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Mary as the figure of the Church

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 24 December 2008


All of books of the prophets in the Old Testament begin with a statement of time and place and circumstance. Thus, for example, Ezekiel begins:

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. (Exekiel 1:1 RSV)

It is no surprise that in the New Testament this form continues. In the gospel of Luke we find the annunciation of the birth of Jesus:

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In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. (Luke 1:26,27 RSV)

It is a crucial aspect of biblical writing that the authors place so much emphasis on times and places and people. Behind this insistence there is the need to anchor particular events in real time with real people in real places. It seems that the authors want to exclude the idea that they are writing a mythology even when they introduce mythological figures such as the angel Gabriel.

It is the long held conviction of Israel that the knowledge of the truth of God is to be found in the events of the past. While we in the modern age, together with Henry Ford, believe that “history is bunk” the biblical writers believed that a future was only possible in the light of the lessons of history. This gives biblical texts an air of the empirical, that experience is at the root of all truth. This is important because truth is always anchored in the event and can never float free into unsustained speculation or wishful thinking. It also means that God has the attributes of the verb, of event.

Such was Israel’s wariness of idolatry that no image of God could be pictured, even in the mind. This meant that God was pure event, an event without a cause, an act without an actor, because to think in terms of a cause or an actor was idolatry.

This tradition of anchoring biblical texts in history does not stand the test of “did it actually happen” such as we modern day historians would insist. The appearance of the angel Gabriel in the gospel of Luke is a case in point. His appearance is a sign that we are here in the realm of legend dressed up as history. There are many such instances in the Bible, the creation stories being a prime example. This has been the discovery of the historical critical analysis of biblical texts and has been around since Spinoza in the 17th century.

The problem is that, with the modern insistence on history as actual recordable event, such analysis has brought with it the temptation to reduce the significance of such texts and enhance those texts that seem to fit with modern historiography.

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Such an attitude, particularly in Protestant Churches, has robbed us of much rich tradition. This is no more evident than in the Protestant reception of the figure of Mary. But if we Protestants are serious about the Bible we cannot escape the conclusion that Mary is a figure to be reckoned with, even if her prominence varies in the gospels and the earliest known New Testament writer, Paul, never mentions her. It is unfortunate that many Protestants are so reactive to what they conceive of as an idolatry of Mary in the Roman church that she is almost written out of Protestantism.

Mary is an important figure because she is not only theotokos, God bearer, she is pre-eminently the icon of the Church. This is set out beautifully in the gospel of Luke. The angel Gabriel greets her with the words “Greetings favoured one!” The Greek translated into “favoured” is from charis, grace. Mary is the one who is full of grace. She is full of grace because, although wondering what sort of greeting this might be, on hearing that she will bear a son, although still a virgin, she acquiesces in the news with the famous words, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38 RSV)

This is what the Church does. It ponders the word that is revealed to it. It declares it is the servant of the Lord from whence the word comes and it does not determine to be that which it autonomously desires, but only to be that which is according to the word. Thus Mary is not only the figure of the Church but the figure to whom all believers look as a model of faith.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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