Aug.15 is the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, and although the etymology of the word “adore” raises the idea of prayers (in light of the derivation of “ore” in “adore” from the Latin “orare,” meaning “to pray”), many Christians in our post-Reformation era insist should be directed solely to the eternal triune God or persons therein (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).
On the other hand, “adore” has come to take on a broader use, referring less problematically, but still in some sublime fashion, to honoring and loving — wholly suitable for Roman Catholics, Protestants and even some non-Christian people of faith.
At the same time, my thesis this week is that a closer reading of the Christian Bible’s New Testament, and greater attention to context and to consideration of other aspects of the bibliology of Holy Scripture, reveal for us an astonishingly beauteous portrait of the God-bearing Mary, whom all, even in this postmodern era, might well — and I dare say should — adore and even emulate.
Consider first this bit of “mother wit” (pun intended). Whenever my wife and I meet a really fine person, especially a fine young person like Jesus (only 30-something years old, we are told), who is other-directed and given over to the business of helping to make world a better place, we remark to each other, “Wow, what wonderful parents or maybe grandparents he or she must have or have had.” There it is, the theological point: While Jesus was wholly God, he was also, by definition of the Incarnation, fully human in being, in experience and in relationships.
And so there was inevitably a mother, like St. Mary the Virgin, or a father like St. Joseph, and very possibly both — or nowadays a grandmother or grandfather, or some other mothering parent or person in loco parentis — someone imparting necessary, outstanding values and inculcating them in the Christ-like potential in youngsters around us.
We should be those someones. There it is: The challenge for you and me: Run after them. Manifest and spread the values so critical for the health of communities around the world and for the world community.
Save the children. Save the young people because, as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached at a church convocation in Philadelphia just three weeks ago, we will one day surely need those same young people to save us.
Why adore and even emulate the Blessed Virgin Mary in particular? Well, because, according to the biblical narrative, she surely helped make Jesus the wonderful man and blessed Savior he turned out to be — dedicated, in his life and witness, to the core value of agape love (“Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down) which is love that is universal, unconditional, all-forgiving, leading and guiding in paths of righteousness.
You and I need to be like that: living sources of good, sound values. It ought to be that when worshiping in our churches here, we learn and model distinctly valued behavior in the way we treat one another and in what we teach the generations ahead of us or behind us.
We need to be like Mary — and in all probability like Joseph as well. God got it started and, as we know, brought Jesus’ character to full fruition. But surely Mama and Daddy played roles as well, just as we should.
Again, why adore and even emulate Mary? Because of whom she bore. Mary is the Theotokos, the bearer of God, and just as important, the participant in shaping the character of this Jesus of Nazareth.
Why should the name of St. Mary the Virgin resonate in particular in communities populated largely by descendants of the enslaved, and in institutions created for or administered by them? The answer can be found by looking at our African-American history, the historical, anthropological, sociological, and overall cultural contexts. We should remember that enslaved families in the oppressive, turbulent 18th and 19th centuries in the Western Hemisphere were held together by mothers and grandmothers, and aunts and great-aunts, while the enslaved men were forcibly sold off and scattered.
In the active memory or deep in the culture of many African Americans, “family” truly means a nurturing mother and her generations of progeny including her adoptive or foster progeny. “Family” indeed has evoked all the adoration that we have seen in African-American culture through the years, wherein nurture and knowledge of God and of godly ways of living have always conjured memories of mother — celebrated with the special reverence that we have long given to Mother’s Day.
Also remember the fury that can ensue in black culture when someone has spoken ill of another’s mother. That inevitably is followed by the threatening response, “Don’t you talk about my mama!” Earthy as the foregoing may be, I believe that such colloquies are history-based and culture-base, and entail well-earned adoration, stimulated in the honoring of St. Mary.
The values, the character that Mary embodies in the biblical narrative are ennobling for all of us, and especially in today’s world. Was Mary blindly and meekly submissive? No, no, no. Mary was attuned to the Divine in faith. She judged God’s way to be the best way, and she acted boldly and bravely on that conviction, refusing to succumb to the shame of Jesus’ “untimely” birth. She taught and helped shape the Master and traveled all around Judea and Galilee with the indispensable bevy of women who nurtured, shaped, funded, and otherwise cared for Jesus and his itinerant Disciples.
Consider our Most Rev. Michael’s brilliant homiletic tour de force, his “roll-call at the Crucifixion”: There she was: Mary, the mother of Jesus, and other Marys, boldly leading in faith and leading in humility before and after the Savior, defying the attempts of the world to express her value in only responsive, second-hand, reactive terms.
What perfect modeling for women today and for open-minded men: preaching and teaching fearlessly while others have sought and seek — perhaps to this very day — to “half-step” newly gained freedom.
Read your Bible carefully. There she is, behind it all yet ahead of so much:
• Mary, the wise, the teacher of teachers, the bold and brave when others cowered, who even dares more than once or twice to correct or to speak up and question the Savior of the World.
• Mary, whose heart is the model of love and mercy.
• Mary, who models not only the agape of communal love, but also another form of love, storge love.
Mary, mother of the world, who as such instinctively puts her all on the line for her children.
• Mary, who implanted or at least affirmed the best ideas and ideals in her son Jesus and quietly in the youngsters in her neighborhood as well.
Why in our bibliological study of Jesus’ life and ministry should we give particular honor to Mary? The answer is because, notwithstanding the relentless attempts by many to erase her from the dramatis personae, to relegate her to the proverbial “back of the bus,” Mary truly, with no personal aggrandizement, had the first and last say about Jesus — about what Jesus said, what he did, and what it all meant.
My point here is as follows: With uniquely detailed knowledge of the facts of Jesus’ birth; with contextualizing understanding, years later, of his blessed Nativity otherwise and with detailed knowledge of critical scenes during Jesus’ ministry (for example, Jesus’ pre-adolescent colloquy with the elders in the Temple, the wedding in Cana of Galilee, the Crucifixion, Resurrection and day of Pentecost, in ways and to an extent, not experienced by others. Who do you suppose was present? Who therefore played an incomparably big role, instructing the evangelists, leading men and women in piecing together the biographical narratives that we call by the names of her interlocutors, for example, the men and women gathered in the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as well as Peter and the seminal contextualizer Paul?
It must have been, it had to be: the Blessed Virgin Mary, who indeed lived enough years after her son to enabled her, a witness like none other, to contextualize, to give the profound, extra meaning of events in Jesus’ life. It had to be Mary, with notes, with interviews, with quiet correctives day by day, who recounted and taught.
Let us adore her, especially in the manner of the Jewish community to which Jesus, Mary, and Joseph belonged, in which it is the mother’s lineage and identity in the community of faith that determines the nature of one’s membership, and in the manner of the formerly unfree and their progeny, who understood and even today understand, deep in our souls, what it means to be saved, and what it is to struggle to be heard, not from the back, but in the front of the bus, and seen in full glorious humanity.
Yes, let us adore her and live into her example. Hail Mary, full of grace, o come let us adore her. Amen.
— The Rev. Dr. Wesley S. Williams Jr., K.St.J., is bishop’s sub-dean for St. Thomas and St. John and Vicar of Nazareth by the Sea Episcopal Church in the Diocese of the Virgin Islands (U.S. and U.K.) and chairman of SRMC All Faiths Hospital Chaplaincy