Sunday 15 August
Feast of Mary, Mother of our Lord
Isaiah 61.10 – 62.3
The Song of Mary
Giving birth to God ©Suzanne Grimmett
There is a tradition in the Church of making New Year’s resolutions on the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. This may seem strange firstly because we are in the middle of the calendar year, and secondly because there doesn’t at first glance seem to be any direct link between Mary and personal resolutions. However, in the Roman calendar, Mary is celebrated on the 1st of January, and this day, the 15 August, is about the Assumption of Mary- the bodily return of Mary to heaven at the end of her earthly life.
So as we in our tradition celebrate the feast of Mary this day, what might we learn from this association of Mary with new beginnings? We may recognise the truth that our lives need to be constantly renewed without identifying this in any way with Mary’s labour to bring Christ into the world. We may even be ambivalent about the recognition of Mary in the church calendar- we are, after all, Reformed Catholic, not Roman.
There have been so many debates over the place of Mary in church doctrine and understanding. Two titles for Mary point to the greatest of these controversies in the early church. Do we refer to Mary as Theotokis (The Mother of God) or Christotokis (The Mother of Christ)?
This may seem a ridiculous and irrelevant question until we understand what lies underneath it. Those who spoke of Christotokis sought to make a clear distinction between the divine nature and the human. So for instance, when Jesus was tired or hungry or weeping, the human nature was at work. When he was walking on water or healing infirmities or casting our demons, it was the divine nature, and there was never any commingling of the two.
Mary, as the Mother of God- the Theotokis- however, sees instead a union of the divine and human by Jesus, the Son of God, uniting himself to human nature. Sometimes this had the effect of emphasising the divine nature at the expense of the human- Jesus did not really feel pain, has full and detailed knowledge of his destiny, etc, etc. However, at the heart of the idea of Mary as God-bearer is a sense of the sacramentality at the heart of everything. The human nature- and by extension all creation- has been divinised. The world is aflame with the glory of God -the great and terrible separation between creator and creature has been overcome. What was in Jesus is to some extent available to all creation because of the divine union accomplished in the incarnation.
So in this the association of Mary with New Year’s Day becomes more clear. Even though sin and brokenness haunt us, Mary is the icon that reveals that a new life of union with God is possible. Mary brings to birth the possibility of new beginnings and new creation.
Another iconic woman who stands in the same tradition of bringing together the heavenly and earthly is St Brigid. In Celtic tradition she is known as “Mary of the Gaels” or the foster mother of Christ. Stories are told of Brigid as being the midwife at the birth of Jesus, with a beautiful lack of concern about placing a fifth century Irish saint amongst the nativity scene of first century Palestine! The imaginative symbolism of St Brigid recognises the need for the one who is born of Mary to be fostered also in us. The intermingling of the divine and human in us is nurtured by the figure of Brigid in our spiritual imaginations.
Now this may seem too much of a flight of fancy until we reflect on the power of symbol and story, and what steps have been taken to try to suppress the power of Mary, Theotokis or Mary of the Gaels in spiritual imagination. There is a lot at stake when the power of life is embodied in the feminine and divine union becomes possible for all. Those who seek to be gatekeepers of divine presence and agents of God’s power potentially have much to lose in such an abundantly extravagant sacramentality.
In ancient days in Kildare in Ireland, a fire had been burning continuously to celebrate the Light shining deep in all things, the light that could not be overcome by darkness. The sisters of the community of St Brigid kept it alight until the sixteenth century when it was violently extinguished by Protestant Reformers. Similarly in Scotland, there were many sacred wells dedicated to St Brigid and there was a strong tradition of pilgrimage to these sites. Seventeenth century Calvinism saw all of these destroyed or blocked up, a tragic symbol, notes John Philip Newell, of “the way the inner well of the soul was also being denied, both individually and collectively.” There is a fear of the strength of the feminine that can bring new life, and the deep well of the soul from whence that new thing is awaiting its moment to arise.
The kind of god that possesses those who would seek to contain the powerful symbol of Mary, limit the work of the incarnation, put out the sacred fires and dam up the wells is a god who is solely masculine and transcendent. The immanent and feminine, is less easily corralled by those in power as it works through the sacred relationships of all things and acknowledges the potential for a divine rebirth in any moment and in any human life.
Yet totalising regimes that seek to contain and control life are not all ancient history. This weekend I read the story of Zakia Atiqi, a 24 year old member of Afghanistan’s national basketball team. She lives and trains in Mazir-i-Sharif, a city on the edge of attack by Taliban forces. Last time the Taliban were in power here, girls grew up knowing they would not finish school like their brothers. They were prohibited from playing sport, even if they were really good at it, and were not allowed to go outside or exercise; something that puts into perspective the short period of lockdown we have endured. The last time the Taliban broke through the city’s defences, they went from door to door, killing men and boys. Such events are fresh in the memories of those who wait in anxiety behind the city’s defences.
Totalising, extremist regimes and external purity codes that seek to codify and control life always serve the powerful and colonise the vulnerable. They always result in death- whether that be physical or spiritual. Hierarchical control resists the power and suppresses the diverse possibilities of life. In celebrating the feast of Mary today we recognise the voice that was raised in triumph, singing of the God who looks with favour on the lowly, scatters the proud, casts down the mighty and fills the hungry with good things.
So we join with Mary in singing her song in our own time. We hope that the Spirit of God will be present with the lowly and cast down everywhere, that they may know the welling up of the divine life in their own hearts but also in their communities. We pray that those who seek and sustain power through violence and oppression may be confronted by Christ being reborn in surprising new ways and in unexpected places, coming with power that a new day of possibility may dawn.
So Mary is an icon of new beginnings. It is the new beginning possible when divine life is brought to birth in our hearts and lives that we may be Christ-bearers to the world. God has sent the Spirit into our hearts giving us knowledge of the sacredness of our being and the indwelling of the Son through whom we cry “Abba Father”. Life will not be denied but is always welling up in our world and in our lives and, even praise God, in the church. Dam one spring and it will gush out elsewhere. Stamp out one fire and a spark will be carried on the breeze to flame up far away. But we do need to trust not to our own power but in the one who is the author of it all; the one who is humble enough to submit to being born of a young Middle Eastern woman and teach us, in his life, death and resurrection, that we, too, can be children of God.
 John Shea, Following Love into Mystery: The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers (Feasts, Funerals, Weddings) Liturgical Press Minnesota: 2010, p53
 John Phillip Newell, Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul (Harper One: 2021)