Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Assumptiontide Musings: Mary, Did You Know (Mystics Revisited)

Today is the final day in the Church's annual celebration of the death and assumption into heaven of God's Virgin Mother, Our Lady. As perhaps the most uniquely Marian major feast—the older Annunciation feast being focused on the Incarnation—the octave affords us a week and a day to reflect on God's perfection of nature by grace in Mary, the Blessed Virgin's perfect obedience to the will of God, and her relationship with her divine Son. It is regarding this last point that I would like to revive the old topic of mystics and the question of what Our Lady knew, and more importantly, the manner in which she knew it.

One of the more common features of mystics that chronicle the life of Christ before His public ministry is that Our Lord prepares His Mother for His Passion by recounting His purpose in great detail and the exact manner in which He would fulfill all prophesied by the Patriarchs, Moses, the Kings, and heralds of the Jewish covenants. In short, Mary suffered with Christ at the foot of the Cross in full knowledge of how and why almost everything would transpire. The Blessed Virgin suffered a bitter trial in witnessing Jesus's brutal execution at the hands of the blood-thirsty mob, but there are no surprises for her.

This is not, however pious it may seem, the manner in which God seems to speak to the Blessed Virgin regarding Christ's life and death in the Scriptures or in the received mens ecclesiae. Instead, what is to come is always hinted at in a way which calls the soul to prepare for a bitter trial and with only enough clarity to demand fidelity of our human faculties rather than satisfaction of their curiosities. The Holy Spirit does not speak through a veil in these cases, but withholds enough to demand trust.

At the moment of the Incarnation, when the Archangel Gabriel stood saluted the one "full of grace", the heavenly messenger said He Who she merited to bear would "be great and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob forever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end" (Luke 1:32-33). These are promises about what Christ will do for Mary to know and for all posterity. The Angel broadcasts the coming of Christ for the world to contemplate, which it has ever since, perhaps no where more beautifully than in the Akathist sung before the Annunciation during Great Lent in the Byzantine Churches.
An archangel was sent from heaven to say to the Theotokos: Rejoice! And beholding Thee, O Lord, taking bodily form, he was amazed and with his bodiless voice he stood crying to her such things as these:
Hail, Thou through whom joy will shine forth:
Hail, Thou through whom the curse will cease! Hail, recall of fallen Adam:
Hail, redemption of the tears of Eve! Hail, height inaccessible to human thoughts:
Hail, depth undiscernible even for the eyes of angels! Hail, for Thou art the throne of the King:
Hail, for Thou bearest Him Who beareth all! Hail, star that causest the Sun to appear:
Hail, womb of the Divine Incarnation!
Hail, Thou through whom creation is renewed:
Hail, Thou through whom we worship the Creator!
Hail, O Virgin and Bride Ever Pure!
These words, usually ascribed to St. Romanos of Constantinople, are deeper meditations on the words of the Angel to the Virgin. Far from adding information, real or imagined, to the Gospel, they illuminate what Gabriel said all the more brilliantly in light of what transpired later. Similarly, through Simeon the Holy Spirit made known that the Christchild is "set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted; And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many heart, thoughts may be revealed" (Luke 2:34-35). Again, hymnody provides some insight as to how these exchanges were conventionally viewed. The fairly modern hymn What Child is This dilates in the second verse:
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
With more age and accompanying wisdom, the Cherry Tree Carol, from the high medieval Yorkshire mystery plays, offers:
Then Mary took her babe,
and sat him on her knee,
Saying, My dear son, tell me
what this world will be.
‘O I shall be as dead, mother,
as the stones in the wall;
O the stones in the streets, mother,
shall mourn for me all.
‘Upon Easter-day, mother,
my uprising shall be;
O the sun and the moon, mother,
shall both rise with me.'  
Mary knows Our Lord maternally, as a mother who knows her son her son as any mother knows her son, the difference being that what Mary was in perfection we must aspire to through the ordinary means of grace in the Sacraments. Mary was absolutely human, but humanity perfected and re-perfected. We will never be as perfect as the Virgin Mother of God, nor will we ever know Christ as well in prayer as she knew Him by motherly instinct, but like her we can know him by grace. Mary was assumed into heaven, which is a special privilege, but perhaps not that unique. Not only may several of the Old Testament patriarchs have enjoyed the same treatment, but more importantly we ourselves will be emptied of our graves and restored as Saint Paul teaches the Corinthians and as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed reminds us. She is the foremost nighttime star in the sea of human darkness and confusion because of her humanity, leading us to her Son's divinity.

Gaudeamus omnes in Domino!

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