Sunday, 8 September 2019

‘Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb’

The birth of the Virgin Mary in an icon by Mihai Cocu in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 8 September 2019,

The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XII),

The Birth of Blessed Virgin Mary


11.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick

Readings: Isaiah 61: 10-11; Psalm 45: 10-17; Galatians 4: 4-7; Luke 1: 46-55.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today is the Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is one of her few festivals that is provided for in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland. The others are the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March) and the Feast of the Visitation (31 May), but not the Dormition or the Assumption, the commemoration of her death (15 August).

The full liturgical provisions in the Book of Common Prayer, which we are using this morning, presume this festival will be celebrated with the Eucharist today [8 September] in cathedrals and parish churches throughout the Church of Ireland.

This feast day is being marked as the Patronal Festival in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, today and culminates with Choral Evensong at 3.30 p.m. this evening.

Of course, the Gospels do not record the Virgin Mary’s birth. The earliest known account of her birth is found in the Protoevangelium of James (5: 2), an apocryphal text from the late second century, in which her parents are named as Saint Anne and Saint Joachim. Tradition says Joachim and Anna were childless and were fast approaching the years that would place Anna beyond the age of child-bearing.

Traditionally, the Church commemorates saints on the date of their death. The Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist are among the few whose birth dates are commemorated.

The reason for this is found in the singular mission each had in salvation history, but traditionally also because they were also seen as being holy in their birth – Saint John was believed to be sanctified in the womb of his mother, Saint Elizabeth, before his birth (see Luke 1: 15).

The idea of the Immaculate Conception – the idea that the Virgin Mary was conceived and was born without sin – was not promulgated by the Papacy until 1854.

The Orthodox Church disagrees with the concept of the Immaculate Conception. The Orthodox position is that since Jesus Christ is God, he alone is born without sin. Orthodox theologians argue that if the immaculate conception is taken literally, the Virgin Mary would assume the status of a goddess alongside God. At the same time, the popularity of the name Mary attests to the fact that the Virgin Mary is revered throughout the Orthodox world.

The Orthodox believe that she was conceived in the normal way of humanity, and so was in the same need of salvation as all humanity. Orthodox thinking varies on whether she actually ever sinned, though there is general agreement that she was cleansed from sin at the Annunciation.

This morning’s Gospel reading includes the words of the canticle Magnificat:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed


When people ask me about our differences, what we believe in, I sometimes hear people declare, without waiting to hear what I have to say, ‘But you don’t believe in the Virgin Mary.’

‘Well, yes we do,’ I reply. ‘How else do you think we believe Christ was born.’

I like to point out that the canticle Magnificat, which is part of our Gospel reading this morning, is traditionally associated with Evensong, sung every evening in cathedrals and many churches in the Anglican Communion across the world.

Many of us were brought up thinking that the divisions in the church could be summed up in beliefs about the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.

But I realised at an early stage that most people do not understand the concept of the Immaculate Conception – they think it has something to do with the virgin birth of Christ, and not about whether his mother was conceived and born without the taint of what is called ‘original sin.’

Indeed, the concepts of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception were not divisive arguments at the time of Reformation the 16th century.

Martin Luther asserted dogmatically what he considered firmly established biblical doctrines and held what were then pious opinions about the Immaculate Conception and the perpetual virginity of Mary, although they only became dogmatic teachings in the Roman Catholic Church as recently as the 19th and 20th centuries.

He emphasised that the Virgin Mary was a recipient of God’s love and favour, accepted the Marian decrees of the ecumenical councils and the dogmas of the Church, and held to the belief that the Virgin Mary was a perpetual virgin and the Theotókos, the Mother of God.

Luther accepted the popular view of the Immaculate Conception, over three centuries before Pope Pius IX declared it a dogma in 1854, and he believed in the Virgin Mary’s life-long sinlessness. Although he pointed out that the Bible says nothing about her Assumption, he believed that the Virgin Mary and the saints live on after death.

Luther approved keeping Marian paintings and statues in churches, said ‘Mary prays for the Church,’ and advocated the use of a portion of the ‘Hail Mary.’

