Today, on 15th August, Roman Catholics celebrate the Assumption of Mary mother of Jesus into heaven. (The Orthodox call it the Dormition.) Different understandings of Mary (Miriam in her own language) have sharply divided Christians for centuries.
Anglicans who regarded themselves as Catholic-but-reformed in the first century or so of the Church of England channelled their devotion to her through meditating on the Annunciation, the moment of incarnation: they did not address Mary directly. Her “Yes” to God on our behalf in accepting Gabriel’s words was pivotal.
Queen of heaven?
The Oxford movement brought many Catholic practices back into the Church of England in the nineteenth century, and soon some were addressing Mary directly in their prayers (see A. M. Allchin’s book, The Joy of All Creation, for a fascinating study of the place of Mary in the Church of England down the centuries).
To Protestants, images (and particularly statues) of Mary smack of idolatry. The Assumption seems to parallel the Ascension, and in spite of the strong provisos of Roman Catholic doctrine, a mere human appears to become Queen right next to Christ the King, as if she was equal, or at best stealing his thunder. But if she is queen, it’s as “the handmaid of the Lord”.
“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” was written not by the Pope but by Luke, reporting the reaction of Elizabeth to Mary’s pregnancy. In the Christian East she is usually called Theotokos, the one who gave birth to God. Again, the focus is on the incarnation. The language is daring, but flags up that Jesus’ human and divine natures are fully integrated. This Orthodox anthem sings Mary’s role in joining our nature to “light, fire and life” itself in bringing forth a son:
Into his joy, the Lord has received you,
Virgin God-bearer, Mother of Christ.
You have beheld the King in his beauty,
Mary, daughter of Israel.
You have made answer for the creation
To the redeeming will of God.
Light, fire and life, divine and immortal,
Joined to our nature you have brought forth,
That to the glory of God the Father
Heaven and earth might be restored.
(translated by the Anglican Benedictine sisters at West Malling)
Pregnant with the word
When I was a student I was fortunate to hear some talks by an unusual priest in the Russian Orthodox Church, Father Benedict Ramsden (his parish included the whole of Devon!). One of them was about the Theotokos. If I remember correctly, he said it all came down to one question, “Are you pregnant with the Word of God?”
We sometimes miss the point of the incarnation by losing sight of the humanity of Jesus (Yeshua in his own language). I think as I grew up the Jesus-story in my head was more like this: the equivalent of a divine son of Zeus swooping down from heaven and disguising himself as a baby, fully conscious that he was the head honcho as he grew up, and then letting himself be subjected to excruciating pain and execution as he thought “I’ll be back on Sunday. That’ll show ‘em.”
Yeshua is us and calls us to become him, “partakers of the divine nature”. To become what we are, we start off as Miriam, incubating the Word inside us – not least by pondering the words of the good news in our hearts. “May we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
God our pilgrimage
your mercy is the ground we tread on
our desires your path to our heart.
May we open ourselves to the uninvited
which swoops into our lives
so that your fierce love
may grow within us
till we fall asleep on your breast.
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Both illustrations were downloaded from wikimedia under licence. The first, ”The Cloud Dormition”, is an icon from Desyatinny Monastery in Novgorod. The second is Fra Angelico’s ‘Annunciation’.