Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 2018.
It is a funny pattern that we humans have whenever a new technology is introduced. New technology is always first understood in the terms of the technology it is replacing. The perfect example is the automobile; when it was introduced, it was spoken of as the “horseless carriage.” Or, as another example, the internet was spoken of as the “information superhighway.” These are metaphors, yet these give a vivid sense as to what the innovation actually is. The car, yes it is a carriage—but it is a horseless carriage. The internet is for information, but it is not like a library one has to travel to—no, the information is already mobile and on a superhighway-like-thing: it travels to you with the touch of the fingers. In other words, the pattern is that what is being replaced or made obsolete becomes the shell of initial interpretation for what is new.
We see the same thing in the Scriptures. “Who do men say that I am?” Jesus asks His disciples. And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Eli?jah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” The terms for understanding and interpreting Jesus used widely in Jewish society were not up to date; or, stated differently but in a sense more accurately, God’s revelation in the Incarnation was such a monumental leap forward in the “spiritual technology,” it is perfectly understandable why the terms to interpret Him had not caught up. He was either a prophet, or He was a military revolutionary—both of which were wrong, but those were the categories of serious public figures for first-century Palestine.
All of this—the pattern of interpreting the new in terms of the old—applies to Blessed Mary, the Mother of God—Theotokos, to use the Greek title ascribed to her officially, meaning God-bearer—but it applies in fascinating ways. Our Lady is properly understood, first and foremost, in terms of what, and who, came before her. As one theologian puts it, “All theology of Mary [her place in the history of salvation, her place within the constellation of Christian worship of Jesus Christ] is fundamentally based upon the Old Testament’s deeply anchored theology of woman” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Daughter Zion, p. 13). This theology is derived from the description in the Sacred Scriptures of the great women of the Old Testament—Eve, Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, Deborah, Ruth, Naomi, Esther, and Judith. Without these great women, Blessed Mary will not be properly understood.
This biblical theology of woman could be elaborated in long treatises and theological tomes. And yet, we already have that theology captured for us in a remarkably compact presentation. I am referring to Mary’s Magnificat, our Gospel passage, which has been for nearly twenty centuries the Song or Canticle of Mary sung during the evening prayer service by the People of God. (Indeed, in Anglican tradition, it is only during the singing of the Magnificat that incense, the sign of holiness, is burned and brought to the Altar.) Let me bring out of the Magnificat three of the themes that are at the core of the biblical theology of woman:
The first is “My soul magnifies the Lord.” This first line is spoken in the first-person—Mary’s soul—yet within the prayer of the Church, Mary articulates the fact that it is primarily in women, not men, where the locus for the revelation of God’s power is found. We see this everywhere in the Old Testament. I recently preached about Judith, and how after she defeating the invading army by cutting off the head of its general through a well-conceived plan of deception, she was spoken of as “the exaltation of Jerusalem, you are the great glory of Israel, you are the great pride of our nation!” Similar patterns of God manifesting His will and power—God being magnified in the soul of women—can be seen in the other great figures. The soul of women magnifies the Lord, Mary is saying: more specifically, the faithful women of Israel. And we see this fact in Mark’s Gospel from the first to the last. The first person to imitate Jesus is a woman—Saint Peter’s mother-in-law—and the disciples who listen, learn, and follow Jesus’ teaching the best are women: at His crucifixion, women watch (which was Jesus’ command repeated many times), but the men disperse and are broken, the best example of which, ironically, is the son-in-law of the first to imitate Jesus, that is, Saint Peter. Furthermore, to learn how to be apostles, the Apostles looked to women: to Saint Mary Magdalene, called the apostle to the Apostles because of the resurrection message she brought to them, and to Blessed Mary during the ten days they were gathered in the Upper Room after the Ascension and before the Day of Pentecost, when we can reasonably and prayerfully assume that Our Lady shared with the Apostles the wonderful stories of the Annunciation, the Presentation, the Finding of Jesus at age 12 in the Temple, and perhaps domestic miracles likely He performed within the confines of family life with Saint Mary and Saint Joseph. It was these stories that further empowered the Apostles to bust out with their proclamation upon the Coming of the Holy Ghost.
The second: “He has exalted those of low degree.” The significance of this cannot be over-stated. God bends down to the humble, down to the powerless, bends to the rejected. This is the Gospel proclamation! And yet, this was particularly significant in Mary’s day, because in the ancient world, the unmarried and childless were inferior and often excluded from the worshiping community. Infertility was a seen as a curse, and possibly reflective of sin committed. But to Sarah in her old age was given Isaac, to Rachel Joseph, to Hannah Samuel. Their infertility was reversed: the infertile one ultimately turns out to be the truly blessed (ibid., p. 18). In other words, the ability of women to participate not peripherally but as central characters in the divine action had nothing to do with biology. This participation, which is motherhood—true religious motherhood—is not about body parts, but it is about faith, humility, fidelity to God. And as the Church has from its beginning seen Mary as representative of the Church, we are ever taught by her, Our Lady, who in herself summarizes and incorporates into her being the meaning and significance of all of the great women before her: that God acts through His Church only when we are of low degree: humble, poor, patient, yet striving for complete fidelity to God, firm in our faith despite whatever place in society we might have.
Finally, let us ever-remember and cherish these words: “All generations will call me blessed.” Mary’s place in the Church must always be secure, therefore all she represents is likewise secure, in the central treasuries of our faith. And note how this is a direct commission to the Church: all generations will call me blessed—not “might,” or “could,” or “if one happens to have that piety,” or “if one is a Roman Catholic,”—no, no, no. All generations (she might have added, “despite denominational differences”) will call her blessed—meaning, veneration of Mary is not optional but demanded, if we are to rightly worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Rejoicing in Mary, rejoicing in the central importance of women as the anchor or ark of the new Covenant, means we rejoice fully in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.