is united with all of us in the Eucharist through the offering of Christ. This is the ground, the apex, and the reality of every other doctrine and devotion and hymn about Mary, and without which (forgive my bluntness) all such are nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that. I don't mean one must know this piece of theology about the Eucharist to get one's Marian devotion right, but rather the extent to which one's Marian devotions are orientated to the sacrifice of Christ is the extent to which one is devoted to Mary in the right kind of God-glorifying way.
Just in case the claims advanced above about Holy Communion as a celestial feast of all the faithful seem somewhat arbitrary, I would advert to a passage in the letter to the Hebrews which is a tremendous Eucharistic commentary. After telling us that the Mosaic Law has passed away, and that we no longer come in terror to the smoke and lightning of Mount Sinai where the trespasser is slain, St Paul says: "But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel." The angels, the living, the spirits of the righteous, God Himself and Jesus with His blood, all are present in this celestial feast at which we partake.
What of the doctrines about Mary, then, and the popular devotions? How do they fit into Eucharistic theology? I wish to mention a few that make least sense to Protestants, and which made least sense to me. I don't wish to write about Marian intercession - including the second half of the Rosary, for example - because that brings up the whole question of asking for the intercession of saints, which is a slightly different topic. This piece is already long enough. Those I do wish to mention are:
(1) The notion of coming to Jesus through Mary, ad Jesum per Mariam. It carries the whole theology of Louis de Montfort's book True Devotion to Mary which is a kind of manifesto for this idea. But the whole point about an orientation to the Eucharist and the almighty work of Christ is that there is in the liturgical context no equivalence between Jesus as Mediator and the type of mediation attributed to Mary. It is different not just in degree but in kind. Jesus' death, resurrection and ascension, His sending of His Spirit: this is what is present in the Liturgy. It is simply complete. There is, however, an inescapable sense in which the one coming to the Lord is coming in the same attitude as Mary, when hailed by the angel Gabriel. And more than this, for it is not only a question of similarity of spirit. "United in one communion" means united through the body of Christ, and it is this point that we are mystically the children of Mary, in her utterance of the words "behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word". This is not (I believe) a union of wills merely, but a mystical enfolding into Mary who is at once a fellow-servant of Christ with us, and also the mother who carries us: for in these words we have the entire Church in embryo, just as when those words were uttered, so also was Christ in embryo ("Qwan the aungel 'aue' began, fflesch & blood to-geyder ran" as the medieval lyric has it). I am most emphatically not saying that we are incorporated into the body of Mary, which would be nonsense, but that because of her spiritual motherhood of the Church, her spirit includes all its members without exception, and that it is necessarily enfolded in her spirit that we partake of Christ's blessed body, whether we know it or not. Mary is part of the Liturgy as the final form of redeemed creation, full of grace and blessed, the complete and assumed form which the Church is now filling out and striving towards. And it is as mother that she fulfills this role in her prayers, made powerful by the love of Christ, who is the source and virtue of all her requests.
(2) It is sometimes said that Mary was made the fourth person of the Trinity in the Middle Ages. While I doubt that even the most traditionally Catholic theologians or church historians who would dispute that there was error in popular devotion to the saints in this period, I am not sure that the diagnosis of the error is correct. She was, in fact, given the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church. And if the theology I have espoused above is a fair statement of the truth, then one can see why this particular error is the natural one. Her maternal, spiritual role was exaggerated, and in fact I strongly suspect that this kind of thing is still present in the devotions of some Catholic people. One shouldn't, I think, damn such people, but say to them what St Peter said of himself to Cornelius: get up on your feet, she is a fellow-creature like yourselves.
(3) Once one sees that one is enfolded in the heart of Mary, it creates a subtly different appreciation of one's relation to God. One has, standing between oneself and God the Father, the Mediator, Christ Jesus - or even better, one is presented in Jesus the Beloved Son to our dear Father. The motherhood of Mary does not play this kind of immediate and direct role, but the knowledge of it does change something. The almost invisible humility of the narrative of Mary's life; her gentle holding of the child Jesus and that maternal, indefinable look of incredible and far-off depth of sweetness (but I know of no way to express it) that one meets in the icons: here is the spirit in which one is conceived and the love into whose care God has given us. The Church is a family, and God has willed that there is room in His house for many vivid, even bombastic and wild-eyed characters. But He has also willed that we have a mother, whose character seems so hidden in darkness and halting sayings, one whom no-one ever has and no-one will ever fathom, because she was created to love Love Himself.
