The Annunciation of The Blessed Virgin Mary


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(March 25) 

We beseech thee, O Lord, pour thy grace into our hearts…
Isaiah 7:10-15
Luke 1:26-38

The change of title between today and the Purification may be an accident but the omission of any mention of Mary from the Collect (cf The Purification of Saint Mary) is not; it is yet another calculated affront to the Mother of God which cuts more deeply because 16th Century Christians would have accepted the doctrine of the virgin birth, based on our reading from Isaiah, without question. The very doctrine accounts for the retention of the Feast in the reformed Lectionary. Subsequent translations of the Isaiah passage (notably the NRSV now in common use) render “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14 as young woman; in the Jewish tradition young and/or unmarried women were all supposed to be virgins so that the terms were more or less interchangeable. The Credal doctrine of the virgin birth can easily obscure the fundamental truth of the nature of the incarnation: Jesus need be no less the son of God because he was the physical son of Joseph acting as an agent of the Holy Spirit in precisely the same way that Mary acted. The problem with the traditional understanding of the doctrine is that it is very close to neo-Platonic dualism, elevating the spiritual above the physical, requiring a ‘virtual’ as opposed to an actual conception. The way that the Isaiah verse was later taken up by the Evangelists also casts a rather odd light on the Christian view of marriage.

For many Christians, Mary is not a person, she is a bundle of doctrines: the virgin birth (not to be confused with the Immaculate Conception) and the Assumption. In recent years this has been overtaken by the notion summed up in the hymn words: “Blessed Mary, teenage mother” but that has the shortcoming of relegating her into a kind of nudge and wink situation: single mother? Virgin birth? Holy Spirit? You must be joking! None of this should detract from the mysterious and ominous commitment undertaken by Mary. At some stage she and Joseph were asked to take responsibility for an unborn child who would be unique in the history of Israel and the world. At the very least they risked ridicule and social stigma but the much greater risk was that they would be accused of blasphemy, the very offence which ultimately led to the death of Jesus.

What draws us to Mary is not the bundle of doctrines associated with her but the personal, unconditional, uncomplicated commitment and the personal story, the ready acceptance of God’s commission, the lowly birth scene, the life of a refugee in Egypt, the often troubled mother of a strange child, the sad scene at the foot of the Cross foretold by Simeon. Yet we must remember that what is said of Mary is not all idyllic; according to Mark she suffered rejection by her son (3:31-35) whose behaviour was so unconventional that the family thought he was mad and should be hidden away (3:21). Her commitment was uncomplicated but her life was not. This should alert us to the human qualities of Mary. Just as we proclaim the incarnation as the willingness of God to share our humanity, we should claim Mary’s acceptance as undertaken on behalf of us all. The gross misunderstanding of the role of Mary in Christian iconography arises from the way in which she is set apart. She is first among the saints but that means that she is first among humanity who acted on our behalf to facilitate the incarnation. In a mysterious way, then, humanity is implicated in the incarnation effected by God.

Neither should we allow the doctrinal superstructure and its too facile repetition to obscure the magnitude of Mary’s commitment as it must have appeared to her. The angel (or whatever the mode of the divine communication) was frighteningly specific: her son would be the successor of David and, stretching back, the successor of Abraham; and this kingdom of her son was to last forever. In the atmosphere of apocalyptic Israel this was both incalculable and frightening. yet Mary’s response was not to quibble about the broad picture but simply to ask about the private mechanics. Here the genius of Luke and his customary use of pairing emerges in the reassurance of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. We can take no better comfort from this encounter than from the verse succeeding the Reading which has Mary setting out to help Elizabeth. Her response was spontaneous and practical and, later still, when they meet, Mary’s response, echoing 1 Samuel 2:1-10 (cf Luke The Evangelist), is, again, not doctrinal but practical.

as this is only one of two occasions when Mary is specifically honoured in the calendar it is appropriate to consider her place in the 21st Century Church. First, she should be in our hearts and beyond controversy. Doctrine is only an incomplete and provisional way of expressing aspects of the divine mystery and that should not obscure her commitment. Secondly, we should try to move away from that coldness which has considered all addresses to Mary as idolatrous. If people derive a special comfort from contemplating her life and virtue, why should it be denied? Thirdly, the strange absence of the Magnificat in the Lectionary (in spite of its daily Evensong appearance) should not obscure Mary’s commitment to justice. Finally, we must recognise her, set apart in some ways, as our most ideal human embodiment. She bore the child who saved us on our behalf.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Is the virgin birth a necessary precursor to the Incarnation?
  2. In what way was Mary acting on behalf of humanity when she accepted God’s commission?
  3. Consider the accounts of the relationship between Mary and her son
  4. How important are the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven?
  5. Outline recent developments in Anglican/Roman Catholic dialogue about Mary through the ARCIC process.

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