Tag: Mary

There’s something about Mary

“May is Mary’s month” – thus Gerald Manley Hopkins. Or, as a rather less proficient poet would have us sing, “The happy birds Te Deum sing, ’tis Mary’s month of May”. The latter lines do capture what is undoubtedly the case: there is something more than a little naff about a lot of what happens under the umbrella of May devotion to our Lady. It is variously theologically dodgy, saccharine, and shot through with dubious ideas of Christian femininity. No sensible person should doubt these things. (It’s an unfortunate feature of religion in a fallen world that the Church contains people who are not sensible). The problem is, I think that in the years since Vatican II people have understood a correct criticism of pre-conciliar Marian devotion, but used it a diminish the role of marian devotion in the praying life of the Church, rather than to reform it.

 

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So it’s no bad thing to have a month during which we focus on Mary. Doing this is simply part of the Catholic ‘thing’. At one level we don’t need reasons for doing it at all. There’s a temptation towards didacticism in contemporary Catholicism that supposes we need to have a reason for everything we do. This is particularly apparent in discussions of liturgy. However, reasons are often superfluous. We just are this people, living out this relationship to God in this way. To ask, of many things, why we do this is to misunderstand the nature of our characteristic activities. It is akin to asking for a deep philosophical justification for a family’s Christmas routine.

With respect to many marian devotions I think this attitude of “this is just what we do” is all we need – the rosary, litanies, votive masses and so on. But as I hinted above, there are aspects of what gets seen as ‘traditional’ devotion to our Lady (although is generally of fairly recent vintage) which needs to be assessed in the light of God’s self-communication as this is witnessed to in scripture and the Church’s teaching. It is often when we have made a mess of the tradition we have been given that we need to step back and ask what is genuinely of value and what needs to be recovered. Here is a modest suggestion as to how we might go about doing that.

The Second Vatican Council chose to include its teaching about Mary in the document on the Church. This makes profound sense, since Mary’s role in the ongoing story with our salvation can only be grasped if we see that in her we see particularly clearly the Father’s relationship to his People. She stands at the culmination of the covenant with Israel, at the birth of the Church, and is the sign of the Church both in its pilgrimage (saying ‘yes’ at the annunciation, standing by the cross) and in its glory (conceived free from sin, assumed into heaven). There is a lot here. How then might we go about better relating to Mary in a way that better reflects this ecclesial focus of her significance? That, it seems to me, is the challenge the Council set us (all of us, in our praying lives and self-understanding, not just the bishops). I’m not sure we’ve faced up to it yet.

Mary, the Mother of God

I remember as a child hearing an evangelical Anglican remark during my that calling Mary ‘Mother of God’ was terrible. There were people during the early fifth century who thought similarly. One of them may or may not have been Nestorius, the Archbishop of Constantinople.

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Whatever Nestorius himself believed, the name `Nestorianism‘ came to be used for the view that so stressed the separateness of Christ’s humanity and hid divinity as to lose sight of their unity. This belief manifested itself in a refusal to use the title ‘Mother of God’ of our Lady, ‘Mother of Christ’ being one proposed compromise. In opposing this view the Council of Ephesus in 431 declared Mary to be the Mother of God. Christ, although both human and divine, is one person. That person is God the Son, and so Mary is appropriately called Mother of God. She is not, for sure, Mother of God as God. Rather she is Mother of God as man. To deny this is, in effect, to deny the Incarnation. This man is God. That baby was God.

This title for Mary points to an important truth about Jesus. Those, like no doubt that Anglican minister from my youth, who think that in talking about Mary we detract from Jesus are exactly wrong. In fact, it is both interesting and important that in order to talk about Christ, the Church talked about Mary. God became a human being, a member of an animal species, and a member of a family and numerous communities. He was not some kind of divine Robinson Crusoe; he was and is a social being. And so in talking about him we naturally talk about those whose lives he touched and those who influenced him – supremely Mary, from whom he took his very humanity. It is the same with all of us. Pick up any biography, and the chances are that the early chapters will dwell on its subject’s family.

Today’s feast reminds us of the communal nature of humanity, and in a sense of the Church, present in microcosm in Christ’s family. The saving events of Jesus’ life involved people other than Jesus, as do each of our participations in those events.

The rosary

October is traditionally the month associated with the rosary; last Friday was the feast of our Lady of the Rosary.

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It is fair to say that the rosary is not fashionable in most Catholic circles. There are some good reasons for this. The form of prayer has attracted more than its fair share of piety and sickly sentimentality. There are some tracts about the devotion you would be well advised not to read too soon after eating. Being something protestants definitely don’t do, it has also served as a badge of jealously guarded Catholic particularity. None of these things are at all admirable and each is perfectly sufficient to put a reasonable person off their beads.

