Arthur Middleton on celebrating our Lady Day
Mark Frank, the Caroline divine, has been described as a mariological preacher. He published only two volumes of sermons. His Second Sermon for Christmas is on the text: ‘And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger’:
‘I shall not need to tell youwho this ‘she’, or who this ‘him’ …The Virgin Mother, the Eternal Son. The most blessed among women, the fairest of the sons of men. The woman clothed with the sun: the son compassed with a woman. She the gate of heaven: he the King of Glory that came forth. She the mother of the everlasting God: he God without a mother; God blessed for evermore. Great persons as ever met upon a day. Yet as great as the persons, and as great as the day, the great lesson of them both is to be little, to think, and make little of ourselves’.
In the same sermon he speaks again of Mary, suggesting that he might have chosen somebody who was more than ‘a poor carpenter’s wife’:
‘Some great queen or lady had been fitter far to have made as it were the Queen of Heaven, and mother to the heir of all the world … But it was the lowliness of this his holy handmaid that he looked to; it was for her humility he chose to be born of her before any other: that we may know, 1, whom it is that the Eternal Wisdom will vouchsafe to dwell with, even the humble and lowly; and, 2, we may see he even studies to descend as low as possible, that so even the meanest might come to him without fear; that, 3, we should henceforth despise no man for his parentage nor bear ourselves high upon our birth and stock’.
Bringing forth Christ
It is a natural development of this sermon to reflect that every Christian, like Mary, has to ‘bring forth’ Christ:
‘unless now we take up the Virgin Mary’s part, which is behind, bring forth this First born to ourselves; suffer him to be born in us, who was born for us; and bring forth Christ in our lives, wrap him and lay him up with all the tenderness of a mother. The pure virgin pious soul is this ‘she’ that brings forth Christ; the nourishing and cherishing of him and all his gifts and graces, is this wrapping him in swaddling clothes; the laying up his word, his promise and precepts in our hearts, is the laying him in the manger’.
And so to the sacramental character of what Christmas is about:
‘We must clothe with him, and feed with him, and lodge with him at this feast. He is now ready by and by to give Himself to eat; you may see him wrapped ready in the swaddling clothes of his blessed sacrament; you may behold him laid upon the altar as in his manger. Do but make room for him, and we will bring him forth, and you shall look upon him, and handle him, and feed upon him’.
It is in his sermon on the Annunciation that his Marian theology reaches its greatest height:
‘The day will tell you who this ‘blessed among women’ is; we call it our Lady-day; and the text will tell you why she comes into the day, because the Angel today came in to her. And the Angel will tell you why he today came in to her; she was ‘highly favoured’, and ‘the Lord was with her’, was to come himself this day into her, to make her the most ‘blessed among women’ – sent him only before to tell her so – to tell her, he would be with her by and by himself. This makes it Annunciation-day, the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, as the Church calls it, and the annunciation to her, as we may call it’.
So it is for him as it has become for us the Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary:
‘So the Incarnation of Christ, and the Annunciation of the blessed Virgin – his being incarnate of her, and her blessedness by him, and all our blessednesses in him with her, make it as well our Lord’s as our Lady’s day. More his, because his being Lord made her a Lady, else a poor carpenter’s wife, God knows; all her worthiness and honour, as all ours, is from him; and we to take heed today, or any day, of parting them; or so remembering her, as to forget him; or so blessing her, as to take away any of our blessing him, any of his worship, to give to her.’
Vindicating her honour
He was conscious of medieval extravagance in devotion to Our Lady by emphasizing, as recent Marian corrections have done, that all Mary’s glory comes from the Lord, whom she needs as much as a Saviour as we do. On the other side he rebukes the Puritans, ‘who, because the Romanists make little less of her than a goddess, they make not so much of her as a good woman: because they bless her too much, these unbless her quite, at least they will not suffer her to be blessed as she should’.
So he continues to stress she is no goddess, nor partner with the Godhead either in title or worship. Only in this way will we vindicate the blessed Virgin’s honour and save ourselves from all superstitions and profane abuses while at the same time save us from neglecting her and from giving her no more than either the Lord or Angel gave her. ND