Wednesday, August 15, 2018
I grew up in the Deep South, in a town where everyone was presumed to be Christian and the only distinctions of faith were on a subjective scale of nominality. There were plenty of small non-denominational congregations, and, although they may have taken Jesus seriously, their members weren't taken seriously by the rest of us. The Baptists were the dominant presence in the community, and we recognized differences between "big-church" Baptists and those who took their faith seriously enough to go to the smaller congregations where fiery preachers were more easily tolerated. Methodists were pretty common, and they were glad to not be Baptists, but the differences between Methodists and "big-church" Baptists were primarily manifest in their recycling bins. (Methodists were willing to recycle beer and wine bottles at the curb.) Presbyterians were present but not numerous, and, unless they had broken away from the mainline denomination and joined the Evangelical PCA, they were thought of as nearly as nominal as the Episcopalians, who were dangerously close to Catholics. Most of us recognized that Catholics were Christians, although some would question openly whether they would really go to heaven when they died. Plenty of us wrongly assumed that their version of Christianity involved a strange mix of taking orders from the Pope, praying to idol statues, and confusing the roles of Jesus and his mother in the economy of salvation. It seems pretty silly looking back, but those stigmas have a lingering effect.
I've always been afraid of Mary. More accurately, I've been afraid of Mariology or Marian devotion. "We don't do that," seemed like a pretty sufficient response for a Protestant of any stripe. Those suspicious aren't a new development. They've been part of the Protestant heritage since the Reformation, when Puritan influences removed to varying degrees anything that seemed tainted with the vague and unpleasant odor of popery. In the Anglican tradition, the Puritans didn't win out, but they certainly helped strip (or at least force underground) any Marian piety in the Church of England and, by extension, its successors. For example, note that, of the Thirty-Nine Articles, at least three have something to do with denying a prominent role of Mary in Anglican theology (IX, XV, XXII). So it's not only in my upbringing, it's also part of our church's history. But, today, as we celebrate the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin (not the Assumption of Mary, which is a Roman holiday and doctrine not celebrated in the Episcopal Church's calendar), I wonder (again) whether Mary might be the best model of Christian sainthood that we have and that as Anglicans we've missed it because of our fear of "popery."
This morning, I was reading Hannah's song in the Daily Office. It forms the basis for Mary's song in Luke 1, and it reminded me how foundational the availability for the Holy Spirit's work is to both of those women's witness to God. In the scriptural account, both Mary and Hannah are seen by God, acknowledged by God, and blessed by God. To Eli the priest, Hannah says, "Let your servant find favor in your sight." Similarly, the Angel Gabriel says to Mary, "You have found favor with God." We aren't told what that means, and that leads to a lot of Marian doctrine and devotion that seem unnecessary (perhaps unreasonable), but the primary witness of both women is to what God does in and through them, not what they do on their own.
Isn't that sainthood? Doesn't being a saint--a "holy one of God"--mean being one through whom God acts? God makes us holy. Mary's response to God's invitation, "Here I am, the servant of the Lord," is the response of all through whom God acts. Few (i.e. none) have a witness as profound as that of the Mother of God, but the basis for God's action coming into the world through human beings is the same. Mary, then, is a paragon not of self-generated holiness (that's Jesus' role) but of God-generated holiness, and a holiness that spills over into the world. May her witness shine bright in the eyes of our faith so that, like her, we, too, may say to God, "Behold, the servant of the Lord."