This morning I received a notification in my inbox that Malcolm Guite had published a new post that featured a collection of his own sonnets about the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM). And I was reminded that today is the feast day of the BVM. Having grown up in a non-denominational Church, Mary was only an important character during the Christmas season. She was rarely, if ever, mentioned the rest of the year. My childhood memories of Mary are factual: she was very young when she was pregnant with Jesus, and her betrothal to Joseph was jeopardized because of her per-marital pregnancy. Not much else was said aside from the occasional reference to the courage she showed volunteering to be the human means for the incarnation.
It wasn’t until college, when I started to read more widely in Christian history, that I realized the strength of her influence on Christian theology and literature. As Guite points out, she has often been a source of bitter disagreement among Christians. See for example the “immaculate conception” and the “dormition of Mary.”
Personally, reading and reflecting on Mary’s role within the larger salvation narrative has been a spiritual comfort. It’s hard to explain in words, or in any rational way, why this has been the case. But I’m not alone. Guite also mentions that Mary has historically been “a sign of hope, an example of prayer, devotion and service, and an inspiration.” The BVM is so much more than a historical necessity or factoid. She maintains symbolic significance and an undeniable presence in the life of the Church–past, present, and future.
Her symbolic importance is especially prevalent in her title “Theotokos”–God-bearer. While the title itself is used predominately in Orthodox theology and liturgies, the idea runs throughout the Church catholic. The verb “bear” is rich in meaning. It can mean “to carry, convey, display, be called by, or conduct oneself.” Not only are all these meanings at play in the title Theotokos, they have both a literal and spiritual meaning as well. Mary physically bore God for us, and she continues to bear God to us as a witness and example of God’s love in the person of Jesus Christ. In Christian iconography, Mary is usually depicted with Christ or in a way that demonstrates her relationship to him. Often she is either visibly or implicitly pointing (us) to Christ.
I’ve never read a decent or satisfying prose description of Mary’s importance to history, to the life of the church, or to Christian individuals. Poetry and iconography seem to be the best mediums of representation. So here are a few of my favorite Marian poems and icons. (Click on the links for the full poems).
Theotokos, by Malcolm Guite
“You bore for me the One who came to bless
And bear for all and make the broken whole.
You heard His call and in your open ‘yes’
You spoke aloud for every living soul.”
The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air we Breathe, Gerard Manley Hopkins
“If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.”
The Magnificat, Luke 1:46-56
46 My soul doth magnify the Lord.
47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
48 For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.