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Mary, Mother of God

Feast of Mary, Mother of the Lord, 15 August, 2006
Philip Bewley, Pastoral Worker & Stipendiary Lay Minister,
St Peter's, Eastern Hill

A feast in honour of Mary, Mother of God, has been celebrated on this day since the end of the 6th century. And as a feast which marks the end of Mary's earthly life, it has been heavily influenced by accounts taken from New Testament apocryphal writings. In the Eastern Church, the feast was known as the 'dormition' or 'falling asleep' of Mary, which implied her death, but did not exclude her being taken up into heaven – body and soul. In the Western Church, the term used was the 'assumption', which emphasized Mary being taken into heaven, but did not exclude the possibility of her dying.

Some centuries later, we find that devotion to Mary had become highly developed by the time of the High Middle Ages. In popular religion of the time, Mary was widely viewed as an intermediary between God and humanity. She was revered as a worker of miracles, with powers that verged on the divine. Devotional practices came to see Mary as a mediatrix alongside Christ, or sometimes even in his place. And as we all know, at the time of the Reformation, there was a widespread reaction in the English Church against such devotional practices associated with Our Lady. However, as often occurs, when reformers react to a doctrinal abuse, they have this dreadful habit of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Of course, I am not suggesting that their rejection of certain abuses was not proper and right. And while it was important for the reformers to stress that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and humanity – we find, unfortunately, their actions led to the loss of some positive aspects of Marian devotion, and to the lessening of Mary's place in the life of the English Church.

However, I am pleased to observe that Mary has a new prominence in Anglican worship through the liturgical renewals of the 20th century. In most Anglican prayer books throughout our Communion, Mary is again mentioned by name in the Eucharistic prayers. Furthermore, today's Feast has become widely celebrated as a principal feast in honour of Mary with its own, lectionary readings, collect and proper preface in the Eucharistic Prayer. Such 'official' Anglican recognition (and authorization) for the celebration of this feast day is highly significant. So thankfully, there appears to have been a re-reception of the place of Mary in corporate worship across our Church.

The 5th statement of the second phase of the Anglican – Roman Catholic International Commission is entitled 'Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ' and is an agreed statement concerning Christian faith and devotion to Mary. In many respects, the desire of our Anglican Communion to come together with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, to create such an agreed statement, is a sign of this re-reception of Mary within the devotional life of our Anglican Communion. This latest edition of the Agreed Statement contains accompanying commentaries and a study guide, and has only been published recently. And I commend it to you.

At one point, this 'Mary Document' reminds us that there is no reference in Scripture concerning the end of Mary's life. And of course this is true enough. But it does remind us, however, there are various passages within Scripture, which speak of those faithful, who having followed God's purposes, were then drawn into God's presence. And moreover, these passages offer a glimpse, and shed some light, on the mystery of Mary's entry into glory. For instance, we have the story of St Stephen's martyrdom in the Acts of the Apostles. At the moment of his death, he sees 'the glory of God' and 'the Son of Man' not seated in judgement, but 'standing at the right hand of God' to welcome his faithful servant.

Similarly, the penitent thief in Luke's Gospel, who calls on the crucified Christ, is accorded the special promise of being with Christ immediately in Paradise. In the Second Book of Kings, God's faithful servant Elijah is taken up by a whirlwind into heaven. And of Enoch it is written, 'he was attested as having pleased God' as a man of faith, and was therefore 'taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him' (Hebrews 11:5, cf. Genesis 5:24). So, within such a context, it is not without reason to imagine that Mary, as 'the' faithful disciple, is now 'fully' present with God in heaven. And, it is in this way, that Mary becomes a sign of hope for all humanity.

So, if we are able to say that Mary is present with God in heaven, then today's feast reminds us of our own hope of sharing in the resurrection of Christ. As St Paul tells us in our second reading tonight:

"For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming, those who belong to Christ."

Today's feast also reminds us that our own resurrection from the dead is a gift – the generous and unmerited reaching out to us by God in love. God's choice of Mary, to be the bearer of his Son, was in itself a gift. And Mary responded in faith to this gift. Her life was marked by her faithfulness to God. And her life has always been seen by Christians, down through the ages, as the example to follow. And the Church, similarly, has believed that God's gift to Mary, for her unfailing faithfulness, was an immediate share in Christ's resurrection. And so, we say – she is with God in heaven, and therefore, able to intercede for us.

And so we pray that each one of us, will one day share in that same gift – a share in Christ's resurrection – and in the company of Mary, obtain the gift of eternal life with God.


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