Father Nicholas Lang
Feast of St. Mary the Virgin
Today we are observing the feast of St. Mary the Virgin, the principal feast honoring the Mother of God which falls tomorrow. It appears on the calendar for all Episcopalians and is a particularly festive day that honors the Blessed Virgin Mary as the birth-giver of God’s Son, the (ϴϵοτόκοϛ) Theotokos, a title accorded to her by one of the ancient councils of the universal church in the fifth century. The theological background for the feast is both sketchy and not biblically based but rather the result of oral tradition passed down by the early Christians about Mary’s end of life. That tradition says that she fell asleep in death and was soon after assumed right into heaven—body and soul. Roman Catholics refer to this as the Assumption. The Orthodox Church has a long and ancient tradition of iconography. It’s origin is the very practical purpose of teaching about the events in the lives of Jesus and Mary and the saints at a time when people could not read or write. So pictures were drawn to teach these lessons.
Let’s look at the Icon of the Dormition or Falling Asleep of the Virgin Mary. She is lying on the funeral bier in the traditional colors icon writers use for her garments—red signifying or human nature and blue signifying her heavenly nature. St. Peter is on the left censing her body, a ritual that has been a part of the funeral rites for centuries. St. Paul is on her left bowing humbly. She is surrounded by the Apostles but Thomas is missing. The legend is that he was late—again! He arrived three days later and wanted to say his last goodbye by visiting the tomb. When the stone was rolled away, Mary’s body was gone. So this is a resurrection story and the origin of the Catholic doctrine of her Assumption into heaven. We see Christ behind the bier holding the infant Mary, a role reversal of the icons and pictures we see in which Mary is holding the child Jesus. The blue aura surrounding him represents the gates of heaven ready to receive Mary. There are three bishops wearing the white scarves with crosses (this is the omophorion, the garment all orthodox bishops wear. They could be the Three Holy Hierarchs: Basil the Great, John Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian. The women in the background are women of Jerusalem. My bet is that the two on the upper left are Mary and Martha, dear friends of Jesus and Mary. Then at the very top of the Icon is the strange six-winged figure—the Cherubim and Seraphim, part of the hierarchy of angels. Since we don’t find anything in the scriptures to support this event, the Gospel reading for this holyday takes us to a different place in Mary’s life. It is simply the song Mary sang when she visited her cousin Elizabeth, each of these women astonished at the unexpected news they have received at the hand of an angel—that they were mystifyingly, bewilderingly pregnant—a scenario for which Mary and her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, were the most unlikely candidates—one a devout teenager without a husband, the other married but way beyond the age of childbearing. Yet now they both carried the gift of new life stirring within them. Mary then made this extraordinary and difficult journey to the hill country to visit her cousin. In spite of their limitations and circumstances, the lives of these two women have been caught up in the dramatic workings of God. What seemed yesterday to be impossibility was today their reality. At the first sight of her cousin rushing up the hill, Elizabeth greets her: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Mary responds in song, describing a world turned upside down, in which the poor are gratified but the rich are turned away empty. If we will let the Spirit speak to us today, we will find in this story a world of the unexpected that can happen when God touches our lives in profound, surprising, even bewildering ways. Mary’s story teaches us that it’s not about our inadequacies and imperfections but about how we respond to the challenges and limitations of life in spite of them and how we respond to God’s promise to do great things through us —especially when we least expect to be asked. If we ever wonder why God is calling us to what seems just very ordinary stuff, rest assured it’s because God trusts us to do in an extraordinary way. Mary and Elizabeth are proof that God often chooses the most unlikely people to do God’s work in the world.