Posts tagged ‘Mary’

December 2, 2017

Reflections on Mary and God’s Family this Nativity

Mary is prominent for all Christians during the Nativity season, and she is particularly on my mind this year as my family and I have all just entered the Orthodox church. Raised in a deeply loving and devout Presbyterian home, I have come to believe that the Protestant and Evangelical churches (as well as Roman Catholics in some overlapping ways) have lost and grown to misunderstand a tremendous amount of the goodness and truth regarding Mary that was well known and cherished by the early Christians (who knew and loved Mary as one of their own community). Here is a very basic outline of what I have come to believe about Mary.

John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Luther, and John Wesley all wrote that Mary had no other children after giving birth to Jesus, and they each defended this ancient teaching as a theologically significant tenant of the Christian faith.

Why would Jesus have placed Mary into John’s care as he died if Mary had other sons of her own? This would have been a flagrant violation of the Law of Moses. Nowhere does Scripture (or any early Christian author) suggest that Mary had other children. James, a publicly recognized leader in the earliest church in Jerusalem, was know as one of several brothers of Jesus, raised in the same household. However, nothing in Scripture and none of the widespread early stories about Mary suggest that James cared for Mary as his own mother after Jesus died.

Many of the most revered early Christian writers use three titles for Mary regularly and in passing, as if these three titles were common knowledge and completely uncontroversial among all Christians: mother of God, ever-virgin, and all-pure. Orthodox Christians reject the Roman Catholic idea that Mary herself was conceived in any special way without sin (in fact, the Orthodox believe that it is a sad distortion of Scripture to teach that our fallen condition is in any way passed on through the God-given responsibilities of conceiving, birthing, and raising children). The Orthodox teach that Mary was a completely normal human who became the greatest example of humble obedience to God, pointing everyone only and ever to God. In this, she is all-holy or all-pure, that is a saint who has fully welcomed God into her life and who reveals Jesus Christ to us all.

To understand the title of “ever virgin,” it helps very much to understand one of the most basic descriptions of Mary used by two New Testament authors (who each clearly came to know Mary well during her life with the early church after Jesus Christ ascended into heaven). These two New Testament authors both understood and described Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant. They understand Mary to be the most sacred and set-apart vessel of God’s presence with us: the ark covered in gold, overshadowed by the wings of cherubim, kept within the Holy of Holies, so set-apart that it brought death to many who treated it as something that they could touch. One of these New Testament authors was John, with whom Mary lived and traveled according to all the earliest stories and traditions of the church. The other was Luke who, according to the earliest church traditions, interviewed Mary personally as part of his research for his gospel account. (Some of these same traditions also claim that Luke was trained in drawing the human figure as a standard part of his education as a doctor and that he painted the first image of Mary.)

The greatest feast days of the church that celebrate Mary’s life, center on readings from the Old Testament about the Ark of the Covenant. These readings are strange without an understanding of how Luke and John clearly reflected the earliest understanding of the Christian community of Mary herself as the Ark of the New Covenant.

This article by Scott Hahn (a Presbyterian scholar who converted to the Roman Catholic faith) expounds this wonderfully:

http://zuserver2.star.ucl.ac.uk/~vgg/rc/aplgtc/hahn/m4/ma.html

There is much more to be said about all the confusion that we have today around the interrelated ideas of purity, virginity, sexuality, and gender. As we moderns hear titles such as “ever virgin,” we subconsciously hear a condemnation of sex as dirty and of women as weak. These sad distortions and misunderstandings are based on long and complex abuses and arguments that grow more and more sinister and disconnected from the truth with each passing year. We need good thinking and writing on these topics to be sure. However, the most basic need and “solution” is not intellectual. Most importantly, we need to learn to love and respect some real and specific people. We need to learn to love and commune with Jesus and his mother Mary as revered and beloved members of their remarkable family. Everything else connects back to these two beautiful people and our relationships with them.

Because of the incarnation and life of Jesus Christ, God’s family is and always will be a real human family, with many ancestors of God, stretching all the way back to Noah and Adam. (In this sense, Eve and Adam are forbearers of God, just as Mary is the mother of God.) This family is a royal family, the product and fulfillment of David’s dynasty. And this kingdom is established forever with Jesus as the King and with Mary as the Queen Mother (Gebhirah and Malketha in Hebrew, a very prominent and powerful position in the courts of all Biblical kings). The book on this topic by Scott Hahn expounds this wonderfully (Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God). I recommend it highly as a starting place.

