Sr. Ann Catherine Swaileso.p.
May is Mary’s month and I/muse at that, and wonder why?
So begins a poem called “The May Magnificat”, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ.
May is, of course, Mary’s month; around this time in other years many of us will have participated in pilgrimages, processions, May devotions of one sort or another; last year we even had our very own coronation ceremony in honour of Our Lady in the Mary Garden on the roof terrace, complete with a very miniature crown made from tiny flowers, and with a spirited rendition of Fr Mark’s very favourite Marian hymn, Bring Flowers of the Fairest (I believe the video might still be available). Perhaps we too have vaguely wondered why this month is especially dedicated to Our Lady: after all, as Fr Hopkins goes on to remind us in his poem, in general, “her feasts follow reason/dated due to season”. The timing of Liturgical celebrations commemorating events in the life of Mary in other words, have a certain, quite down to earth, rationale behind them. So, for instance, the Annunciation, when Mary conceives Jesus, occurs on 25th March, exactly 9 months before Christmas; her own birthday is celebrated on 9th September, equally exactly 9 months after we commemorate her Immaculate Conception on 8th December.
And Candlemas, the Presentation of the Lord, on 2nd February is 40 days after Christmas, showing that Mary and Joseph fulfil the command of the Old Law in going to the Temple with their first born son on just that day. Compared with all of this, the assigning of the month of May to Mary appears a bit arbitrary. We’ll come back to this, and to the answers that Hopkins gives to his own question, at the end of this talk.
But there are a couple of prior questions, or perhaps the same question asked from different perspectives, which I think we need to think about first. And it’s a rather more fundamental question – why do we honour Mary at all, at any time of the year? That question may have occurred to us, at some point in our lives, perhaps especially if we’ve not always been Catholic (though I’m not sure that wrestling with the role Our Lady plays in our life of faith is exactly exclusive to converts). It will certainly have struck many of those with whom we talk, or with whom we would like to talk about our faith.
In the first place, Christians from other traditions are sometimes wary of Catholic devotion to Mary because they fear that it is a kind of distraction from the exclusive, supreme honour that we ought to pay to her Son; they fear that talking as much as we do about Mary the Mother of God somehow diminishes the attention we pay to God himself.
Secondly, people are sometimes uneasy about Mary as a role model for Christians, which the Church has always suggested that she is, because she seems to them to be so distant from us, so different, so alienatingly different from us.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that even if these questions have sometimes been raised in ways we find difficult, because they are aggressive, or simply because they seem to mock or insult someone we love and revere, they are often actually profoundly well—intentioned, in ways that in fact do in themselves pay a kind of back-handed compliment to things at the very heart of our faith. There’s more common ground here than we might fear, or those who challenge us for our devotion to Mary might expect. On the one hand, we would want to agree whole heartedly with our Protestant brothers and sisters that Jesus is Lord, very God of very God, and that nothing and no one other than God should ever be worshipped. Anything else, we would agree with them is idolatry. And it is absolutely no part of authentic Catholic faith or practice to undermine human dignity. And, in fact, what I want to suggest for most of the rest of this talk is that devotion to Our Lady allows us, and indeed challenges us, to emphasise both.
I’m going to try to do that by looking in a bit more detail at just what it is we do celebrate in some of those feasts of Mary that do not occur in May, and which are indeed, as our good Jesuit reminds us, “dated due to reason”; so, I’m going to say something about the way the Church marks both the beginning and the ending of Our Lady’s earthly life, her Immaculate Conception and her Assumption into heaven. But I’m going to start at the very beginning in another way, with the feast that opens the Calendar year.
