Tag Archives: Assumption

Homily: “On Our Lady and the Theology of Woman”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 2018.

It is a funny pattern that we humans have whenever a new technology is introduced. New technology is always first understood in the terms of the technology it is replacing. The perfect example is the automobile; when it was introduced, it was spoken of as the “horseless carriage.” Or, as another example, the internet was spoken of as the “information superhighway.” These  are metaphors, yet these give a vivid sense as to what the innovation actually is. The car, yes it is a carriage—but it is a horseless carriage. The internet is for information, but it is not like a library one has to travel to—no, the information is already mobile and on a superhighway-like-thing: it travels to you with the touch of the fingers. In other words, the pattern is that what is being replaced or made obsolete becomes the shell of initial interpretation for what is new.

We see the same thing in the Scriptures. “Who do men say that I am?” Jesus asks His disciples. And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Eli?jah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” The terms for understanding and interpreting Jesus used widely in Jewish society were not up to date; or, stated differently but in a sense more accurately, God’s revelation in the Incarnation was such a monumental leap forward in the “spiritual technology,” it is perfectly understandable why the terms to interpret Him had not caught up. He was either a prophet, or He was a military revolutionary—both of which were wrong, but those were the categories of serious public figures for first-century Palestine.

All of this—the pattern of interpreting the new in terms of the old—applies to Blessed Mary, the Mother of God—Theotokos­, to use the Greek title ascribed to her officially, meaning God-bearer—but it applies in fascinating ways. Our Lady is properly understood, first and foremost, in terms of what, and who, came before her. As one theologian puts it, “All theology of Mary [her place in the history of salvation, her place within the constellation of Christian worship of Jesus Christ] is fundamentally based upon the Old Testament’s deeply anchored theology of woman” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Daughter Zion, p. 13). This theology is derived from the description in the Sacred Scriptures of the great women of the Old Testament—Eve, Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, Deborah, Ruth, Naomi, Esther, and Judith. Without these great women, Blessed Mary will not be properly understood.

This biblical theology of woman could be elaborated in long treatises and theological tomes. And yet, we already have that theology captured for us in a remarkably compact presentation. I am referring to Mary’s Magnificat, our Gospel passage, which has been for nearly twenty centuries the Song or Canticle of Mary sung during the evening prayer service by the People of God. (Indeed, in Anglican tradition, it is only during the singing of the Magnificat that incense, the sign of holiness, is burned and brought to the Altar.) Let me bring out of the Magnificat three of the themes that are at the core of the biblical theology of woman:

The first is “My soul magnifies the Lord.” This first line is spoken in the first-person—Mary’s soul—yet within the prayer of the Church, Mary articulates the fact that it is primarily in women, not men, where the locus for the revelation of God’s power is found. We see this everywhere in the Old Testament. I recently preached about Judith, and how after she defeating the invading army by cutting off the head of its general through a well-conceived plan of deception, she was spoken of as “the exaltation of Jerusalem, you are the great glory of Israel, you are the great pride of our nation!” Similar patterns of God manifesting His will and power—God being magnified in the soul of women—can be seen in the other great figures. The soul of women magnifies the Lord, Mary is saying: more specifically, the faithful women of Israel. And we see this fact in Mark’s Gospel from the first to the last. The first person to imitate Jesus is a woman—Saint Peter’s mother-in-law—and the disciples who listen, learn, and follow Jesus’ teaching the best are women: at His crucifixion, women watch (which was Jesus’ command repeated many times), but the men disperse and are broken, the best example of which, ironically, is the son-in-law of the first to imitate Jesus, that is, Saint Peter. Furthermore, to learn how to be apostles, the Apostles looked to women: to Saint Mary Magdalene, called the apostle to the Apostles because of the resurrection message she brought to them, and to Blessed Mary during the ten days they were gathered in the Upper Room after the Ascension and before the Day of Pentecost, when we can reasonably and prayerfully assume that Our Lady shared with the Apostles the wonderful stories of the Annunciation, the Presentation, the Finding of Jesus at age 12 in the Temple, and perhaps domestic miracles likely He performed within the confines of family life with Saint Mary and Saint Joseph. It was these stories that further empowered the Apostles to bust out with their proclamation upon the Coming of the Holy Ghost.

