I could be wrong about this, but, as far as I can tell, this parish has kept the feast of St Mary the Virgin in a manner similar to this for more than three decades. I know it was an established custom by the time I left here to go to seminary in 1986. You have had a long train of guest preachers, standing where I’m standing now, talking about the same general subject that is my job to talk about now, and some of them, I can only imagine, have been fairly profound. I don’t know, but I just suspect that. So, I’ll confess that I’m just a little bit intimidated. What can I add? What can I say that has not already been said, probably better, by one or more of my predecessors in this role?
There are, of course, certain obvious tacks that a preacher on this occasion can take. For instance, I can imagine that there are many sermons being given around the world today that focus on Mary’s unqualified accession, Mary’s ‘Yes’ to the angel’s announcement that she would conceive and give birth to the Savior of the world, the very Son of God, and that Mary’s obedient response is a model for our own response to the various vocations and ministries to which God calls us through his Holy Spirit. Or, perhaps some of those who have come before me have focused on Mary’s song on the occasion of her visit to her also-pregnant cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, the song that has endeared itself to us in our liturgical tradition, particularly in our Anglican musical liturgical tradition, the song known as the Magnificat, which stands as a bracing emblem of the great theme of God’s reversal of expectations—the humble lifted up as the proud are sent packing, the poor provided for as the rich are deprived. Or, a theme that I’ve been reflecting on myself a good bit lately: Mary as the necessary source of our experience of the transcendent feminine. Many of our contemporaries look to expand the public language we use to speak of God in ways that include the feminine, overlooking the long tradition in the Christian community of finding in Our Lady the archetypal Mother figure that we all need.
These are all worthy areas of exploration, and it would be fun to walk down each of those paths with you. But here’s where I want to go tonight—I want to invite you to join me in looking at Mary as Mother of the Church.
Mary as Mother of the Church. This has at least two dimensions that are worthy of examination. There is both a theological dimension—something that engages our minds, our intellects—and what we might name as a devotional dimension—something that engages our hearts and wills, at the level of piety and practice.
So … let’s get theological, shall we? I hang out in an internet forum with a bunch of people, mostly much younger and more mentally agile than I am, and most of whom already have a PhD or are working on one. It’s actually a wonderful community, and, to the extent that I actually have hope for the future of the Episcopal Church and Anglicanism is general, it’s because of these people that I interact with. But, whenever I participate in the discussion, it’s usually with the disclaimer that I am not, unlike most of them, an academic. I’m a pastor, and what I say is usually heavily influenced by my position as a pastor. So, bear with me as I geek out a little bit theologically; I’ll try not to lose sight of the pastoral angle in what I’m talking about. In the Eastern tradition of Christianity, whether Orthodox or Eastern Rite Catholic, the ubiquitous term used in reference to the Blessed Virgin Mary is theotokos, which means, literally, “God bearer.” Follow the logical chain with me here: the one to whom Mary gave birth turned out to be none other than God himself, so we can properly speak of Mary the bearer of God. Indeed, we regularly sing about Mary as the bearer of God—“thou bearer of the eternal Word, most gracious, magnify the Lord”—although I suspect that many whose lips form these words in song are not immediately aware of what they’re proclaiming. And then, for whatever combination of historical and linguistic reasons, the Greek theotokos found its way into Latin as mater dei, the most literal English rendition of which is Mother of God, thus confounding and annoying generations of polemical Protestants and other poorly-informed believers and non-believers alike, who assume that the expression implies that Mary gave birth to all three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. She didn’t, of course, but … anyway, Mary is the mother of Jesus, which makes her the mother of the Christ—the Messiah, the Anointed One, who is himself God.
Now, hang all that on a mental hook, but don’t put it too far away, because we’re going to come right back to it. For the moment, though, before we circle back around, I want to draw your attention to the familiar language in the New Testament that speaks of the Church as the “Body of Christ.” We get this exclusively from St Paul, but in multiple places in his writings: Romans, I Corinthians, Ephesians, and Colossians. It’s a theme he develops pretty profoundly.
