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Our Long-Lost Half-Sister

Feast of the Assumption, 15 August, 2013
The Revd Canon Dr Scott Cowdell
Research Associate Professor of Theology at Charles Sturt University and Canon Theologian of the Canberra-Goulburn Anglican Diocese

Revelation 11: 19a; 12: 1-6a, 10ab; Psalm 45; 1 Corinthians 15: 2026; Luke 1: 39-56

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

It's a privilege to be with you tonight in these holy and venerable precincts for an evening of worship, fellowship, and reflection on the odd-sounding theme of Evangelical Catholicism, and I thank Fr Hugh the Vicar for his invitation. To help get us into the mood I'm going to make a perverse attempt at interpreting Marian dogma as a testimony to Evangelical truth. Why? Because I think that Mary's Glorious Assumption, like her Immaculate Conception, takes us to the very heart of what the Gospel means for us.

But to begin let me name the strangeness and even awkwardness that Anglicans typically feel about Mary. Her feast days were not entirely removed from The Book of Common Prayer by that increasingly convinced Protestant Cranmer, but her cult and personal devotion to Mary are things that few if any Anglicans learn at their mother's knee. Nevertheless the majority of Christians, both Roman Catholic and Orthodox, know Mary as a personal reality and they talk to her, not just about her—they believe her to be so caught up in the life of Christ and his heavenly Father that where they are she too must surely be.

I'm reminded here of my own experience, twenty years ago now, of having an adoption reunion with my natural mother, and subsequently with my natural father and his family. It turned out that I had two half-sisters who I didn't know about, and to meet them was to learn new things about myself. Kim and Jo were young, fit and feisty—Tony Abbott would add that they had sex appeal! They were talkative, funny, and athletic. Kim was an equestrienne and Jo was a champion kayaker, which helped me realise that I had it in me to be a much more physical person than I'd previously imagined. One night after a few drinks and a few laughs we got our shoes off and discovered with delight that for each of us, like our father, our first three toes were all the same length. These strangers were becoming friends. I was like them; I discovered that I liked them, and that they liked me. I tell you this story because it's the same for us Anglicans with Mary, our beautiful, fascinating half-sister who many of us didn't know that we had. So perhaps it's worth getting to know Mary better, and to make a place for her in our Anglican family story.

Now, the Evangelical will seek biblical warrant for this suggestion, and rightly, and we can I think provide it. Our lectionary readings tonight are a good start.

Our Revelations passage features the figure of a woman who might be Israel or who might be the Church, or both, but she's also prima facie the figure of Mary, the mother of a child whose struggle for our salvation is being set out in rich allegory. This woman is presented here as central to the mystery of the Church, as the second Vatican Council also reminds us, and her figure crowned with stars is there for us to meditate on with the other glorious mysteries of the Holy Rosary. But these developed convictions and practices draw on the scripture. Also from our 1 Corinthians passage tonight, where Christ risen is the first fruits of a bumper harvest, with the emphasis on our share as Christians in Christ's victory. And it's precisely here that the tradition locates Mary, as the first among those who are redeemed by her son.

In our gospel tonight Mary serves as a kind of hinge in salvation history. In Advent we focus both on John the Baptist and Mary as the forerunners of Christ, but while John the Baptist is less than the least in the new covenant, and only points with his long finger across the gap between the testaments to Christ, Mary crosses that gap from the Old Covenant to the New—not least in the Magnificat, drawn from the songbook of Israel to take its place of honour in the Church's songbook. Likewise, Mary's status as blessed among women is revealed in the Holy Spirit to Elizabeth, who leads the praise of Mary in her generation to which new voices are added in every subsequent generation, including ours tonight.

