The Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin (tr)
Sunday, 19 August 2018
O God, who hast taken to thyself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of thy incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of thine eternal kingdom; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In the Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez,” first published in The Strand Magazine in 1904 , we get a glimpse of the excitement that was being generated at that time by Biblical criticism and the rediscovery of many apocryphal and deutero-canonical texts. It is, perhaps, a trifle, but as Holmes himself says, trifles can be very telling.
In the story, our antagonist Professor Coram, a bed-ridden, aged Russian scholar, explains to Holmes the significance to his work of the murder that is being investigated, and says,
That is my magnum opus—the pile of papers on the side table yonder. It is my analysis of the documents found in the Coptic monasteries of Syria and Egypt, a work which will cut deep at the very foundations of revealed religion. With my enfeebled heath I d not know whether I shall ever be able to complete it now that my assistant has been taken from me.
At the time, and still today, there is an idea that the manuscripts, many of them fragments, discovered in old libraries and unearthed in caves at places like Qumran, will somehow completely change our understanding of our faith, our understanding of who Jesus was and what he achieved, what God was unfolding in the Messiah the Christ. Yet, as interesting as these texts were (and are) as historical documents, they were, nonetheless, rejected by the church at every turn and not included in the Canon of scripture.
For a text to be included in the New Testament Canon, it had to be widely recognised, over several generations and in different places, as containing the essence of the Gospel. A text had to tell the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to speak profoundly about the Paschal Mystery and the work that God is undertaking in the unfolding of the Kingdom. Most instructively, a given text did not have to agree with all the others in their narrative, in the details of Jesus life, nor did they have to share the same perspective or emphasis. Indeed, attempts at harmonising and conforming the accounts so they align perfectly were soundly rejected. Despite what many today like to think, the Canon of scripture was not simply determined by a group of old white men seeking to present a unitary, dominant version of the story, ignoring, and indeed suppressing, voices from the margins. Canon was made in community out of the many texts that affirmed that Jesus Christ entered into time and space in a particular historical moment to inaugurate the Kingdom of God.
There were at the same time, however, texts that while they did not end up in the Christian Bible, were retained by the church and shared widely, attaining a level of authority just below that of scripture. Again, these texts were not like the ones Professor Coram brought to light, rather they were always known, always preserved, continually read and passed along. Some like the Shepherd of Hermas or the Didache were even included in some Biblical canons, others like the Proto-Evangelion of James or the Infancy Gospels of Thomas were continually reworked and re-edited. These last became The Book of the Virgin Mary and eventually were most widely popularised in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries in The Golden Legend, a compendium, of saints lives organised chronologically around the church calendars; and it is in this text that we find the most elaborated account of the festival we celebrate today, the Assumption of the Virgin.
As a good Episcopalian (and despite the veiled reference in today’s collect), I have hitherto been reluctant to embrace the Assumption as the focus for our commemoration today and as a subject for my preaching. The story of Mary’s painless death in the presence of the apostles and her assumption into heaven both in body and soul does not form part of any authorised Biblical text. The Episcopal Church keeps this day, in fact, as the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin and uses for its Gospel the Lucan version of the Magnificat, the hymn Mary sings to Elizabeth on the occasion of the Visitation, a celebration with its own feast day on May 31. In fact, we keep the Visitation as a major feast of Mary, particularly because of its canonical, scriptural authority. The Assumption is not in the Bible, and, therefore, the Episcopal Church has been reluctant to give it such prominence in the calendar. And this is why I have shied away from it, despite my great historical interest in the traditional texts from which the story is taken and the many works of art inspired by it.
When I reread that reference in the Sherlock Holmes story to Professor Coram’s work, however, it put me in mind of that difference I have drawn between the stories that are outliers and the ones that have been embraced for centuries. The Marian legends, while not included in the canon, were preserved in a way that other non-canonical material was not. These stories became extremely popular and were widely disseminated. They became important loci of devotion themselves as well as the subject matter for countless works of art. These visual compendia of sacred history, officially sanctioned by the church and prominently displayed in the churches of Rome, Florence, Padua, Venice, and so many other cities paired scriptural and non-scriptural stories as they told the history of Jesus and his relationship with his mother, Mary. They told us of the place of Mary as a powerful role model not just for women and women’s devotion, but for all of us.
