by Bill Carroll
As we prepare to celebrate St. Mary the Virgin on August 15 (some of us may even be celebrating her Assumption or Dormition), I wanted to share some thoughts about her central theological significance, which I originally offered in a slightly different form to the Society of Catholic Priests, an organization for Catholic-minded Anglican (I prefer this description to “Anglo-Catholic,” to make it clear that we are not all Anglo) clergy and religious, including our women and LGBTQ+ siblings, focused on priestly spirituality and evangelism.
A great twentieth-century theologian, Karl Rahner, SJ, was once asked about the decline of Marian devotion in certain Roman Catholic circles. He replied “Modern Theology has gone in for abstractions, and abstractions don’t need a mother.” Every theological statement about Mary is ultimately a statement about the reality of her Son’s flesh and the mystery of the Incarnation. The fundamental issue at the Council of Ephesus was how the denial that Mary was “Theotokos” (God-bearer) implied a heretical Christology.
Jesus Christ indeed is God’s own eternal Son, one with us in a concrete human life lived for others (one with a preferential option for those who are poor, oppressed, and excluded). He is no abstraction, but a flesh and blood human being, with an identity and a history. He is taken from a particular family and a particular nation, deriving both his flesh and his participation in the traditions of God’s ancient and beloved People, Israel, from his Mother.
And it’s here, above all, that devotion to Mary matters and becomes not a partisan badge but an integral aspect of the Faith. Church and sacraments, sacred space and liturgical time, our own vocation as followers of Jesus—every way in which particular creatures show forth the glory of God and become means of grace—all of it hinges on the mystery of grace and freedom disclosed in Mary’s “let it be.”
By the divine initiative and our graced response, we too are taken up into the mystery of the Word-made-flesh. By Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, we find ourselves to be embodied expressions of God’s love, set free by the gift of Christ to say “yes” to God’s purposes in the world. God’s love always comes as a gift, unearned and undeserved. But, in and through Mary, it has been actually received.
She is, as Francis of Assisi wrote, the Virgin-made-Church. She is the foretaste of our own sanctity and glory—humanity transformed in her Son by the gift of the Holy Spirit. She is the whole creation set free and made whole, at peace with God and neighbor.
May we be drawn ever closer to Mary and thereby deeper and deeper into the mystery, mission, and movement of Jesus, her Son.
The Rev. Canon Bill Carroll serves as Canon for Clergy Transitions and Congregational Life in the Diocese of Oklahoma. He has served as a parish priest in Oklahoma, as a parish priest and college chaplain in Southern Ohio, and as a member of a seminary faculty. In 2005, he earned his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School.
image: detail from Madonna degli alberetti (of the trees) by Giovanni Bellini