Sweet Mother of God

Theotokos, Hagia Sophia, Constantinople

A week ago it was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM). Two days later, I gave a lecture about Sts Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, so St Mary the Virgin, Theotokos, Genetrix Dei was inevitably on my mind, St Cyril having been instrumental in enshrining Theotokos as a title for the Mother of Our Lord.

One of the people I follow on Facebook is Roman Catholic musician John Michael Talbot. He unsurprisingly posted some images from his residence at Little Portion Hermitage commemorating the feast. Because he has a fan base from both Roman Catholics and Protestants, he had to post a request for people to stop anti-Catholic trolling his post. One person went so far as to say that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception “grieves the Father’s heart” in response to John Michael’s request for people to stop slamming the Church of Rome on a page maintained by Roman Catholics (frankly, a polite request easily abided by).

Now, I am not Roman Catholic, so I do not believe in the Immaculate Conception of the BVM. Don’t worry. My current approach to differences between myself and the Church of Rome has moved from, “And this is why I’m not a Papist!” to, “Hm. Why do Roman Catholics believe this?” I am far from, “I’m agnostic on points where the 39 Articles disagree with Rome.”

So — the Immaculata. Why?

When Marian dogmas are being done right, they all have one goal: To glorify Jesus the Christ, the God Word, God the Son incarnate. It seems to many of us that they detract from His dignity, and maybe sometimes in practice they can, but that is not the formal, official intention of the Roman Church (an important point to keep in mind).

The easiest place to begin, if you ask me, is Theotokos, Genetrix Dei, Mother of God. The Greek is literally “God-bearer”. This is a title that was in common use by the year 428, and the Bishop of Constantinople, an unsympathetic fellow called Nestorius, decided that Christians shouldn’t use this title anymore, urging them instead to say Christotokos, Mother of Christ, instead.

St Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria (in terms of politicking, likewise unsympathetic, but a better theologian — and abler politician) took umbrage with this and argued that the fullness of the union between divine and human that is Jesus the Christ means that we cannot separate Christ from God like that. Thus, the child born in Bethlehem and carried in the virgin’s womb was completely and utterly God. The son of Mary was also God the Son.

The title Christotokos diminishes the reality and fullness of the Incarnation.

To get back to the Immaculate Conception of the BVM, then. How does this teaching exalt Christ? Well, first it would help to know what it actually is, right? The dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the BVM is the teaching that at the point of conception, Christ cleansed her of original sin. It is not not not not NOT a virginal conception. She was conceived in the usual manner by Joachim and Anna.

I may be wrong, but I believe that part of the issue is the question of Original Sin. If Jesus Christ was like us in everything except without sin, and if original sin is transmitted from parent to child, then would Christ not also have original sin? Except usually the argument is that original sin is transmitted through the father’s seed — hence the virginal conception of Jesus.

I actually don’t know where to go from here. I don’t think it grieves the Father’s heart, but I have never grasped the logic of why it was thought necessary to have this dogma. I see Eadmer’s perspective: Potuit, decuit, fecit — it could have been, it was fitting, it happened. But here I find myself inclining towards St Bernard (as so often — and himself one with his own devotion to the BVM) that this tends towards making Christ’s redemption on the Cross unnecessary.

That said, any exaltation of Mary is done by showing the greatness of the grace of God, highlighting the greatness of Jesus her Son. So maybe that is enough?

This coming Sunday, the Revised Common Lectionary will have the Annunciation to the BVM as the Gospel reading. Think upon the BVM, what it means to call her Theotokos, God-bearer, and then bow down and worship her Son. It’s what she’d want you to do.

Sister Death

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Death,
from whom no-one living can escape. (St Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Sun)

Memento Mori: St Francis and Brother Leo contemplate death by El Greco

On the 21st of April 1109, St Anselm of Canterbury lay ill in his cell. One of the monks came to read to him the Gospel from that day’s Mass. While the monk was reading, writes Eadmer, his biographer:

he began to draw his breath more slowly than usual. We felt therefore that he was now on the point of death, and he was lifted from his bed onto sackcloth and ashes. The whole congregation of his sons gathered round him, and, sending forth his soul into the hands of the Creator, he slept in peace.

A few decades later, with his monastic sons gathered around him, St Stephen Harding, abbot of Citeaux, would die with the word, ‘Crist’ on his lips (that is, ‘Christ’ in his native English, rather than ‘Christus’ [nominative] or ‘Christe’ [vocative] in Latin).

In the hospitals of medieval Europe, when the doctors and others had done all they could, and it became clear that a patient was dying, the community would gather around his or her bed and pray the office, singing hymns and psalms to escort the Christian soul to the throne of grace.

This is the good death. Surrounded by your community, by those whom you love, bathed in prayer, being escorted into the presence of God by them. This is how most accounts of the deaths of beloved medieval individuals are described.

Not alone. Not at the hand of another. Not with tubes and machines and a sterile smell that itself reeks of death in its worst incarnations.

We live in community. Why should we die alone?

Die we all shall, more certain even than paying taxes.

Yet our culture has a strange and awkward relationship with death. We put it out of the way, hide it in a back corner. In the quest for the unfettered, individual will, doctors are now allowed to kill upon request under certain circumstances. We slay the unwanted unborn. But we also prolong life sometimes beyond true liveability.

And once a person dies, for some reason we embalm them. I am no Pharaoh. This makes no sense to me. Allow me to rot. ‘Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.’

For the medievals, death was there, confronting them. Inescapable. A world without vaccines, without anaesthetic, with much hard labour and poor living conditions. A world of war. Beginning in the 1340s, the Black Death (consider the dance of death carved in Rosslyn Chapel a century later).

They had better medicine, surgery, and science than you probably think.

But people were still more likely to die then than they are now.

They thus knew how to die. Gather the community. Surround yourself with those you love. Pray together. Sing together. Escort the dying into the embrace of the Divine.