The second: “He has exalted those of low degree.” The significance of this cannot be over-stated. God bends down to the humble, down to the powerless, bends to the rejected. This is the Gospel proclamation! And yet, this was particularly significant in Mary’s day, because in the ancient world, the unmarried and childless were inferior and often excluded from the worshiping community. Infertility was a seen as a curse, and possibly reflective of sin committed. But to Sarah in her old age was given Isaac, to Rachel Joseph, to Hannah Samuel. Their infertility was reversed: the infertile one ultimately turns out to be the truly blessed (ibid., p. 18). In other words, the ability of women to participate not peripherally but as central characters in the divine action had nothing to do with biology. This participation, which is motherhood—true religious motherhood—is not about body parts, but it is about faith, humility, fidelity to God. And as the Church has from its beginning seen Mary as representative of the Church, we are ever taught by her, Our Lady, who in herself summarizes and incorporates into her being the meaning and significance of all of the great women before her: that God acts through His Church only when we are of low degree: humble, poor, patient, yet striving for complete fidelity to God, firm in our faith despite whatever place in society we might have.

Finally, let us ever-remember and cherish these words: “All generations will call me blessed.” Mary’s place in the Church must always be secure, therefore all she represents is likewise secure, in the central treasuries of our faith. And note how this is a direct commission to the Church: all generations will call me blessed—not “might,” or “could,” or “if one happens to have that piety,” or “if one is a Roman Catholic,”—no, no, no. All generations (she might have added, “despite denominational differences”) will call her blessed—meaning, veneration of Mary is not optional but demanded, if we are to rightly worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Rejoicing in Mary, rejoicing in the central importance of women as the anchor or ark of the new Covenant, means we rejoice fully in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Homily: “On Saint Mary the Virgin”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin, 2017.

This is the day when we recognize and venerate the Mother of God under the title “Saint Mary the Virgin.” It for The Episcopal Church is the central feast of Mary in the Church year. Now, this is fitting because it is also the central feast of Mary of the universal Church, although our sister churches use different names for it than we do.

In the Church of Rome, that is the churches of Roman Catholicism in communion with the Bishop of Rome, this day is celebrated as the Assumption of Mary. That term, “assumption,” is a technical term that refers to the understanding that upon reaching the end of her earthly life, Mary was taken by God—“assumed”—body and soul into heaven; meaning, her whole person and personality is alive and forever adoring God almighty in the Church Triumphant. Now, although when the Church of Rome made this an official teaching there was at that time, and it remains the case today, some controversy at their doing so, we must keep this in perspective. Just as siblings in a family are forever finding ways to be irritated at each other, members of the Christian Church family do the same. Yet this teaching, and specifically the technical term “assumption,” says nothing more than what we profess each Sunday during the Nicene Creed—that we believe in the Resurrection of the Body. We could substitute the word “assumption” for “resurrection” without changing any of the meaning. Continue reading

Homily: “Religion and Relationship with Blessed Mary”

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Solemnity of Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2016.

We have just heard the Song of Mary, known as the “Magnificat” because the first words in Latin translation are “Magnificat anima mea, Dominum”—“My soul magnifies the Lord.” It is embedded within a larger moment in Saint Luke’s Gospel that is known as the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That particular moment as a whole is commemorated on our Calendar on May 31st. Mary travels to the hill country in Judah, having been confronted by the Angel Gabriel and told that she would conceive in her womb and bear a son, and call his name Jesus. That is the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25. Three Calendar days are related to today’s Gospel reading! Anyway, Mary travels to be with Elizabeth, herself bearing a son by the work of the Holy Spirit, that son being Saint John the Baptist.

Just before Saint Luke records this Song of Mary, he tells us that “when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’” We hear of course in Elizabeth’s words part of what has become in the Church the Hail Mary prayer. Yet what might be missed is that this moment is in fact the first miracle of Jesus. He sanctified Saint John in the womb of Saint Elizabeth—and Jesus did so by the words of Mary. Can Mary’s words be anything but prayer? No sooner had Mary spoken in prayer than John was sanctified. His first miracle, performed through the prayerful words of his Mother—should this surprise us? It is by Mary that Jesus has come into the world—it is through Mary’s prayer, then, that Jesus might come into our hearts.

The full name for today’s feast is “Saint Mary the Virgin, the Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Its date on the Calendar of August Fifteenth coincides quite intentionally with what is called in the Roman Catholic tradition as “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Let it be clear that these feasts, despite the different names, are one and the same. The words of our Collect, “. . . you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary . . . ” are everything that is meant by the Assumption of Mary, and the theology of Mary’s Assumption into heaven by God upon the end of her earthly life —or, as is said in Eastern Orthodoxy, her “dormition,” or “going to sleep”—has been widely received within Anglicanism, particularly within parishes.