January 1st, as well as being a day for nursing hangovers and making somewhat fuzzy New Year’s Resolutions, is the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. And it’s particularly appropriate that this is the first way the Church invites us to think about Our Lady every year, because calling Mary the Mother of God must always be the first thing that we say about her, the thing on which all Marian doctrine and all Marian devotion must be based if it is to be authentically Catholic, authentically Christian. Perhaps for us the notion that Mary is “Mother of God” is just background music, at the heart of the Hail Mary, we say it at least 50 times whenever we pray the rosary. Sadly, it’s this very title that sometimes makes our Protestant brothers and sisters particularly uneasy – as though, by calling Our Lady the Mother of God we are somehow suggesting that she has a kind of priority over God, perhaps that there is a kind of divine dynasty somewhat akin to the pantheons of ancient Greece or Rome of which she is the matriarch, and of which Jesus, therefore, is a rather junior member. In fact, the history of this title of Our Lady suggests the very reverse. To call Mary the Mother of God is both to underline the divinity of Jesus in the fullest sense, and to say something immensely important about the nature of his divinity. And to understand a little more about what that is, we need to take an excursion into the earliest centuries of Christian history.
The oldest surviving Marian prayer begins “we fly to thy protection, O holy Mother of God”, which is at least seventeen hundred years old. However, by the late 5th century, a couple of hundred years after it was composed, to use that title, “Mother of God”, or in Greek, Theotokos, the God-bearer, had become rather controversial. This wasn’t at all, though, for the same kind of reason that Protestant Christians today might object to its use. The problem for the ancient opponents of the title – of whom the ring leader was Bishop Nestorius of Constantinople, was not that the title gave too high a position to Mary. What was at issue with the idea of God having a mother was not exactly that this implied that there was something or someone greater than, or prior to, God: Nestorius sometimes caricatured his adversaries as believing this, but he knew that they didn’t, any more than he did. No, the problem with God having a Mother, for Nestorius was something more culturally specific, something that bothered those in his time and place much more than it would probably bother us. The problem was that to talk of God having a mother necessarily entailed the idea of God being born, and that in turn suggested that God had got himself more closely mixed up with the messy, unseemly business of bodily-ness than any well brought up deity had any business to do. We have to beware of over-simplifying a very complex picture here of course, but, on the whole, the cultural world into which the early Church spread was one in which there was a kind of squeamishness about physicality, a sense that the spiritual was pure and the bodily at least bordering on impurity, and thus there is something almost unthinkably inappropriate about too close an association between God and the physical universe.
This, we need to be quite clear is not, of course, authentic Christian teaching: from the very opening words of the book of Genesis onwards, scripture and tradition teaches that the whole of creation, physical and spiritual is good, and reflects the goodness of God – though it’s equally only honest to note that Christians throughout the centuries have been tempted in various ways to forget this. And certainly much of the history of early Christian theology is best understood as wrestling with this very question: if Jesus is really God, then how can he be subject to all the things that bodily, physical life throws at us, as the Gospels unambiguously tell us that he did? How could he be hungry, thirsty, tired? How could he suffer and die on the cross and how, indeed, could he be born? Slightly earlier generations had been able to take comfort in hypothesising that either the physical needs and sufferings of Jesus recorded in the New Testament were some kind of mirage, or that Jesus wasn’t in the fullest sense God. But, by the 5th century, both of these positions had been ruled out as heretical for anyone who wanted to consider themselves an orthodox Christian, not out of some tidy-minded or heavy-handed authoritarianism, but because the Church had come to see that Jesus must be both fully divine and fully human if he was to save us. That would be another topic for another talk. But it left Nestorius and his supporters with a problem. They couldn’t say that Jesus was not really God, or that his physical experiences weren’t real; but nor did they want to say that God had physical experiences. And so they had to be creative with language. Jesus Christ clearly had a mother, Mary the Virgin – both the gospels and the creeds said so. And so Nestorius was happy to call Mary the Christotokos, or the anthropotokos: the one who bore Christ, or the one who bore the man, that is, the human nature of Christ. But Theotokos was a bridge too far: it was nonsensical to call Mary the God-bearer. His opponents, notably Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, were quick to point out the absurdity of this in turn: if Mary was the Mother of Jesus, then she must have been the Mother of Who Jesus really is, and, however much it bursts through our normal categories of thought, however hard it is to conceptualise, that must mean, if we agree that Jesus is fully divine as well as fully human, that she is mother of One who is fully divine as well as fully human. However much we don’t understand how this can be the case, then, we have to say that she is the Mother of God.