As Scott Hahn reflects on John’s relationship to Mary (from the lecture linked above), he points to the fact that we all receive Mary as our mother as we are united to Christ:

“[John] recognizes that he himself as the beloved disciple is merely a symbol of all of Christ’s disciples who are equally beloved. But he also recognized [this], I’ll bet, as he took Mary to his own home that very hour (it says in John 19). I mean, can you imagine living with Mary after the crucifixion, after the resurrection, after the ascension? She is now your mother. She is living in your home. What do you think you would do?”

Wherever you are in life and worship during this year, may your Nativity Season be blessed richly by Jesus Christ, the Son of Mary. May he and his mother both be at home in your home.

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October 28, 2017

but the men that drink the blood of God go singing to their shame

Their gods were sadder than the sea,
Gods of a wandering will,
Who cried for blood like beasts at night,
Sadly, from hill to hill.

“…The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.”

“The men of the East may search the scrolls
For sure fates and fame,
But the men that drink the blood of God
Go singing to their shame.”

“…But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.”

From “The Ballad of the White Horse” by
G.K. Chesterton.

October 28, 2017

the thing I bear is a lesser thing

“…Come not to me, King Alfred, Save always for the ale:
Why should my harmless hinds be slain
Because the chiefs cry once again,
As in all fights, that we shall gain,
And in all fights we fail?”

“Your scalds still thunder and prophesy
That crown that never comes;
Friend, I will watch the certain things,
Swine, and slow moons like silver rings,
And the ripening of the plums.”

And Alfred answered, drinking,
And gravely, without blame,
“Nor bear I boast of scald or king,
The thing I bear is a lesser thing,
But comes in a better name.”

“Out of the mouth of the Mother of God,
More than the doors of doom,
I call the muster of Wessex men
From grassy hamlet or ditch or den,
To break and be broken, God knows when,
But I have seen for whom.”

“Out of the mouth of the Mother of God
Like a little word come I;
For I go gathering Christian men
From sunken paving and ford and fen,
To die in a battle, God knows when,
By God, but I know why.”

“And this is the word of Mary,
The word of the world’s desire
‘No more of comfort shall ye get,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.’”

Then silence sank. And slowly
Arose the sea-land lord,
Like some vast beast for mystery,
He filled the room and porch and sky,
And from a cobwebbed nail on high
Unhooked his heavy sword.

From “The Ballad of the White Horse” by
G.K. Chesterton.

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December 2, 2014

King of all kings for her son she chose

‘I syng of a maiden’
Anonymous (1400)

Middle English original:

I syng of a mayden
That is makeles,
king of alle kinges
to here sone che chees.

He cam also stille
Ther his moder was
As dew in Aprylle,
That fallyt on the gras.

He cam also stille
To his modres bowr
As dew in Aprylle,
That falleth on the flowr.

He cam also stille
Ther his moder lay
As dew in Aprylle,
That falleth on the spray.

Moder & mayden
Was nevere noon but she:
Well may swich a lady
Godes moder be.

Modern English version:

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless,
King of all kings
For her son she chose.

He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April
That falls on the grass.

He came as still
To his mother’s bower
As dew in April
That falls on the flower.

He came as still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April
That falls on the spray.

Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;
Well may such a lady
God’s mother be.

November 30, 2014

he is curtailed who overflowed all skies

Mary’s Song by Luci Shaw:

Blue homespun and the bend of my breast
keep warm this small hot naked star
fallen to my arms. (Rest…
you who have had so far to come.)
Now nearness satisfies
the body of God sweetly. Quiet he lies
whose vigor hurled a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before.
His breath (so slight it seems
no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps
to sprout a world. Charmed by dove’s voices,
the whisper of straw, he dreams,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
Breath, mouth, ears, eyes
he is curtailed who overflowed all skies,
all years. Older than eternity, now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught
that I might be free, blind in my womb
to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.