The story of the Assumption, as told in the Golden Legend is itself very interesting, especially in this exploration of what stories we keep telling and which ones we let drop because they are inconsistent with the Gospel. The Golden Legend stories of the Assumption are, themselves, in fact, “critical” in the modern sense. That is to say, that text evaluates the story, analysing and discussing which elements should be taken as having happened and what is mere legend, using a critical perspective that cites the authority of earlier interpreters. After several pages of narrative, including the detail that the apostles were miraculously (perhaps even magically) brought to Mary’s bedside from many different places, the author writes, “all that has so far been said, however, is apocryphal” and cites Saint Jerome as his source. What the Golden Legend tells us we are to take as historical fact is “that every sort of consolation was promised and given to the Virgin, the gathering of all the apostles, the death without pain, the preparation for burial, the assistance of the whole heavenly court, the persecution by the Jews, the flashing forth of miracles in every worthy cause, and the assumption in soul and body” (454). Not all of these details might sit well with our modern point of view, especially the anti-Semitic trope of needing Mary’s body to be assumed into heaven lest it be stolen by the Jews. Nevertheless, the story of the Assumption is one that was taken seriously both by theologians and by Christian people as telling us something essential about God's working out of the Divine Purpose in Jesus Christ.
Something essential about Mary, her place among the disciples as a physical, truly tangible link between God and humanity is being expressed in this story. That Mary died a human death, but was spared any pain, that God in Christ so honoured her that he wanted her to sit beside him in the Court of Heaven, to take a special place in the court of the Kingdom of God that God inaugurated in Jesus incarnation through his birth by Mary, this is what is expressed in the story of the Assumption. That a human woman, taken from obscurity might take part in the councils of the Kingdom of God is an extraordinary thing.
In the Golden Legend account, at her death (perhaps the part deemed by its author as apocryphal), surrounded by the apostles, Mary looks to Christ and says, “All generations shall call me blessed, for he that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is his name!” (451). Even in that moment, Mary is remembered in and through Luke’s defining words and the whole of that hymn is evoked for those reading and hearing the story. Even at the moment of her death, the tale takes us back to Mary's exclamation to Elizabeth: “For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden” has also “scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts …, put down the mighty from their seats …, exalted the humble and meek, filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.” This Mary, the miraculous mother of our Lord, the one who received honour at her death, even in that moment evokes for us the justice she proclaimed to the world before Jesus' incarnation. This is something truly evocative of the Gospel, the Good News brought in Jesus Christ of the advent of a kingdom that will include and enfold all with justice and love.
Perhaps I say this every year—sometimes twice when I think of it at Christmas—but, it is still extraordinary that God chose a teen-aged Jewish woman on the margins of the Roman Empire to be the one who would accomplish the physical birthing of Jesus, that we call the incarnation of divinity into humanity. It is extraordinary that this unimportant, lowly woman rose to this challenge and saw this work, even from the first moment, as one that would bring a new era of justice into the world, in which the order of things would be overthrown and a new kingdom would replace the worldly empire, a kingdom based on exalting the humble and meek and feeding the hungry. It is natural that we would remember this about her at her death.
The Assumption of the Virgin we celebrate today, recorded and remembered in texts handed down continuously over the centuries and not simply a newly discovered antiquity, is another occasion to marvel at God’s work in building up the kingdom. It is an occasion to reflect on Mary’s place in that work and offer her honour and glory and a place of importance at the side of God in Christ at the Court of Heaven. Even at the end, even at her ascension, she proclaimed the justice of the Kingdom of God and centred it before the heavenly throne.
Andrew C. Blume✠
Feria, Friday, 17 August 2018
1 Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez,” The Strand Magazine, 28:163 (July 1904)
© 2018 Andrew Charles Blume