There's Something about Mary
by Craig Uffman
One of the things I love about Anglicanism is that the Lord gathers such a motley crew around the table to which he beckons us.
Each time I read the reflections of others on St. Mary the Virgin (whom the Church has historically known as Theotokos (“Mother of God”)), and especially on her feast day, I am well aware that our diversity is reflected in our thinking about Mary. Many of us grew up as Roman Catholics, and learned at an early age to appreciate the subjective Marian piety that was heavily influenced by traditions stemming from the Middle Ages. Some of us were cradle Anglicans whose approach to Mary was respectful but more objective and rooted in respect for the Biblical and creedal witness about Mary, and comparable to the Marian piety of the ancient Church. Still others of us are uncomfortable with Mary altogether because it is hard for us to get our minds around the whole concept of a virgin with child. In this latter group are many who briefly lose their voice or suffer sudden fits of coughing whenever we confess, in the Nicene Creed, “he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary…” I understand well the thinking of this latter group because, for much of my life, I was one of them.
But, just to show once again that the Father has a marvelous sense of humor, I write now to add my voice to those confess, “There’s something about Mary.” My thinking about Mary was transformed by an essay I read years ago by a theologian named Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope. Below I share what the Pope taught me about Mary that causes me to celebrate her eagerly this week.
It turns out that St. Mary the Virgin is of extraordinary theological significance. Our traditions about Mary first became necessary in order for us to contemplate the concrete humanity and divinity of Christ, and those traditions originally developed as part of our doctrine about Christ. But Mary was important even before those great debates that led ultimately to the Nicene Creed, for the ancient Church foreshadowed the role Mary plays for us theologically today in their thinking about what it means to be and how to be the Church commissioned by Christ. They spoke of the Church consistently in metaphors that spoke of Mary’s role with respect to Jesus: they were the virgo ecclesia [virgin Church], the mater ecclesia [mother Church], the ecclesia immaculata [immaculate Church], and the ecclesia assumpta [assumed Church]. In doing so, they were saying something quite profound: the Church exists only in relation to Christ but is not identical to Christ; furthermore, the Church finds its subsistence in Christ, “the subsistence of the bride who, even when she becomes one flesh with Christ in love, nonetheless remains an other before him.“ We claim we are the “Body of Christ.” That claim has a special intensity when we share in faith one cup and loaf in remembrance of Christ. But the great mystery of the Eucharist to which we refer when we say, “Body of Christ,” is understood rightly only in terms of a unity that celebrates real reciprocity. And this unity with Christ that celebrates reciprocity is especially visible in the mystery of Mary: the mystery of the young woman who - freed from fear by grace - said “Yes!” to God, and, in doing, “became bride and thus body.”
To embrace Mary properly, we must first grasp that the salvation that is freely given by God consists of the union of Christ and Church. But here Church is understood as the bride and Christ as the bridegroom, so that the Church is the union of the creature with its Creator in spousal love. Given this metaphor, Mary, in the moment of her “Yes!” to the father, is Israel saying “Yes” to the Father. But that “Yes!” was also a “Yes!” to the Son. Thus, Mary, in that moment, is symbolically the Church in union with the Father through her relationship to the Son. But she was not merely the Church in symbol, for she was concretely these things, too, in her person. Mary represents all creatures, summoned to respond to God in freedom, who respond to God in love.
It is surely significant that Mary responds magnificently as a woman. It is fashionable these days to deny the particularity of our sexuality, as though being male and female means that we are “merely different.” But we are human only insofar as we are bodily, which means only insofar as we are male and female. So it is important that Mary’s relation to Christ is not merely spiritual, but intensely biological. Her relation to Christ is incarnational: her flesh, her person, and her relation to God are inseparable.
Thus, we can say there is indeed something about Mary. First, at the moment of her “Yes!”, she is Israel manifesting in a deeply personal way the spousal love of the Covenant that God always intended, and she is therefore also the Church in both symbol and person, saying “Yes!” to the Son. Second, she is all these things incarnationally: her relation to Christ is not abstractly spiritual, but is a unity in which her flesh participates concretely in Christ’s flesh, as the Church is to called to participate concretely in Christ’s flesh.
Finally, because of these two characteristics, Mary manifests a third: her relation to her son, the Son, penetrates her heart, thus reminding us that the faith of the Church is located in the deepest roots of our being.
Craig is a pastor, a editor of Covenant and on the Leadership Team of Fulcrum