All these readings point to being caught up in Christ's purposes and in his salvation, and in two of them Mary stands centrally. She is integral not only to the mystery of the Church but to that of our salvation itself, not as its agent as the Protestants rightly fear but as a participant leading the way into Christ for the rest of us who follow. Catholic theologian Fr James Alison develops this idea, clearly with the concerns of Evangelicals in mind. "This is," he writes,

the maximum declaration of God's victory in Christ, and a sign of the shape of that victory. Of course, the victory was won, the battle was over, the moment that heaven became forever a human story when Christ ascended to the right hand of God, taking a human nature, meaning a lived-out human story, to be the paradigm of heaven. But the fullness of the shape of that victory only really becomes clear with the Assumption into heaven of our Lady and her Coronation. That is when it becomes quite luminous not merely that we have been saved, but what it is that has been saved and what it looks like to be saved.[1]

Here we're close to understanding the mystery of the Church and its saints, and of the Eucharist as well. The reality of Christ becomes the primary reality of the Church and the Christians of which he is the first fruits, the head united with its members, just as Christ who gives himself with the bread and wine of the last supper becomes the deepest reality of these gifts. So we're not allowed as Christians to think of ourselves apart from Christ's transforming love for us, apart from Christ as the chief truth about the people that baptism has made us. Nor are we as Catholic Christians able to think of the Eucharistic bread and wine apart from Christ's gift of himself, which they most truly are.

By the same salvific, ecclesial and sacramental logic, we can no longer think of Mary apart from Christ, either at her end, in her glorious Assumption and Coronation, ahead of us yet at one with us, nor at her beginning, in her Immaculate Conception, which testifies that Christ was always at the heart of Mary's life. As James Alison's Dominican teacher Fr Herbert McCabe put it, "[t]he doctrine of the Immaculate Conception says that the Holy Spirit did not just come down upon Mary out of the blue at the Annunciation, it was the culmination of a coming of the Spirit in Mary that was from the beginning, from the roots of her existence."[2]

So, friends, this is what I'm calling the Evangelical logic of Marian dogma—of the Glorious Assumption, but also the Immaculate Conception—in which we see fleshed out the transforming claim of Christ on the being of a person, down to their roots; likewise, what we see confirmed in advance with Mary's Assumption we will ourselves confirm, albeit in arrears, when our own share in Christ's resurrection is finally revealed, and with it the truth of our lives held precious in Christ, right from the time of our own conception.

But if I can declare an Evangelical logic concerning Mary, based on her share in the life of Christ, I think we can also share in an Evangelical experience and an Evangelical joy. James Alison points out that Marian devotion always brings joy and festivity in Catholic circles. Raised as an Anglican Evangelical, James Alison was converted to Catholicism at least in part because in Mary he found what Evangelical claims for assurance of salvation had failed to bring him: a sense of heaven bending to meet us in reassurance—"so", as he writes, "the adventure is not one of tragic heroism but is a much safer story than we can normally dare to believe. After all, salvation that didn't come with an expansive sense of safety wouldn't be worth it".[3]

This is a salutary reminder to us personally, but also as a Church. The joy and the freedom of the Gospel ought to be something that both Evangelicals and Anglo Catholics radiate, but too often our Church is more about duty than delight, more about dogged perseverance than celebration, more of an ordeal than a blessing, and increasingly more of a managed institution than a spiritual movement—besides which we're now being subjected to excoriating public analysis by Royal Commissions, so that our many failings have helped make the Church scapegoat-in-chief for today's legion of detractors. Whereas, for James Alison, Mary's song of joy in the Magnificat provides a corrective boost to our flagging spirits, reminding us, as he memorably puts it, that "whatever may be the immediate appearances, we are in much more of a playground and much less of a war zone than we are inclined to think".[4]

So friends here is the Evangelical Catholicism that Mary brings us, our beautiful if unfamiliar or even unknown half-sister who is nevertheless like us, and one of us, who simply likes us, and wants us to talk to her—whose love for us and solidarity with us is constantly being expressed before God's face in heaven. Getting to know my own half sisters, who I never knew, I came to understand myself better and feel better about myself. I suggest that the same can be true for Anglicans as we discover and get to know Mary.

The Lord be with you...

Notes:

  1. James Alison, 'Living the Magnificat' in Broken Hearts and New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal (London & New York: Continuum, 2010), 17-33, on 23.
  2. Herbert McCabe OP, 'The Immaculate Conception' in God Matters (1987) (London & New York: Continuum, 2010), 210-14, on 213.
  3. Alison, op. cit., 25.
  4. ibid., 33.


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