(4) But what of the witness of Scripture regarding some Marian traditions - the Perpetual Virginity, for example? All of what has been said is very nice I'm sure, and no doubt Mary had a special role given to her by God's grace, someone might say. But, ahem, the gospels do mention Jesus' brothers all the same, and therefore traditions about her seem to be somewhat spurious. Well, in this connection I have already mentioned the title ever-Virgin in the ancient Liturgy of St James, which even by the most conservative estimates is a few generations after the Apostles, and is likely to stretch back in part to the Apostolic times. (One can't imagine a liturgy being composed do novo 350 A.D. without any prior tradition of growth.) But apart from the testimony of this kind of tradition, which would be shaky ground if set against the near contemporary witness of the gospels, there are several lines of reasoning that call into question some of the most watertight evidence contra the ancient tradition of the Perpetual Virginity. A certain James, described in Acts as "the Lord's brother", is also described as an Apostle. Now there are two Apostles called James: the son of Zebedee, who had been already martyred when this other James crops up in the Acts of the Apostles. The difficulty is, that the only other Apostle James is the son of Alpheus, not the son of Joseph and Mary. It seems extremely likely that we have here a usage of the word brother that does not mean a first-degree relation. There are other confusing details - the first two names of the four named as Jesus' brothers (James, Joseph, Simon and Judas) later crop up as the sons of the "other Mary" (i.e. not his mother) who is, a "disciple" of Jesus. Thus it is by no means clear from the semantics of brother in the gospels and the Acts (remembering that Aramaic has no distinguishing words for brother and cousin), and from the various hints about who was who's son, that there is a watertight case for Jesus having had brother and sisters by Mary. There are other hints: Jesus is called the "son of Mary", but none of his "brothers" are ever given this appellation; and further, the behaviour of these brothers - they try to restrain Jesus and tell him to be sensible and come back home to Galilee - is, I read, rather unlikely in this period from younger Jewish brothers. From uncles or elder cousins, possibly. And then there is the suggestion in Mary's answer to the angel as narrated by Luke that she was a consecrated virgin in the first place: "how can this be?" is not a question that really fits Gabriel's message until that point, unless she had a prior vow and consecration to God within her betrothal and marriage (such a marriage was provided for by Jewish law). This was the Patristic understanding, and true or not, it sets the Perpetual Virginity within its proper place in the Annunciation: Mary's calling was complete, a calling of body and soul into total and undivided service. Some people have a difficulty with setting consecrated virginity above marriage, but I think the New Testament's teaching is fairly clear cut, given the words of our Lord about eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake, and a few passages in St Paul's letters too.
(5) I hope devout Catholics will forgive what might seem like a flippant tone in what I am about to say, but there is a particular kind of devotional meditation on the Blessed Virgin that could be rather cruelly parodied. It runs something like this: Jesus was so good, and Mary was so good, so how could such a Son refuse such a mother anything she asked? Go to Mary to ask for things, in other words: she is such a nice mother that Jesus will give her whatever you want. I know that this is a parody of what people are thinking when they say this kind of thing. But I don't think, as it is often quite baldly and sentimentally stated, that it holds water. Jesus doesn't give Mary what she asks simply because she is His mother.
(6) I can imagine a Protestant reader wondering - what about that semi-blasphemous stuff about Mary as Mediatrix of all graces, or Co-Redemptrix? Firstly, these speculations aren't dogma. Secondly, I think that the language is a mistake because it creates an impression that one needs a dozen caveats to correct. The Protestant isn't right to smell blasphemy: proponents rightly insist that this kind of speculative Marian theology also applies to the Church, in that our meagre efforts are, by grace, made part of Jesus' work of redemption and mediation. They are raised by Christ in the Eucharist and offered by Him as things of worth. And thus I don't see anything un-Christian about the little I have read of the underlying theology, apart from a strong conviction that some titles are better left unique to Christ because they express His unique place as the Alpha and Omega of both creation and redemption.
(7) Finally: I wonder if someone can answer the following. Setting aside the minimalistic sola scriptura notion I mentioned above (i.e. it is not in the bible, so the presumption is against it having taken place), why get so upset about the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary into heaven whilst accepting the bodily assumption of Enoch, Moses and Elijah?