25 May 2008 at :00 am
This year, on the last day of May, we celebrate one of the great Marian feasts: the visitation of Mary to her relative Elizabeth. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Elizabeth was married to Zechariah, that they had no children and were now quite old. In the Gospel, Zechariah is told by the angel Gabriel that Elizabeth will bear a son. It is made clear that, because of his age and the age of Elizabeth, this baby is to be the special gift of God, and that God has a special purpose for the child. He is to be called John – the John we know as the Baptist (Lk 1:5-13).
The story then shifts to Mary who is a young woman, little more than a girl, not yet married but betrothed to Joseph. She is told by an angel – again it is Gabriel - that she will bear a son (Lk 1:31). This is even more surprising as she is not yet married. Gabriel explains that the birth of Jesus will come about through the Holy Spirit: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.’ (Luke 1:35). Mary’s response is to say, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. Shortly afterwards she sets out to visit Elizabeth. The two women meet, both pregnant, both about to bear sons with a unique place in God’s purpose. It is then that Mary bursts out with the song of praise that we know as the Magnificat: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. … Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed’ (Lk 1:46ff). This is why Mary is so often referred to as the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The key to the story is the part played by the Holy Spirit. Gabriel comes as the messenger of God, but it is through the power of the Holy Spirit - that is by the action of God himself - that Elizabeth and Mary become pregnant. In the case of Mary, it is made clear that this is without sexual intercourse. The birth of Jesus is a miracle of the Holy Spirit, like the creation of the world, when, according to Genesis, the Spirit moved over the face of the waters and brought a new world into being (Gen 1:2; cf.2 Cor 5:17)).
In Luke’s Gospel it is particularly clear that these stories have been collected and retold to show how special Jesus is and how special was his coming into the world. There is no-one like Jesus, not even John the Baptist. The Fourth Gospel has a different way of making the same point. It talks about the Word becoming flesh (Jn 1:14), but its author seems not to have known the stories that focus on Mary. The same is true of Mark. Matthew does know about the birth of Jesus and Mary being a virgin (Mt 1:18), but he doesn’t know the stories about Zechariah and Elizabeth. However, in Matthew’s Gospel an angel says to Joseph, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’ (Mt 1:20). Once more, it is made clear that the birth of Jesus comes about because of the action of the Holy Spirit.
In the early centuries of the Church there was a great deal of interest in the life of Mary. People wanted to know how God prepared her for the special role she had to play. If she gave birth to Jesus, who was holy, surely, they said, she must have been holy too. And if she was holy, was she holy from the very beginning of her life? They drew the parallel with John the Baptist. The angel in Luke’s Gospel says, ‘Even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Lk 1:15). They compared Mary with Jeremiah who says, ‘The Word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you’ (Jer 1:4-5). The Psalms too were very important in guiding people when they thought about the way God works in the world. Psalm 139 says:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence? …
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb. …
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed. (Psalm 139: 7, 13, 16)
If this is how God works in and for any believer, people thought, surely this is how God must have worked in and for Mary. He must have prepared Mary from the time she was in her mother’s womb. It wasn’t as though God suddenly broke into Mary’s life without any preparation. Since he prepared so carefully for the birth of the prophets, and for all those who do his will, he must have prepared carefully for the birth of Mary, going right back to the time she was in her mother’s womb. The Scriptures tell us nothing about the early life or family background of Mary, but there were, from an early time, stories of Mary which talked about her parents, her birth and her childhood.
Most Christians today think of these stories as legends. However, Christians also agree that God prepared for the birth of Jesus by preparing Mary his mother. In the West, during the Middle Ages, a dispute arose as to whether Mary had been specially sanctified from shortly after her conception – so that she was in principle like the rest of us who need God’s forgiveness for the sins we commit – or from the very moment of her conception, so she was never touched with sin in the way the rest of us are. This dispute was settled for Catholics in 1854, when the Pope defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary: that, by a special privilege, Mary was preserved from Original Sin from the very first moment of her conception.
The Orthodox view this question in a different light. No less than Catholics, they teach that God prepared the blessed Virgin Mary for her part in the bringing of Christ into the world. Rather than stress what seems to be something negative – that she was without Original Sin (which makes it seem as if she was not like the rest of us) – they stress the positive, by talking of Mary as panhagia, all-holy. The Holy Spirit came upon Mary and she was all-holy. They do not specify at what stage in her life this happened: only that God filled her with the Holy Spirit so that she was prepared to undertake the task he had for her to fulfil. It was because she was panhagia, say the Orthodox, that she must have fallen asleep at the end of her life in complete trust and peace, an example to us all.
As with the Orhtodox teaching about the Dormition of Mary, I think their teaching about Mary as panhagia can be extremely helpful to Christians in the West. It encourages us, because it makes of Mary an example we can all follow. As we receive the Holy Spirit we are given strength to fulfil the tasks God has for us to undertake. We are given strength to become bearers of Christ to a needy world. As Christian women and men, we can take Mary as our role-model. Like her, and with her, we can bring the need of the world to Jesus (remember she said, ‘They have no wine’ (Jn 2:3)) and like her, and with her, we can encourage the world to find in Jesus God’s provision for those things we most need (it was she who said ‘Do whatever he tells you’ (Jn 2:5)). We, both Christian women and Christian men, can say with the angel: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace (panhagia) the Lord is with you. Blessed art thou among women’ (Lk 2:28)’ and some will want to add, ‘Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour when we fall asleep.’