Thursday, 4 April 2013

Celebrating The Blessed Virgin Mary

Today the Church celebrates the birth of The Blessed Virgin Mary. For many churches (perhaps not so much in Britain), the liturgy of today will be marked by processions, special hymns and the veneration of statues followed by a parish celebration featuring food, drink, games and more processions.

The role of The Blessed Virgin Mary in the Church and Salvation History is perhaps the most misunderstood of all amongst Protestants, non-Christians and sadly even Catholics. I remember my grandmother often quipped "Go confess your sins to Mary" when I or my brothers had done something she disproved of - the implication of course that Catholics believed that the Mother of God was herself divine, an accusation spread with gusto following the reformation. I often tried to explain to her that Catholics do not worship Mary as worship is reserved to God and God alone. In doing so, I pointed out that Mary was a created being, just like the rest of us, and that the honour she was afforded by the Church was due to her role as The Mother of God and the part she played in God's plan of redemption. The distinction was largely lost on my Grandmother though, partly I suspect because of her mischievous sense of humour and the fact that she could see it would rile me whenever she said it.  Those impressed by theological terms (my grandmother certainly wasn't one of them) will know that the classical distinction is latria (worship resolved for God alone), dulia (honour paid to the saints) and hyperdulia (the veneration offered to the Blessed Virgin Mary).

For me, the honour afforded to Mary, like her entire life, points to and helps us understand more fully, the nature of her Son, the meaning of his teachings and glory of his life, death and resurrection. She therefore teaches us about Christ, how to relate to Him and how to be more like him.

Biblical Precedent

When I was younger, I was often amazed by the passages of the New Testament where Jesus uses scripture to show how He was fulfilling it. I often thought of it as the prophets of the Old Testament setting out what the Messiah should achieve and Jesus following their instructions. I eventually came to realise however that I had things backward. Christ came first in the plan of God - the events of the Old Testament were rather God teaching Israel and mankind how it would recognise the Messiah through prophecy and archetype. Thus, Jesus' Last Supper and death did not follow the pattern established by the Passover but rather the Passover was designed so that we should recognise the Christ. Similarly, Christ's suffering came before the Song of the  Suffering Servant but the latter became a "signpost" to Christ.

Like Son, like Mother, the Old Testament also offers us an insight into the role of Mary and I offer a few snippets for your consideration. According to the Old Testament, the Messiah was to be a descendant of David and according to Jewish custom, descent was establish through the maternal line. In the archetype of the Old Testament Kingships, two major positions of delegated authority stand out - that of Prime Minister and Queen Mother. As "keeper of the keys", Jesus affords the position of Prime Minister in His Church to Peter and his successors whilst Mary, as Queen of Heaven and Earth fulfils her role as Queen Mother. Perhaps my favourite "signpost" however is the Ark of Covenant. In the Old Testament, the Ark was constructed to hold the tablets of the ten commandments which was set in a tabernacle. When the Ark was completed, the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle which became the dwelling place of God amongst his people. As the tabernacle was overshadowed by the glory of God, so was the Virgin Mary when she conceived Jesus, thus becoming the new Ark of the covenant. In the Ark of the Old Covenant, God came to his people with a spiritual presence, but in Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant, God comes to dwell with his people not only spiritually but physically. Indeed, the nature of the Ark also acts as a signpost to the nature of Mary. Poor Uzzah, though a good man, was struck dead when he touched the ark in an attempt to steady it, such was its holiness. If Mary were to be saved the fate of Uzzah which all mankind shares as a consequence of sin, she would have to have a share in her son's holiness to such a degree that she be untainted by the original sin of Adam and Eve, not as a result of her own nature, but rather as the first fruits of Christ's life, death and resurrection which reaches throughout all time and space, past, present and future. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, so often confused with Virgin Birth has deep roots indeed.

A New Adam and a New Eve

Eve's reputation has suffered terribly on account of the suggestion that having been tempted by the serpent in the garden, she in turn tempted Adam thus leading to the fall of mankind. Eve succumbed to temptation first and many (men) therefore drew the conclusion that when it came to morality, women were weaker than men. One might however suggest that Adam's first sin may have been neglect of his spouse as he is curiously no where to be found when the serpent arrives on the scene. Putting aside those considerations and what the consequence might have been had Eve succumbed to temptation but not Adam, Genesis informs us that evil entered into the world through the sin of both Adam and Eve. If both a man and women were responsible for the fall, it seems plausible to suggest that a man and woman would have a role to play in it's remedy. Adam and Eve's first and primary sin was that of disobedience. The only possible remedy was the complete obedience of Christ, the New Adam, and the grace that was afforded to Mary, the New Eve, who gave her great Fiat to the message of the angel Gabriel. In this sense, Mary's role in Salvation History and mankind's redemption was a  necessary one, not because God had no choice in the matter, but because God had called and chosen Mary.

By recognising and celebrating what is great and good in Mary, Catholics draw attention to the greatness, goodness and glory of God. We are taught that as her obedience to God was complete and her devotion to her Son unsurpassed, she is a worthy template of how we should live our lives and relate with and to Christ. As Queen Mother and as at Cana, she intercedes with her Son on our behalf, always with the advice that we "Do whatever he tells you" (John 2:3-5). As Saint Maximilian Kolbe said “Never be afraid of loving the Blessed Virgin too much. You can never love her more than Jesus did.”

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