To call Mary by this ancient title, then, is to underline, not to diminish, the status of Jesus. It is to stress unambiguously His divinity. But, at the same time, it is also to say something about this divinity that bestows immense dignity on human nature – all human nature, not just Mary’s. God does choose to become intimately associated with our physical, material nature. He pronounces it as being very good, according to the account in the book of Genesis, in the very act of creating it, and He ratifies this assessment in making it especially intimately His own when He takes flesh from Mary and is born from her.
If we move then towards the end of the Calendar year, but the beginning of the liturgical year, just after the beginning of Advent, we celebrate the Immaculate Conception of Mary, or, as it is alternatively known, embarrass your favourite Dominican Day. I jest, of course, but, as some of you may know, St Thomas Aquinas, of all people, couldn’t bring himself to believe in the Immaculate Conception, and members of the Order of Preachers do sometimes get teased about this. He was wrong for some interesting reasons – one might almost say the right reasons – and, of course, he knows better now.
The Immaculate Conception of Mary is in fact frequently misunderstood, and not only by Dominicans. In the first place, it is often confused with the virginal conception, the doctrine that Jesus has no human Father. In fact, of course, it refers not to the Lord’s conception at all, but to that of Mary herself. That is why, as we’ve seen, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception this month, exactly nine months before the feast of Our Lady’s Nativity on September 8th.
Secondly, it is sometimes thought that to describe Mary’s conception as immaculate is to say that she, like her Son, was conceived virginally. Colourful legends suggesting this circulated in the early Church, and have made occasional reappearances since, but it has never been official Catholic doctrine. Overwhelmingly, the Church has taught that Mary had two human parents, Joachim and Anne, and that her conception took place in the normal course of their married life. Reflecting on this can help us when we are privileged to speak of our faith to our non-Catholic brothers and sisters.
Protestant Christians, as we have seen, often worry that by paying so much attention to Our Lady, Catholics put her on the same level as Christ, giving her place of honour that belongs to God alone. The very fact that Mary has both a father and a mother is one way of allaying this anxiety. It shows clearly that she is not some demi-goddess, but our sister, and, like us, a worshipper of her divine Son.
Meanwhile, many of our non-Christian contemporaries reject even the idea of the virginal conception of Jesus, seeing in it evidence that Christians regard sex as somehow “dirty”, as though we believe that it would be unbecoming for God to get Himself mixed up with it. As have seen, the broader question of God’s involvement in the material universe has long troubled many people, but it is not, in fact, a particularly authentic Christian worry. And the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception suggests that God is perfectly happy to perform great miracles precisely in the context of sexual intimacy. Stressing this might be a helpful first step in conversations about the Christian understanding of the dignity of marriage, and of demolishing a lot of unhealthy stereotypes about “Catholics and sex”.
But what does it actually mean to say that Mary is immaculately conceived? What is this great miracle? The official definition of the Immaculate Conception, given by Pope Pius IX in 1854, states:
The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by the virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.
But that perhaps doesn’t get us much further. In order to understand why Mary is conceived without Original Sin, we need to understand what original sin is, and what it is not. Generally, when we speak of sin, we think in terms of actions or attitudes for which we are personally responsible. But the theological concept of “original sin” is rather different. Really, the phrase is shorthand for something like the consequences of the original sin, the deeply mysterious event described in figurative language in the book of Genesis as Adam and Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit. And those consequences are not– this is in fact a real difference at least of emphasis between Catholic and at least some Protestant theology- so much that something bad is added to human nature as a result of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, and subsequently inherited by their descendants. Rather, something good is taken away, so that it is no longer there to be inherited. Original Sin brings about a lack in human beings, a gap in our closeness to God for which we were and are destined. Human beings no longer naturally enjoy the intimacy with God expressed in the book of Genesis in the beautiful image of walking with Him in the garden in the cool of the evening. Consequently, they struggle to make sense of their experiences, especially their experiences of suffering and death, and to live according to the law of God.