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January 1, 2014

you cannot visit the child without visiting the mother

From G.K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man:

Here begins, it is needless to say, another mighty influence for the humanisation of Christendom. If the world wanted what is called a non-controversial aspect of Christianity, it would probably select Christmas. Yet it is obviously bound up with what is supposed to be a controversial aspect (I could never at any stage of my opinions imagine why); the respect paid to the Blessed Virgin. When I was a boy a more Puritan generation objected to a statue upon my parish church representing the Virgin and Child. After much controversy, they compromised by taking away the Child. One would think that this was even more corrupted with Mariolatry, unless the mother was counted less dangerous when deprived of a sort of weapon. But the practical difficulty is also a parable. You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a new-born child. You can not suspend the new-born child in mid-air; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a new-born child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a new-born child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother; you cannot in common human life approach the child except through the mother. If we are to think of Christ in this aspect at all, the other idea follows as it is followed in history. We must either leave Christ out of Christmas, or Christmas out of Christ, or we must admit, if only as we admit it in an old picture, that those holy heads are too near together for the haloes not to mingle and cross.

December 30, 2013

doth seek now with tears thy help to worship

So much to ponder in these ancient hymns of the Orthodox Church. I’m particularly struck by the repeated consideration given near the end of this hymn to the danger and difficulty of responding aloud to God’s revelation of Himself with “well-balanced songs of praise.” (Purchase an MP3 recording of this here, and see more ancient nativity hymn lyrics here.)
9th Ode of the 2nd Canon of Christ’s Nativity

Magnify, O my soul, her who is more honorable and more exalted in glory than the heavenly hosts.
I behold a strange and wonderful mystery: the cave a heaven, the Virgin a cherubic throne, and the manger a noble place in which hath lain Christ the uncontained God. Let us, therefore, praise and magnify Him.

Magnify, O my soul, the God born in flesh from the Virgin.
When the Magi saw a new and strange star appearing suddenly, moving in a wonderful way, and transcending the stars of heaven in brightness, they were guided by it to Christ, the King born on earth in Bethlehem, for our salvation.

Magnify, O my soul, the King born in a cave.
The Magi said, Where is the Child King, the newborn, Whose star hath appeared? For we have verily come to worship Him. And Herod, the contender against God, trembled, and began to roar in folly to kill Christ.

Magnify, O my soul, the God worshipped by the Magi.
Herod ascertained from the Magi about the time of the star by whose guidance they were led to Bethlehem to worship with presents Christ Who guided them, and so they returned to their country, disregarding Herod, the evil murderer of babes, mocking him.

Today the Virgin giveth birth to the Lord inside the cave.
Verily it is easier for us to endure silence since there is no dread danger therefrom for us. But because of our strong desire, O Virgin, and Mother of sameness, to indite well-balanced songs of praise, this becometh indeed onerous to us. Wherefore, grant us power to equal our natural inclination.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: Magnify, O my soul, the might of the indivisible and three-personed Godhead.
O pure one, Mother of the Word that appeareth newly from thee, O closed door, verily, as we behold the dark shadowy symbols pass away, we glorify the light of the truth and bless thy womb as is meet.

Both now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen. Glorify, O my soul, her who hath delivered us from the curse.
The Christ-pleasing people, O Virgin, having deserved to be granted its desire by the coming of God, doth seek now with tears thy help to worship the glory of His enlivening appearance wherein is the renewal of birth; for it is thou who dost distribute grace, O pure one.

This too:

When it was time for thy presence on earth, the first enrollment of the world took place. Then it was that thou didst decide to enroll the names of men who believe in thy Nativity. Yea, that commandment did issue forth from Caesar, since the everlastingness of thine eternal kingdom hath been renewed. Wherefore, we offer what is better than moneyed tax, namely Orthodox theological sayings; to thee, O God, Savior of our souls.

October 9, 2013

true contemplatives

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41–42) In order to understand how Mary’s occupation represented the “better portion,” it is useful to consider her activity—sitting and listening to Jesus’ word—within the context of Luke’s larger story. For starts, this description supports a comparison of Mary of Bethany with Jesus’ own mother, who “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51). Both Jesus’ mother and Mary of Bethany are portrayed as true contemplatives, who embody the model described in the parable of the sower. In Luke’s version of that parable, the seeds “that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good [agathe] heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15). For Luke, that is to say, true contemplation involves the hearing of God’s word in purity of heart. For Luke, both Jesus’ mother and Mary of Bethany are portrayed as occupied with the “one thing necessary.”

From The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ by Patrick Henry Reardon.