So, if the Blessed Virgin is the mother of Jesus, who is the Christ, and if the Church is the Body of Christ, then we can also—as the verbal logic unfolds, at any rate—speak of Mary as Mother of the Church, the Mother of the Body of Christ. Theotokos is also, if I can invent a new Greek word, ekkelesiatokos. Mater dei is also mater ecclesia. Mary is the Mother of the Church, which is to say, inasmuch as “we” together are the Church—this is to say, in effect, Mary is our Mother.
We walk by our Mother’s womb every time we enter the church building and pass the baptismal font, the place from which she gives birth to new cells, new members of the Body. What a blessing it is for St Timothy’s to have had such a robust baptismal piety for so long. That immersion font is such a potent sign to the rest of your diocese, to the rest of the church, of the life God longs to share with us—his own life, bestowed in the waters of baptism, through Mary, Mother of the Church, the mother of us all. This very font greatly aids the point I’m trying to make here, and I’m very grateful!
The only reason we know Mary is because of her motherhood, and the way we continue to relate to Mary is through her motherhood. As a Christian disciple who is “higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim,” but, nonetheless a Christian disciple like the rest of us, and, moreover, a Christian disciples whose vocation is defined by motherhood, Our Lady has a maternal desire, a desire to continue to give birth, the way that she now can give birth, which is through the waters of baptism. She wishes to give birth to new disciples of her Son. Pregnant Mary, our Mother, wants an always pregnant Church, a Church teeming with new life.
This, then, is the way we honor our Blessed Mother, this is the way we, in our generation, and as part of “all generations,” continue to “call [her] blessed”—by keeping the font active, by never letting it run dry or atrophy from lack of use. I have a church in my diocese, way down in what is now a small and thrown-under-the-bus community called Cairo, in the southernmost tip of Illinois, where the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi. The Church of the Redeemer there is a magnificent old stone structure, one of the prettiest churches in the diocese. A couple of years ago, we were down to one active Episcopalian at Redeemer, and she was 85. The only reason the doors stayed open is because a handful of Lutherans, whose own church building was falling apart, worshiped there—with Lutheran and Episcopalian services on alternating Sundays. Then the Lutheran congregation disbanded, and most of them continue to worship at Redeemer; in fact, I confirmed four of them a few weeks ago. In the meantime, a family that was once active has come back, and they brought their neighbors, who have two young kids. Last year, those two little ones were baptized, and those were the first baptisms at Redeemer since 1997! I like to think that was a harbinger, that by our reactivating the font, the womb of the Church, the Mother of the Church has focused her powerful intercessions on the Church of the Redeemer. Now, on any given Sunday, there are around fifteen people at Mass. We have scraped together some resources, and, just last Sunday, the first full-time priest-in-charge that Redeemer has had in decades began his ministry. He comes to us from Kenya, by way of Alabama, for which we are grateful, and because those who are left in Cairo are overwhelmingly African American, Redeemer will now have a priest who looks like, not most of the current parishioners, but those whom we hope will be the future parishioners of Redeemer. When I install Fr Muriuki in that cure, my charge to him will be to keep the font busy, because the Mother of the Church wants to be continually giving birth to new disciples of her Son.
Now, I said there was a devotional dimension as well to this business of Mary being Mother of the Church, and I’ll be much briefer about it. As Anglicans, we’ve gotten fairly good, I would say, at opening our heads to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This usually goes along with some very erudite theology, such as we have just traversed in this very sermon. But I think we still have a way to go in opening our hearts. As Mother of the Church, we can assume that Our Lady cares for her children. We would do well to allow her more space—more space in our imaginations, more space in the language of our discourse and our prayers, more space in our prayers—space that gives Mary an opportunity to exercise her maternal care. You know, sometimes you just need your Mom!
Hail, Mary …