There are also, however, lots of very bad reasons to regard the rosary with suspicion, and these are probably the dominant ones. I am on my guard the second I hear anyone describe the prayer as ‘mechanical’. We are, after all, creatures of habit and spontaneity is not necessarily a good thing, as the speeches of Donald Trump confirm. There is worse to come: to varying extents people will intimate that it is not sufficiently inward-orientated, reflective, ‘spiritual’ (a word that when not used in its New Testament sense to denote the things of the Holy Spirit, ought to be banned from Christian discourse), deep, conducive to self-exploration or otherwise sensitive to the need for the thriving 21st century market in ‘spirituality’ (a word that, when not used in its medieval sense to denote the distinctive pattern of life of a religious order or fraternity, ought similarly to be banned).

The problem with the rosary, from this perspective, is that it is vulgar and material. You pass beads through your hands and repeat prayers. Your mind can wander, and to the extent that it is directed towards anything to do with the prayer, it is on drearily familiar stories from the Bible and tradition. There are no techniques to learn, no breathing exercises: prayer is supposed to be difficult, or else why would it be worth doing? Worse still, it is all deeply impersonal. Saying prayers said by millions across the world daily; how could that be suited to my personal spiritual needs?

All of this is really a complaint not about the rosary, but about the fact that we are human beings. A perennial temptation , and one on which it is very easy to put a holy gloss, is to try to be something other than the kind of things we in fact are. In particular, human history has been full of people – including those Alibigensians St Dominic founded his order to oppose – who would rather not be animal, embodied, social creatures. Praying with beads is, for these sort of people, a horrible reminder of our gross physicality. We would prefer to be exalted, angelic beings, able to focus on anything perpetually but the dreary world around us – the other people, the worries, concerns, noises, and affections that get called ‘distractions’, and above which we fancy prayer will raise us.

This attitude is disastrous, since as long as we deny what we in fact are, we are closed to God working in us through prayer. The central Christian truth is that God loves us just as we are. The only thing that stands in the way of that love coming to fruition is us not believing that God loves us just as we are, because we find ourselves unlovable. So we try to be something different instead, telling ourselves that God will love us if only we are more inward, more spiritual, less human. God, who will not force his love on us, and who calls us to be what he created us to be, can do nothing with this attitude other than provide the means for it to change, for us to simply allow ourselves to be loved.

This is, I think what the rosary does. Drawing us back to earth, to our commonality with others praying in the same words, allowing our minds to wander whilst keeping the rhythm of prayer, inviting us to think about how the story of our redemption speaks of a young woman and her son – it is all very human, very grounded. In this it speaks of the God who saves us as we are, since there is no other way we could be saved.

The bodily assumption

I needed Mass for the Assumption this morning. Things have not been good, and the message of triumph which runs through today’s liturgy struck exactly the right chord. We are given images of the angels rejoicing, of a woman clothed with the sun, of the heavenly chorus ‘Victory and Empire have been won by our God’, and are told – in the eucharistic preface – that this is a foretaste of what will one be shared by the whole Church, that is by us.

This is not a message of trite joy, the liturgical equivalent of a chipper ‘cheer up, it might never happen’. The point of today’s feast is precisely that it did happen: the Cross happened, the sufferings of the Church symbolised by that dragon in the first reading happened, and our individual upsets and tragedies happen. Yet somehow love is triumphant, triumphant throughout creation as it was once in the body of a Jewish Palestinian peasant woman.

For such a victory to be of more than theoretical worth for us, it has to encompass us. And that is why the bodily nature of the Mary’s assumption is essential. Indeed it would not be Mary‘s assumption were it not bodily. For Mary is a human being, as we are, and therefore a particular kind of animal, a particular kind of living body.

There’s a tendency to fudge this corporeal side of things. Partly this is, I think, a misplaced attempt at ecumenical sensitivity. Partly it is in deference to a culture that is happier talking about reincarnation and spirit regression than it is resurrection. However much our contemporaries might profess that everything we are boils down to neurology, Descartes still rules in their less guarded moments. So we content ourselves with innocuous talk about ‘new life’, ‘heaven’ and so on. If the word ‘resurrection’ is used, we are often less than clear what it means.

I’m reading at the moment Surprised by Hope by the Anglican bishop and biblical scholar Tom Wright in which he makes exactly this point about Christian belief in the afterlife. Both accessible and scholarly at the same time, the book constructs a persuasive case for the primarily bodily (and social) nature of human redemption as this is understood in the books of scripture. There are aspects of what he says I take issue with – as you might expect, I do not agree with this evangelical Anglican’s assessment of the doctrine of purgatory – but I commend it to you.

Catholics in particular are prone to be misled by the language of the soul, much as we are by the trinitarian language of persons. Terms used in our historic formularies change their meaning over the centuries and our default position is then to approach those formularies whilst trapped in a picture utterly alien to the worlds of those who wrote them. For Aristotle, and for Aquinas after him, and for the Church at key moments in its doctrinal evolution, the soul is the form of the body. To be a creature with a soul is not to have an extra bit (as having an extra kidney or a spare finger would), it is rather for one’s body to be a certain kind of body, namely a rational body, caught up in a world of meanings, within which one can interact with others. The soul is not some sort of thing. I would be making a mistake if I counted myself and my soul as two (which is not to say that I am my soul – Aquinas insists ‘my soul is not me’ – better, my soul is something about me, akin to, although more important than the colour of my hair. It is my humanity).  I am not a spirit trapped in a body. Aquinas finds it quite difficult to reconcile this view with the Church’s teaching that the soul survives death before the general resurrection. Catholics do indeed believe this, but we believe much more fundamentally that our ultimate destiny is bodily – that we will join together in a New Heaven and a New Earth, and flourish as the kind of things we are – rational animals – taken up by grace to share in the nature of God.

