When and how do we celebrate St. Mary?

In traditional Christian lists of Saints, even lists of categories of Saints, the first person on the list is always the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of our Lord. This is because she was the closest person to Jesus in virtually every respect. She bore the Savior in her womb, earning her the title Theotokos or God-bearer; she gave birth to and raised Jesus, earning the title Mother of God; she pondered the mystery of his incarnation in her heart, meditating on the Word of God, before Jesus even learned how to speak. And so, among all God’s people, Mary has always held the position of greatest reverence and esteem.

As a result of this, she has ended up with multiple holidays throughout the year, where most saints only get one (or occasionally two) to their name.

The feast of the Annunciation was the only one in the original Prayer Books, during and after the Reformation, that was kept from historic tradition. This is perhaps the most fundamental feast day that deals with Mary, celebrating the Angel Gabriel’s message to her, her acceptance of God’s will, and the conception of Jesus in her womb. This day is celebrated on March 25th, appropriately nine months before Jesus’ birthday. Our modern Sunday Communion lectionary also observes some aspect of this event on the 4th Sunday in Advent.

The feast of the Visitation commemorates Mary’s visit to her relative Elizabeth who is pregnant with St. John the Baptist. It is in this encounter that pre-natal John prophecies at Jesus’ presence, and Elizabeth and Mary both speak Mary’s blessedness on account of her role in God’s work of redemption. The Visitation is celebrated on May 31st, slightly out of sequence from a real-time scale of events between Christ’s conception and birth.

On August 15th modern Prayer Books have the feast of St. Mary the Virgin. Its Gospel lesson repeats part of the reading from the Visitation, specifically, the prayer or canticle of Mary, known in Latin as the Magnificat. In our use, this holiday is the “generic” observance of Mary as a Saint, though in Roman and Eastern calendars this day specifically commemorates her being taken up into heaven at the end of her earthly life in a manner similar to Elijah. Because that event takes place after the canon of Scripture was written, we have no authoritative text attesting her Assumption, and therefore Anglican teaching does not (and can not) set forth this teaching with authority. Those who choose to believe this tradition are able to celebrate it in the words of the Collect of the Day: “O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary…”

On the fortieth day after Jesus’ birth, he was brought to the Temple to be redeemed according to the Law of the Firstborn in Old Covenant practice. This is celebrated on 40 days after Christmas (on February 2nd) and is called both the Presentation of our Lord and the Purification of Mary, as her ritual purification was also required in the Law of Moses on that day. As such, this holiday has a strong, but not exclusive, emphasis on Mary, noting in particular the prophecies of Simeon and Anna about her own future grief over the death of her Son.

There are other lesser feast days or minor holidays in Catholic tradition that are not codified in Anglican practice but are sometimes celebrated as optional observances, such as her Conception on December 8th (or, according to the Roman Church, her immaculate conception, without original sin), her Nativity nine months later on September 8th, and her Presentation in the Temple (it was commonly believed that Mary was enrolled as a Temple virgin, or celibate, as a child) on November 21st. There are also holidays celebrating various apparitions or visions of Mary experienced by a select few individuals throughout history, which particularly refreshed Christian piety in a given time or place. One of the most famous ones was at Walsingham in England in 1061, celebrated on September 24th or October 15th. Without either Scriptural authority or reference, these commemorations cannot be prescribed in official Anglican practice, but left to the piety of the individual to observe or ignore.

All things considered, the heart of what we know about the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Bible is in the first two chapters of the Gospel according to St. Luke. There we find intimations of her faith, hope, and love; there we see her obedience in word and deed, and her willingness to suffer for the sake of Christ and the Gospel before either was made visible. During that short time, the “faithful remnant” of Israel is practically summed up in her person, and her child-bearing role adds to that faithfulness a picture also of fruitfulness – the consummation of Israel’s role among the nations is being fulfilled in her as she brings forth the Savior who will not only deal with the sin of the Jews, but also with the sin of the whole world.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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