When we think of Blessed Mary, it is common to immediately think of the Hail Mary prayer. A part we have already heard from the mouth of Saint Elizabeth. Here is the rest: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

So often we hear the words “pray for us” or “pray for me” or “have a particular person in your prayers,” or “keep such and such person in your prayers,” and so on. It is ancient custom in the Church, when celebrating the feast day of a Saint, to ask that Saint on his or her day to pray for us. At my ordination to the deaconate, well over seventy saints were named, after each one was chanted, “Pray for us.” All this while I was prostate on the floor before our bishop. Afterwards he called it a very contemplative moment, and let me tell you, it was a particular hot afternoon in the church. So you can imagine that all the sin got burned right out of me.

To want to know what we are doing when we are doing it is a mark of maturity. And so, when we say, “Pray for us”, what are we saying? This phrase finds its context, first and foremost, in the saints of the Church. What all saintly Christians have in common is a life lived toward Christ in the fullest sense; and so we can say that, in a word, what they have in common is holiness. We ask people who display something of a tangible sense of the holy about them to pray for us. God is at work in them, and his activity is palpable, apparent to the senses, apparent in their life. God is calling them in a focused, discernible and active way.

Of course the best example of holiness is Mary. Luke wants us to know that her soul “magnifies the Lord.” Her “spirit rejoices in God.” These are marks of holiness that I think still apply today. Also notice that Saint Luke would have us hear Mary as echoing the prophets. Her words echo the prophet Isaiah, who wrote “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God.” Saints, as I have said before, are the best interpreters of the Bible, because the biblical revelation has struck them in a deeply personal way, and as a result they have lived out the biblical revelation within the human condition in a remarkable manner. “Living with the revelation” is the heart of what it means to be a disciple, and from that comes holiness.

When we ask a person to pray for us, we are saying three things at once. The first is that we are asking the person to say or think something that will help us in some way. “Pray for us” is a form of intercession. “Pray for us, because we really need it.” This is obviously a normal way of speaking when we are faced with some difficult challenge or obstacle, or perhaps when we are suffering in a particularly acute way, or we know that a medical procedure is soon to be performed. Because that person exhibits a sense of holy, we are comforted by God through them, and their offering of prayer brings the Peace of Christ to our hearts.

The second meaning of “Pray for us” is we are asking the person to pray because we are not able to. “Pray for us” here means vicarious: say or think something on our behalf, in our stead, because we are not able to do it. Here, through these three words, we recognize that some people have a vocation to pray. A vocation to be a Pray-er, in the sense of something committed and disciplined. In his letter to the Romans, St Paul writes that “For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” Disciplined, unceasing prayer is a gift. And so when we ask Mary to pray for us, we are recognizing her vocation to full-time prayer, and we are sharing in that vocation. Prayer is a gift that can only be shared. In asking such a person to pray for us, our prayer through them will be a better prayer to God.

Here, then is the fullest understanding of “Pray for us.” “Pray for us” means relationship. When we ask Mary to pray for us, we are asking her to be in relationship with us, and we are acknowledging our relationship with her. There is a simple, elegant beauty in doing just that. We say “pray for us, Mary” because we know that being in relationship with her is better than not.

When we are in relationship with Mary, and when we think about what it meant for her to be the predestined Mother of God—totally dedicated to the person and the work of her Son—the Christian religion is transformed from a collection of moral principles, biblical sayings and rules, doctrines and ideas into simple life of obedience and love; from spectacular battles in a culture and political war into unspectacular service to others; from trying to control events into active surrender to God’s loving hand in all things. When we are in relationship with Mary, and see the Christian life more and more from her perspective, the true nature of the Christian religion is revealed. For when a poor and powerless young woman was confronted by the Angel Gabriel and told that she would bear in her womb the savior of the world, the Son of the Most High, holy Son of God, she said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In the face of the unfathomable, the incomprehensible, the seeming impossible, Mary said Yes to God. Who would not want to be in relationship with a person like that? This is why Elizabeth was filled with joy—she recognized in that instant that being in relationship with Mary means being in relationship with the Holy Spirit, filled with the Holy Spirit, and thrown into joyful prayer.

I conclude with a prayer from a seventeenth-century Anglican bishop named Jeremy Taylor.[1] Besides being one of my favorite prayers, I share it because it ought never be said that within Anglican tradition there has not been a strong devotion to Mary. Let us pray.

O Holy and ever blessed Spirit, who did overshadow the Holy Virgin-Mother of our Lord, and caused her to conceive by a miraculous and mysterious manner; be pleased to overshadow our souls, and enlighten our spirit, that we may conceive the holy Jesus in our heart, and may bear him in our mind, and may grow up to the fullness of the stature of Christ, to be perfect men and women in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] Rule and Exercises of Holy Living, IV, ad S.6

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.