Mary assumed into heaven is the sign of this. What has already taken place for her, we hope will happen to ourselves. This is the message of hope that I needed, a hope not simply for the future, but breaking in to the presence. Human bodies: healthy, homeless, battered, exhilarated, sweaty, broken, dancing, eating, drinking – these are the building blocks of the Kingdom. And this ought to be visible in how those bodies are treated now – by which I mean not, after the fashion of upwardly mobile Christianity that the baptised are bound to spend hours in the gym, but that belief in the resurrection should have political outworkings. He has, after all, put down the mighty from their seats.

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The Annunciation

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Today’s solemnity is transferred from 25th March, which this year was Good Friday. I’m reminded of this poem by John Donne, which was brought to my attention by a Lay Dominican friend:

On Annunciation and Passion Falling on the Same Day. 1608.

TAMELY, frail body, abstain to-day ; to-day
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur ; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away ;
She sees Him nothing, twice at once, who’s all ;
She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall ;
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead ;
She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha ;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen ;
At once a son is promised her, and gone ;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John ;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity ;
At once receiver and the legacy.
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one—
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.

 

…was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man

Today’s feast seems a good time to say something about the minor furore that has followed Giles Fraser’s comment piece about what people insist on calling ‘the virgin birth’, but which I am going to call ‘the virginal conception’, which makes clearer what is actually at issue. As a Catholic I of course disagree with Fraser and affirm the doctrine, but his contribution is thoughtful and doesn’t deserve the opprobium that has been heaped upon it. Moreover, if his central claim is correct – that the doctrine of the virginal conception is incompatible with an affirmation of the value of human sexuality, and of female sexuality in particular – then there is a major problem for orthodox belief. Such a devaluation of the sexual would be flatly incompatible with our profession of the goodness of Creation. So I think it is vital that Fraser can be answered, as I trust he can.

First, however, a word about the line of many of his opponents. There is a curious confusion apparent in the bulk of the blogposts and commentaries that have appeared in response to Fraser. It’s clear that many people think that the doctrine of the Incarnation stands or falls with that of the virginal conception, that it is simply impossible that Christ be the Word made flesh if he were conceived sexually. This seems to me to imply a far more serious break with Christian tradition than anything Fraser wrote. It would have been perfectly possible for the Incarnate Word to have  been conceived through sex. The alternative view really only makes sense if your view of the ‘Incarnation’ is not really of God being incarnate at all, but rather of the bringing into being of some kind of divine-human hybrid, with God taking the place of a human father. This kind of position is ruled out by Chalcedon‘s insistence that Christ’s two natures undergo ‘no confusion, no change, no division’. The doctrine of the virginal conception is not that the Father is Christ’s father, in a sense of the word ‘father’ identical to that in which David Beckham is Brooklyn’s father, but rather than Christ has no father (when he speaks of his Father he is describing the life of the Trinity, the mystery of God which is beyond our power to comprehend but which we share through grace. He is not explaining his biological origins.). The conception is a miracle.

Why does that miracle occur? Not because it is necessary, but because it is appropriate. It is a sign of that reality of which Christ himself is the perfect sign, the sacrament, the breaking through of God’s Kingdom into human history. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds”. Something new has happened here, and it is fitting that it takes place in a way that makes that novelty apparent.

As such, the conception of Jesus is without a fully sufficient natural cause. However, something within the world is required for it to take place, and that is Mary’s assent: note, by the way, the free, autonomous, assent of a woman quite apart from  any male approval or oversight. It is at this point that the talk of Mary’s purity, to which Fraser takes such exception, becomes relevant. Now I think the word is probably sullied beyond redemption with a twee Daily Mailesque colouring and needs to be jettisoned. But it’s important at least to grasp that the thought that purity is all about sex, or rather lack of sex, is a hangover from Victorian moralism and that the word can mean other things. The Beatitude declaring the pure in heart to be blessed is not a christological imprimatur for prudes. Rather what is being talked about is moral integrity, the unity of heart and actions.

It is in this expansive, ethical, sense that Mary needs to be pure for Jesus’ conception to take place. Nothing but a wholehearted ‘yes’ would suffice for the God who works with, rather than against, human freedom. Nothing else could signify the culmination of the prayers and longings of Israel. It had to issue from the depth of her being, without mixed motive or evasion. That is what was necessary. This is what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, much confused with Fraser’s topic, claims was supplied by divine grace throughout Mary’s life, not to the injury but to the completion of her human freedom. Those two themes, divine grace and human freedom, in fact run through the story of Mary’s life, because the God who comes to us at Christmas is the God who wills us to love him in perfect freedom.