Three cathedrals in the Church of Ireland are dedicated to the Virgin Mary or Saint Mary: Sligo, Tuam and Limerick, and the original dedication of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, was to ‘God, our Blessed Lady Mary and Saint Patrick.’ Many cathedrals also have Lady Chapels, including Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.

The countless churches throughout the Church of Ireland dedicated to her include Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton.

In 2004, the report of the Second Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, noted: ‘In honouring Mary as Mother of the Lord, all generations of Anglicans and Roman Catholics have echoed the greeting of Elizabeth: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’ (Luke 1: 42).’

In our response the following year, the Church of Ireland pointed out that in recognising the role of Mary in the incarnation, we are following the Council of Ephesus (431), which used the term Theotókos (‘God-bearer’) to affirm the oneness of Christ’s person by identifying Mary as the Mother of God the Word incarnate. The Church of Ireland also identified with the statement that ‘in receiving the Council of Ephesus and the definition of Chalcedon, Anglicans and Roman Catholics together confess Mary as Theotókos.’

The response welcomed the acknowledgement that some of the non-scriptural devotions associated with the Virgin Mary have been to ‘excess.’ On the other hand, it said, the full significance of the role of Mary as the Theotókos or God-bearer ‘has sometimes been lacking in the consciousness of some Anglicans.’

Some widely used, unofficial Anglican office books, such as Celebrating Common Prayer, include the Angelus and Regina Coeli. But the response pointed out that language such as ‘co-redeemer’ are ‘theologically impossible for members of the Church of Ireland.’

So, is there a way that as Anglicans we can talk about the Virgin Mary that is theologically appropriate, without compromising key Anglican traditions and beliefs for the sake of being ‘ecumenically correct’ or on the other hand descending into accepting a series of devotional practices that most Roman Catholics have long since come to regard as outdated, irrelevant and theologically questionable?

In our responses, too often, we fall back on culturally defensive ways of thinking. I admit that many of the plaster cast statues and framed images of the Virgin Mary lack cultural finesse and taste. But they, like many other practices, including May processions and Rosary-based prayer cycles are recent innovations.

I am reminded that devotion to the Virgin Mary was part-and-parcel of the piety that sustained many Christians through decades of suffering and oppression in Eastern Europe. The use of icons of the Virgin Mary in the Orthodox tradition and talk about her as the Theotókos is consonant with Anglican thinking theologically if not always culturally.

It is easy to forget that the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are recent innovations, having been proclaimed by Popes in 1854 and 1950. They did not divide us and could not have divided us at the Reformation, and many Roman Catholics are still confused about their meaning. Places like Lourdes, the Knock Shrine, Fatima and Medjugorje do not share the antiquity or history of Anglican Marian sites such as Walsingham, the Anglican tradition of singing Magnificat at Evensong, or the names of our cathedrals, churches and lady chapels.

Without the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, there would have been no birth of Christ, and then no Good Friday, no Crucifixion, no Easter, no Resurrection.

And there are only 108 days to Christmas.

Saint Andrew of Crete writes: ‘This day is for us the beginning of all holy days. It is the door to kindness and truth.’

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

A traditional Greek icon of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Luke 1: 46-55 (NRSVA):

46 And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

The Virgin Mary with her parents, Saint Anne and Saint Joachim, in a mosaic by the Russian artist Boris Anrep (1883-1969) in Mullingar Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on images for full-screen views)

Liturgical Colour: White

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who looked upon the lowliness of the Blessed Virgin Mary
and chose her to be the mother of your only Son:
Grant that we who are redeemed by his blood
may share with her in the glory of your eternal kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Collect of the Day (Trinity XII):

Almighty and everlasting God,
you are always more ready to hear than we to pray
and to give more than either we desire, or deserve:
Pour down upon us the abundance of your mercy,
forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid,
and giving us those good things
which we are not worthy to ask
save through the merits and mediation
of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given:
and his name is called the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 7)

Blessing:

Christ the Son of God, born of Mary,
fill you with his grace
to trust his promises and obey his will

A statue of Saint Anne with her young daughter, the Virgin Mary, in Nicker Church, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Hymns:

373, To God be the glory (CD 22)
704, Mary sang a song (CD 40)
712, Tell out my soul (CD 40)

The reredos and original high altar in the Lady Chapel in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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