September 17, 2013

a bit of overt pressure from his mother

The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ by Patrick Henry Reardon (excerpts from chapters 1 and 2):

The problem, which is historical, is easily stated: Just where did Matthew and Luke discover the historical material that fills the first two chapters of each of these gospels? Since this material had not been part of the early preaching of the apostles, how did the two Evangelists know about it? The only reasonable answer, it seems to me, is that the “source” was Jesus’ own mother, of whom we are told, “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51). Later in the first century, when Matthew and Luke wrote, she alone was still alive to remember those details, which could have been known to no one else.

…The evidence, however, indicates that this was not the case. Joseph was not a person given to anxiety. He appeared, rather, as a man of extraordinary serenity. We find Joseph in five scenes in the gospel of Matthew, and every single time he is sound asleep (Matthew 1:20–24; 2:12, 13, 19, 22). Whatever troubles Joseph endured, they did not include insomnia. Perhaps we see Joseph’s mark on Jesus—particularly the example of his serenity and simple trust in God—when we contemplate a later New Testament scene:

…Mary’s “Be it done unto me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) was also the first step along the road to Jesus’ “Not my will, but Yours, be done” (22:42). I believe the correspondence between these two verses indicates, likewise, the important spiritual mark of Mary on her son. It was from her that he learned to respond in faith to the call of God, not counting the cost. Their destinies were inextricably entwined in the mystery of redemption.

…There is no doubt that Jesus was literate, for we find him reading, and there is every reason to believe he learned the Scriptures as did any other young man from a working-class Galilean family: at the local synagogue. Normally, in fact, in a small town such as Nazareth, copies of the Scriptures, or any other books, were available only at the synagogue.

…Jesus was not “working out” a religious theory. He was taking possession of his own identity. This was a process of growth, and Jesus’ study of the Hebrew Scriptures was integral to that growth. He did read books, and he learned from them. The works of Moses, David, Jeremiah, and the others truly contoured his mind and conscience. The mental horizon of Jesus, as we discern it in the four gospels, took shape during those long years at Nazareth, where—Luke tells us—he went to the synagogue “according to his custom.” So when Luke also tells us, “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature,” it is wrong to imagine his growth was unrelated to what he read—any more than his increase in stature was unrelated to what he ate (Luke 2:52).

…Nonetheless, to speak of the “influence” of the Hebrew Scriptures on Jesus’s mind dramatically transcends our normal use of that expression. The Law and the Prophets shaped his self-awareness in an unparalleled way because the Savior found in those writings his identity, vocation, and mission. His grasp of those texts—an understanding at the root of Christian theology—is the very substance of Jesus’ “self-regard.” It was in studying the Hebrew Bible that Jesus became convinced, “I must be about the things of my Father” (Luke 2:49).

…Christian theology begins with—and is inseparable from—understanding the Old Testament as Jesus understood it.

…I believe it is misleading, however, to inquire “when” with respect to Jesus’ self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is not objective. One does not acquire it as “information,” like the study of biology or business law. Self-knowledge is an extension and activity of the self; it is, by definition, subjective. It is necessarily tautological—that is to say, self-knowledge is its own cause. The knowledge of one’s self is inseparable from being oneself.5 It is important not to “objectify” Jesus’ self-awareness and then try to determine at what point—“when?”—he acquired the knowledge of his identity. Self-knowledge is intrinsic to, and an extension of, self-being. His consciousness of his identity came from his identity. Self-knowledge, however, does take place in a process of growth. It is historical, like all components of human consciousness. Human self-knowledge is an ongoing “event.”

…There is a subtle hint in this juxtaposition. Luke seems to imply that the sustained contemplation in Mary’s heart was in some way related to her son’s increase in wisdom. The author paints here a provocative picture of the home in Nazareth where Jesus and his mother, joined in a common faith during the three decades of their shared life, continued to mature spiritually in each other’s company. Given the delicacy of this subject, it is important not to sail off into speculations beyond the data provided by Holy Scripture. Does the Bible give any sign of this personal and interpersonal growth of Jesus and his mother? As it touches their relationship—especially their shared faith in the Father’s purpose and the mission of the Holy Spirit—is it possible to discern in the relevant biblical texts some indication of this spiritual development? I believe it is.

