Joseph Emmanuel SSF reminds us of Our Lady’s perfect humanity
We come together today to do two things. Firstly, we come together, as we do each year, to commit ourselves to following the example of the holy bishop St Cuthbert and to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ to our needy world. Secondly, we come together to celebrate, with the universal church, the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and our mother, and it is about this that I wish to speak.
That Our Lady’s birthday is marked in the church calendar immediately tells us two things. First, it tells us that she is important, for she shares this honour with only two others (that being Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and the great forerunner St John the Baptist). Secondly, it tells us that Our Lady was a human being, for in commemorating her birthday we remember with joy that Our Lady Mary was a child of the godly forebears St Joachim and St Anne whose role in preparing her to fulfil her great and solemn vocation, whilst not recorded in the scriptures, is surely obvious in its fruits.
The statement that Our Lady is important will not, I think, come as too great a shock to the congregation gathered here today. As catholic Anglicans we may well have icons or statues of Our Lady in our churches; we may, indeed, have them in our homes. Many of us will have a special regard for the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham—the spiritual home of the catholic movement in the Church of England—and many of us will, through observing the calendar of the church and in praying the Holy Rosary, keep her example and witness in the forefront of our own lives of devotion and discipleship. We must not, however, delude ourselves about the extent to which our devotion is commonplace, for many of our fellow Anglican Christians have little or no regard for Our Lady whatsoever. To some, devotion to Our Lady is positively dangerous for they wrongly see it as leading us away from the fundamental truth of the pure and unsullied saving gospel of Jesus Christ. Others, whilst not sharing this suspicion, have instead relativized the role Our Lady played in the story of salvation to such an extent that she is now seen as some sort of optional extra, as a dash of fragrant continental icing to be applied, only when necessary, to the stolid dough of quotidian Anglicanism. That this is the case is deeply sad, and it is so for two reasons. First, it is—purely and simply—incorrect. Secondly, it actively diminishes the truth and beauty of the Christian faith. Let me explain what I mean. To ignore the centrality of Our Lady in the story of salvation is utterly illogical. Did any other Christian give her body to be the tabernacle of God-made-man? Or did any other Christian stand at the foot of the Saviour’s cross and watch and wait whilst her son gave up his life for any who would receive his love? Was any other Christian placed in such close proximity to the throne of grace? Did Our Saviour entrust his Church to anyone else’s maternal care? Of course not. Our Lady’s role in the life and ministry of Christ is uniquely important and utterly integral. To imply anything other is to wilfully ignore the truth; it is to relativize her—let alone to expunge her—from worship, and to eliminate a vital part of the Christian gospel.
I have also suggested that to ignore Our Lady is to ‘diminish the truth and beauty of the Christian faith.’ This is a strong claim and yet it is one which I profoundly believe. In his book Grace and Necessity, that great and holy Archbishop Rowan Williams points out—as he does in many of his writings—that our Christian faith is one of extravagant generosity, of grace. Of course, nothing can take away from the centrality of the saving events of Christ; nothing is, nor should be, more important to us than Jesus. But that does not mean that we can not, let alone should not, rejoice in the wonderful truth that our lives on earth are upheld and strengthened by the prayers of the saints, of the angels and archangels and above them all Our Lady, Queen of Heaven, herself. To acknowledge this is not, in any way, to undermine the centrality of Christ. Instead, like the burnished gold which surrounds the central figure in an icon, it allows the true immensity of God’s glorious and extravagant generosity to shine forth. We are called, on this day, to carry the saving gospel of Jesus Christ into the world in the footsteps of St Cuthbert and we are called—like him—to do this as catholic Christians who fully understand the place of Our Lady and the saints, the sacraments of the Church and the nature of the Holy Eucharist. Let it be our prayer that, fortified by their prayers, we may do so, and do so unapologetically.
My second point is that the feast which we celebrate today reminds us that Our Lady was a human being. Again this should not come as a great revelation to many of us sitting here today but this, I think, also needs to be said. For the best of reasons and the loftiest of intentions some, in reacting to the neglect Our Lady has suffered, have resorted to divinizing her; as a counterbalance to neglect, they turn her into some sort of divine being. That this is the case is also deeply unfortunate and is, in fact, every bit as questionable as those who seek to eliminate her unique place from the narrative of salvation for it denies the potential which each and every human person, as a human person, has. Pope Pius XII—much maligned and described by some as the most Marian of popes—had this to say in his encyclical ad Caeli Reginam (‘On the Queen of Heaven’): ‘Theologians and preachers… [when preaching] concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary must avoid from straying from the correct course, with a twofold error to guard against; that is to say, they must be aware of unfounded opinions and exaggerated expressions which go beyond the truth, on the other hand they must watch out for excessive narrowness of mind in weighing that exceptional, sublime, indeed all but divine dignity of the Mother of God which the Angelic Doctor teaches must be attributed to her because of the infinite goodness that is God…’ As the pope noted, Our Lady was not divine; in no way is she comparable to the persons of the Holy Trinity or to be seen as equal or equivalent to Jesus Christ but nor, as he also noted, is she in any way unimportant or incidental. The truth about Our Lady which we celebrate in this Mass is that she was fully and completely and wonderfully human. She, above all other Christian people, demonstrates those wonderful words of St Irenaeus: ‘Gloria enim Dei vivens homo’—‘the glory of God is [a] man fully alive…’ or (for the benefit of those who are determined not to acknowledge that St Irenaeus already implies this) ‘the glory of God is [a] human being fully alive…’ Filled with the Holy Spirit and full of grace, Our Lady, prepared in the home of Saints Joachim and Anne, surrendered herself body, mind and soul to the saving plan of Almighty God with an extravagant generosity which mirrored the self-giving love of God himself. Through the working of the Holy Spirit, and in her womb, Jesus Christ—the very pinnacle of creation—came to be. The creator contained within his own creation. Our Lady does not need pseudo-divine titles or extravagant and unsubstantiatable claims made for her; instead, she shows us what we, as Christian women and men, can be as human beings ‘fully alive’— as St Irenaeus would have it—in the Holy Spirit. It is for that reason that, rightly, Our Lady is often described as the first and most perfect Christian.
Let it be our prayer today that we, along with Our Lady, will give ourselves body, mind and soul to Christ, that filled with his spirit and fortified by the prayers of the saints and first among them Our Lady we might, like the Holy Bishop St Cuthbert, carry the saving gospel of Jesus Christ and the wonderful gift of the catholic Christian faith into the world.
Joseph Emmanuel SSF is a brother at Alnmouth Friary. This sermon was preached on the feast of the nativity of Our Lady in the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Cuthbert, Durham, for the St Cuthbert Festival.