The Most Remarkable Woman

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, August 14, 2016

All of those endless Sundays after Pentecost can get a bit monotonous after a while – we’re just had the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, and we’re only half way through, so it is nice that occasionally an important feast day falls near enough to a Sunday that we have the option of observing it. 

So it is that we are today not keeping the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, but the feast day of St. Mary the Virgin, who is also known as the Blessed Virgin Mary, or Our Lady (or in Italian, Madonna).

The Feast Day itself is actually tomorrow, August 15th. The Blessed Virgin Mary has several feast days through the year. For instance, there is the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25th, nine months before Christmas – that commemorates the announcement by the angel Gabriel to Mary of the chance to carry the Son of God. 

If you were brought up Roman Catholic, or Orthodox, you will know the 15th of August as a slightly different feast of Mary. Whereas in the Episcopal and Lutheran churches tomorrow is a generic catch-all celebration of Mary, in the Roman Catholic church it is known as the Feast of the Assumption, and in the Orthodox churches, it is known as the Feast of the Dormition.

 A statue of the Assumption of Mary in Attard, Malta

A statue of the Assumption of Mary in Attard, Malta

So, let me tell you a bit about those. They are both borne of the belief that someone as significant as the Mother of God could not have simply died. That would have seemed too ordinary, too mundane for such a star of the heavens. Although the Bible makes no mention of what happened to Mary in the end, centuries of piety, theological reasoning and, to be honest, spurious invention as well, culminated in the official determination by Pope Pius XII in 1950 that it would henceforth be official Roman Catholic doctrine that Mary was taken into heaven, body and soul, at the end of her earthly life, and therefore, like Jesus, is believed to have no human remains on this earth.

In the Orthodox churches, such as the Russian Orthodox church, or the Greek Orthodox church, the Feast is known as the Dormition of the Theotokos. Theotokos is simply the Greek for ‘bearer of God’. And the belief is pretty much the same as the Roman Catholic: that Mary was such an example of saintliness that when she died her earthly death, she was bodily resurrected and taken up into heaven, body and soul.

So, those are the basic facts about the Roman and Orthodox doctrines. And this is where we hit one of the first major theological questions. God came to earth in order to be not only fully divine, but fully human. God therefore identifies fully with us – you and me, mere mortal humans. It sanctifies what being human means, elevates humanity to something noble. And God chose an ordinary human being to carry the Son of God. Ordinary Mary from a dusty nowhere hamlet in Galilee, in Roman-occupied Palestine. So if you then make Mary different from all of the rest of us mere mortals, doesn’t that in some way devalue the human condition? 

 The Virgin Mary in Prayer by Sassoferrato

The Virgin Mary in Prayer by Sassoferrato

Well, this is where we hit the second major theological question. Was Mary just an ordinary human being? Well, what the Protestant denominations believe is, yes, that she was indeed an ordinary human being – just like us – who was asked to do something extraordinary, and did it. But isn’t that what the Roman Catholic and Orthodox doctrines are, too? Well, no.

There is a doctrine that has been around for a long, long time, called the Immaculate Conception. You will probably have heard of it, not least because there are lots of Roman Catholic churches named for it. And this doctrine is often understood to refer to the conception of Jesus in the body of Mary by the Holy Spirit. But that is not what the doctrine is. Rather, what is actually connotes is that Mary – as well as her son – was born free of original sin and led a sinless life. In other words, that when Mary was conceived to her earthly mother, popularly held to be St. Anne, by her earthly father, that the Holy Spirit at that point intervened to prevent her, Mary, inheriting her parent’s sin, and inoculating her against future sin.

So when you look at the doctrine of the Assumption/Dormition in the light of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, it puts it in an entirely more logical light. In short, if you hold that Mary was, in fact, not the same at all as the rest of us human beings, but in a kind of demi-God status, then what happens to her body and soul becomes a matter of significant importance.

As with the doctrine of the Assumption, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has no basis in the Scriptures. There are parts of the book of revelation that can be taken to very, very obliquely refer to such a possible thing, if you already happen to believe in those doctrines and are deliberating looking for an obscure, tangential, mystical text to justify those doctrines. But, to all intents and purposes, no, there is no biblical basis for them.

So, where did they come from, then? And why? Who knows? A lot of it is conjecture. In other words, it’s anyone’s guess. But I could make some suggestions. First is that, anyway you look at it, no one in the history of the world before her, or after her up to this point has ever been asked, by a messenger of God, to carry the Son of God within her. It is a remarkable, supernatural event and it is only natural that the rest of humanity would elevate that person onto a pedestal for having received that signal and singular honor. Second, she said yes when, presumably, she could have said no. In the history of the world, there has surely been no momentous mission to accept. Again, it is natural to accord Mary the highest possible stature for this acceptance. Third, it has to be remembered that Christianity emerged out of the pagan world and, in many cases, melded with it culturally in a variety of ways. Places that had for millennia worshiped in particular ways didn’t just drop every cultural tradition when they adopted Christianity. Christianity has become synthesized – the technical term is ‘syncretized’ with former traditions everywhere it has landed. If you want a vivid example of syncretism in action right now, just pay a visit to New Orleans or Haiti, where you can see at first hand West African folk religions from places like Benin and Nigeria blending with Catholicism. Anyway, back to the early days of Christianity – and the places where it took root most rapidly were Italy and Greece and places like Syria and Iran and they were all places with old traditions of pantheons – literally, many gods, both male and female, and so it is natural that if you are used to the divine being represented both by male and female genders, and by male and female attributes, that an elevated figure like Mary, who bears the Son of God within her body, is going to synthesize to some extent with the cultural heritage of those places. 

And when we see all of that historical and cultural context, it is easier to see how the worldwide church has arrived at the place it has in respect of Mary.

Now, I know that some people get very heated up about all of this, both from the protestant end in not believing any of that stuff, and at the catholic end for requiring belief in all that stuff. Where do we sit, from our vantage point in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition, a tradition that identifies itself as both catholic and protestant? I would say that it means that, while we do not have official doctrines of either the Assumption or the Immaculate Conception, and probably for good reason, since they are not found in the Bible, and that’s our benchmark, nonetheless, we can absolutely understand why those doctrines have arisen, and accept that for those who do believe in those doctrines that they are doing so out of the very best of motivations to understand more fully, and honor more deeply the most remarkable woman in the history of the world.

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