To say that Mary is conceived without Original Sin is to say then, that in her case, the intimate relationship with himself that was God’s original plan for His children is totally restored, so that she can serve him perfectly as the Mother of His Son. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it:
“in order for Mary to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly supported by God’s grace. [CCC 490]
And therefore there is another way in which the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception can help to overcome misunderstandings between Catholics and other Christians, especially those from the Protestant traditions.
The Incarnation didn’t depend on the Immaculate Conception: Jesus could have been virginally conceived in Mary’s womb whether or not she had been immaculately conceived herself, but it was appropriate for Mary to have the unclouded relationship with God that freedom from the effects of original sin give her, in order for her to carry out her unique vocation as the Mother of God. The Immaculate Conception was, in this sense, for Mary’s sake rather than for Jesus’s. But this wasn’t something she achieved for herself – it was something that was entirely the gift of God. And this doesn’t emphasise our difference from Mary, but our similarity to her. We cannot save ourselves –that is precisely why Mary conceived Jesus and brought him into the world. And rightly understood, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception reminds us of this fact. Far from putting Mary on the same level as her Son, still less somehow above him, the doctrine stresses that she was redeemed by Him, as we all are, but more perfectly because more radically.
Whereas we are redeemed from the effects of original sin at our baptism, and from our actual sins once we have committed them, Mary was created from the word go without these effects. This, in fact, was St Thomas Aquinas’ principle problem: he couldn’t get his normally extremely well functioning head around the idea that Mary could have been redeemed in advance; he thought, rather as many of our Protestant friends do, that if Mary was conceived without sin, this would mean that there was one human being who didn’t need God’s help to get to heaven, and he – and they – are of course right to say that this is no part of authentic Christian faith. In fact, Mary’s immaculate conception, far from suggesting that there are any human beings who do not need Christ, actually shows how completely, radically reliant on God’s saving action we all are. The 19th century English poet William Wordsworth famously called Mary “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”. But the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception reminds us that anyone who wishes to boast must boast in the Lord and his mighty deeds. Perhaps it helps to think of it in terms of artistry; God, as a master goldsmith, making Mary as, it were, the most beautiful monstrance imaginable to contain the real presence of Christ. And if Mary is God’s work of art in this way, talking of her as a distraction from God is a little like talking of Hamlet as being a distraction from Shakespeare, or the Missa Solemnis being a distraction from Beethoven. On the contrary, the more we get to know great works of art, the more we are in awe of the creativity behind them.
And that’s also important, I think, because in fact, as St Paul tells us, we are all God’s works of art. And one thing that is terribly important to remember about Mary is that, for all the exalted language that the Church uses of her, she is still one of us. What she already is, we are to become. And the doctrine of her Assumption, and the feast that commemorates this, shows us this truth particularly clearly.Just under a 100 years after Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception as a matter of faith, Pius XII did the same for the Assumption, in 1950. To a crowded St Peter’s Square, he announced:
We proclaim and define it to be a dogma revealed by God that the immaculate Mother of God, Mary ever virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.
