August 15 – Mary, mother of Jesus

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Mary, mother of Jesus, witness to Jesus

Mary first appears in narratives woven around Christ’s nativity. Mary, a vulnerable young woman faces God’s surprising, frightening action with humility, receptiveness, and joy, embodied in her great canticle of praise, the Magnificat: ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my Spirit doth rejoice in God my saviour’. She is the humble and meek one exalted by God; as the genealogies of Christ make transparent, she is the one in whom God remembers his servant Israel, as he promised in the words of the prophets.

Mary’s openness to God’s Word is imagined in medieval depictions of the annunciation found in the prayer books of the late middle ages. Gabriel comes to Mary as she reads in a domestic interior – her open volume lies on a prayer desk. As her hands spread wide in surprise, she hears the angel’s ‘Hail’. The heavens open, and on beams of divine radiance, the Holy Spirit (or a naked Christ-child) wings its flight towards the Virgin. Often the Spirit flies not towards her womb, but towards her ear. In her faithful listening she conceives, her body full of grace.

In Latin, Gabriel’s ‘Hail’ is Ave: put this up to the spotless mirror of Mary, and you see the word Eva – Eve. To sing Ave Maria is to celebrate God’s entry into the world of human nakedness, to see Adam and Eve’s embarrassed veiling of the flesh after their first disobedience reversed in the nakedness of a little child, the nakedness of a man born to die upon the tree.

According to the Gospels, Mary’s heart was pierced with sorrow at the foot of the cross. Mary’s closeness to her son in his suffering is powerfully imagined in Rogier van der Weyden’s famous Deposition, now in the Prado in Madrid. There, Mary faints in the arms of John and Mary Magdalene, her pallid body mirroring the form of Christ’s limp corpse.

Mary’s agony is the birth-pangs of the church. For at the foot of the cross, Mary is given a new son, John, and John a new mother, Mary, even as the water and blood of baptism and the eucharist flow from Christ’s wounded side. Here, in the midst of death, new life is given in the word spoken from the cross, a word that gives birth to a new family of adoption, the infant church.

In another Van der Weyden altarpiece – the Miraflores altar, now in Berlin – after the terrifying events of Good Friday, Mary sits, trying, perhaps, to seek solace again in the words she had once trusted to be true. The book is now closed. But in the end there is the beginning – the wounded Word, the alpha and the omega, surprises the faithful servant again, and Mary turns to see what she and the whole creation have always longed to see: her son, face to face.

Links to images:

Annunciation from the Hours of Jean de Boucicaut:

Rogier van der Weyden, Descent from the Cross:

Rogier van der Weyden, Miraflores Altarpiece:$

Matthew Champion