…However we name it, nonetheless, both stories—in the temple at Jerusalem and at the wedding party in Cana—portray Jesus and his mother as “not agreed.” They are not in harmony. The two conversations convey, between Mary and her son, a sense of initial opposition. Their questions to each other disclose a rough patch, as it were, a foothold of friction that serves to move the narrative forward.

…I suspect, by the by, that Jesus’ answer to Mary was a sort of continuation of his discussion with the rabbis. Recall that Jesus, when his parents discover him in the temple, has been engaged (for three days, apparently) in discourses with the rabbis; he has been asking them questions and answering theirs. In other words, Jesus has been engaged in a pedagogical and rhetorical method where a favored device is the “counterquestion”—the answering of a question by a further and more probing inquiry. We find this style of debate frequently in rabbinic literature and in the Gospels. The boy Jesus, then, so recently exposed to this pedagogical and rhetorical method here in the temple, spontaneously has recourse to it in order to answer his mother.

…Luke’s story, which chronicles Jesus’ growth in wisdom, is told here through the person who witnessed that growth and who was obliged, in a very personal way, to explore its meaning. It was certainly from her that Luke learned the facts of the case.

…Mary was not just a temporary or purely physical conduit of the Incarnation. The relationship between Jesus and his mother was transpersonal and transcendent to biology. She was truly the mother, and not simply the “bearer,” of God’s Son. When, during her pregnancy, she declared, “He who is mighty has done great things for me” (Luke 1:49), she was aware of at least this much. Day by day she measured, and now continued to measure, what this meant. If she knew Jesus at all, if being the mother of God’s Son meant anything, then it certainly meant she was entitled to speak to him about a shortage of wine.

…Perhaps our English “ma’am” comes closest to the sense of the Aramaic idiom. It is especially noteworthy that in John’s gospel Jesus addresses his mother this way as he is dying (John 19:26). In this gospel, Cana and Calvary are the only places where Mary’s son speaks to her, and the same word is used both times.

…Jesus was declining his mother’s suggestion that he intervene in the wine problem. De facto, he was telling her no. And how does Mary respond to his objection? She ignores it! Mary does not argue the point with her son. She simply turns and boldly says to the waiters, “Do whatever he tells you.” She thus puts the pressure squarely on her son, manifestly confident that he will not disappoint her. It is worth remarking that “Do whatever he tells you” are Mary’s last recorded words. We know the day’s outcome: Mary’s son, at the direct instigation of his mother, transformed the water into wine. We surmise, too, that the wedding party was transformed, once the guests discovered that the host had “kept the good wine until now!” Indeed, Jesus’ own ministry was transformed. Here it was that he “manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” The “signs” have begun. Up to this point, it was possible for their contemporaries to think of Jesus and John the Baptist mainly in terms of similarity, inasmuch as both were teachers. No more, however, because “John performed no sign” (John 10:41). After the Cana event, people in the region would tell “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good” (Acts 10:38).

…The organic particularity of Jesus’ life included a bit of overt pressure from his mother. The doctrine of the Incarnation affirms that we were redeemed through the personal experiences of God’s Son in human history—the very things that the Word underwent—from the instant of his conception, through his birth and infancy, through the events and phases of his life, through his tears and laughter, through his ministry and teaching, through his obedient sufferings and death on the cross, through his resurrection and entry into eternal glory. Human redemption “happened” in the humanity of the eternal Word as he passed through, transformed, and deified our existence.

…“Imagine,” Augustine wrote of Jesus, that the Almighty did not create this man—however he was formed—from the womb of his mother, but abruptly introduced him before our eyes. Suppose he passed through no ages from infancy to youth, or that he neither ate nor slept. Would that not have proved the heretics correct?9 An adequate Christology, then, affirms that the Word’s becoming flesh refers to more than the single instant of his becoming present in the Virgin’s womb. He continued becoming flesh and dwelling among us, in the sense that his assumed body and soul developed and grew through the complex experiences of a particular human life. We see this actually happening in these two conversations between Jesus and his mother.

…She was, like himself, a person of faith. Indeed, her faith pertained very much to his own person and mission.

September 15, 2013

the life-bearing Wood of the cross was planted on the earth

Orthodox Axion for the Elevation of the Cross (Sept. 14):

Thou art a mystical paradise, oh Theotokos, in which Christ blossomed; through Him the life-bearing Wood of the cross was planted on the earth. Now at its Elevation, as we bow in worship before it, we magnify thee.

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