Notice, incidentally, how Pius XII references both the two great doctrines connected with Our Lady we have already been considering: she is the Mother of God, and she is God’s immaculate Mother. As it happens, my mother, on holiday in Rome at the time, heard him define the dogma of the Assumption, and I’ve always wondered what she, who was at that stage in her life I suspect a rather militantly lapsed Anglican, made of the whole thing. Perhaps she would have concurred with whatever Protestant wit it was who referred to it as “that Roman doctrine so rightly called the Assumption”. That was meant negatively, of course – the implication being that you can’t anywhere in the Bible find any reference to the idea that Mary was taken up body and soul into heaven: it’s just something that Catholics assume to be the case, without the slightest shred of scriptural evidence. I’ve tried and failed to discover who said it; it’s certainly an elegant way of poking fun, and may well have meant light-heartedly, so I don’t think we need be offended by it. But I think we can actually use the idea of “assuming” more positively here: we can indeed assume that Mary was assumed into heaven because it is of a piece with everything else we can justifiably say about her. And, in particular, it underlines the same two aspects of Catholic teaching we have been thinking of all along, namely the unique status of God who is alone worthy of our worship, and the immense dignity of the human beings whom he has created and redeemed. Let’s think about each of these in turn.
If you look at classical art work portraying the Assumption of Mary, alongside pictures and sculptures of the Ascension of Jesus, you may notice a consistent difference – and it’s a significant one.
There may well be angels in the depictions of both scenes, but in the case of the Ascension, they are most likely to be on the ground, with the apostles, as in the account in the Acts of the Apostles, rebuking them for standing staring into space after Jesus. But the angels in the art of the Assumption of Mary will typically be holding onto her, hauling her upwards into heaven. It is a visual way of preaching the same message we were thinking about in the case of the Immaculate Conception: Mary doesn’t get herself to heaven, any more than we can do that. From first to last, it is God’s act. God alone can save us. God alone is worthy of worship, which is what Our Lady gives him perfectly in heaven.
And what of the light the doctrine sheds on human dignity? In 1950, Pius XII made it perfectly clear that he was not inventing a new idea in speaking of the Assumption of Our Lady, pointing out that it had been celebrated liturgically, and preached and theologized about, for many centuries. It is, though, significant that the doctrine was officially defined when it was, in the almost immediate aftermath of the Second World War. When so many human bodies had been abused and thrown away as trivial collateral damage in ideological struggles, vaporised at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, subject to obscenely inventive torture for being ethnically or politically the “wrong” kinds of human bodies, the dogma of the Assumption underlines the intrinsic goodness of the human body (and thus, of course, the appalling sinfulness of all these acts): Mary’s bodily presence in heaven forbids any notion that the “real” human being is some vague “spiritual part”, housed temporarily in a disposable physical casing, so that it doesn’t matter, ultimately, how we treat our own or each others’ bodies, destined as they are to rot in the grave.
So, the Solemnities of Mary the Mother of God on 1st January, of her Immaculate Conception on 8th December, and her Assumption on 15th August each have something profoundly important to tell us about God and about ourselves. What, then, of the month of May? Why, indeed, as Gerard Manley Hopkins asks, do we “fasten this upon her, with a feasting in her honour?”
Fr Hopkins suggests two answers to his rhetorical question. They’re closely related, both worth reflecting on, and both closely related to all we have been thinking about. They underline, that is to say, both the greatness of God, and the dignity of human beings.
In the first place, he says, and being Hopkins, he says it in a way that leaves you breathless, spring is the time of “growth in everything”: in “flesh and fleece, fur and feather/grass and greenworld all together”. We can see in the fecundity and freshness of nature in spring an image of Mary, pregnant with the new life that will bring salvation to a wintry world grown old. Maytime growth in everything, then, reminds us of the growth of the Saviour enfolded in Mary’s flesh, and should impel us to give thanks, as Mary herself gives thanks in her own Magnificat when she sings praise to the Lord present within her.
But what is particularly important for Hopkins is not just that things grow, that they get bigger, but that, in the process, they grow into themselves, become ever more clearly the things they are made to be, “magnifying each their kind”, as he puts it. Mary, conceived without sin is, already what human beings are made to be. We can look to her, then, as an example of what we hope to become. And – because this is what human beings are meant to be – we can look to her as the channel through which the love of God flows to us unimpeded by sin to enable us to become what we are meant to be.
Here is the poem: