Sunday, December 12, 2010

At the Heart of Anglican Catholicity is the Incarnation: Devotion to the Theotokos

Anyone who has read my ramblings over many years know that I tend to resist labels, partially because labels can get in the way of learning from those with whom you disagree and partially because the categories Anglicans tend to work in do not fit very well or have become ossified by their most ardent adherents so that I associate:

Anglo-Catholic not only with the sensuous worship without which I cannot live, but also with some serious 19th Century theological errors related to Baptism and Eucharist; with a tendency to focus on an autocratic if not tyrannical authority of the episcopate to the exclusion of the rest of the Body in Council, sometimes in ways, as of late, that show inclinations toward Roman ecclesiologies at odds with our messy (because alive and engaged with flesh) lived Anglican ownhood (to draw from Auden); with a museum curator's habit in collecting liturgical artifacts that at the same time makes dismissal of any creativity or recycling necessary to make the Incarnate One known in our time, place, and culture even as is lauded the creativity of other times, places, and cultures; and with a don't ask, don't tell tendency that kills members of the Body and is justified for the sake of the greater good in an imperial interpretation of 1 Corinthians 12. While lauding the flesh of the Incarnate One, I have sometimes found a tendency to denigrate the flesh of others, whether women or gays, in the name of theology and beauty. Such seems at odds to me with the Incarnate One in his fullness, of whom we too are members.

What I have come to realize is that these things are not the markers of one who is catholic; many in fact, are conditions of temperament, time, and place, and culture. But as I lit the candle before the icon of the Virgin of the Sign at seminary this last week, made the Sign of the Cross, and said the Ave Maria in Latin, I could not avoid the catholic label in some fashion. Some have thought me Catholic (that is, Roman or Anglican) for such devotion, but I have explained that no, such devotion is just catholic. Just catholic. Meaning simply ordinary, common, universal. The sensuousness of it all in the best of High and Anglo-Catholic worship is the inspiration of imagination, to vision, to a world as seen through the Image of God, Jesus Christ. A truly catholic worship should inspire creativity as response and even as offering liturgically in hymnody, art, poetry, and the like.

I do not flee to Mother Mary because she stands in for Jesus. As Anglicans we did away with any sense that mediation or merit is other than Jesus Christ's. And rightly so. I go to her because in her as like no other, Holy Wisdom was, and is, and comes. She is the one pregnant with promise and possibility. My connection to the Theotokos is not for need of mediation, but it is for comfort and friendship and intercession and inspiration as members of the same One Body, for we are of hers by Him and through His. Like other saints, I have a relationship with her. I talk to Mary, yes, I talk to Mary, often. In hard times and easy, she listens, embraces, and challenges, pointing me to Christ, as if to tell me pray, "Be it done unto me, according to your word." And she really likes, not just loves, her gay children, btw.

At the heart of an Anglican catholicity is the God who gets himself dirty, humbles (makes himself earthy) Godself out of love for us into all the ordinary and messy places of life unto birth in a manger, our theologia incarnationis again. Not that the manger is where it will end in some gross nostalgia, for the Cross already looms in Herod's evil order and Rome's imperial foot-on-neck, but because at the Crib everything is already won. God is become one of us! Today! as the antiphon for the Magnificat declares for Christmas days. In the Word become flesh the powers of sin and death are subjected no matter how they whisper lies otherwise in the meantime, and in this Child, our humanity and indeed all flesh is shown its true dignity as that fit for deity. The promise of Easter arrives in a Crib: God will never let us go! So it has been from the Beginning, when God began to create...

And just so, the promise of the End is given in the Beginning. We were and are ever spoken into being through God's Word, as Maurice noted--the powers never had a chance. Even before his birth in time, we were and do belong to the Word. That is precisely why what feels to be the close of the Church Year is also its beginning. The promise of the Consummation found in the All Saints Octave and its afters, in Adventtide, and Saptientiatide is found in the Nativity and the entire swath of Presentations through Candlemas. That given and promised in the Nativity of the Word of God shall be finished in the Consummation, when that same Wisdom, Jesus Christ, who fills all things in his risen humanity, is All in All, hidden, unknown, even despised, and always at work, shall burst forth full bloom upon us all unawares and overtake all that separates us from ourselves, one another, the whole of creation, and God:

One day, the Gospel tells us, the tension gradually accumulating between humanity and God will touch the limits prescribed by the possibilities of the world. And then will come the end. The presence of Christ, which has been silently accruing in things, will suddenly be revealed—like a flash of light from pole to pole. Breaking through all the barriers within which the veil of matter and the watertightness of souls have seemingly kept it confined, it will invade the face of the earth….Like lightning, like conflagration, like a flood, the attraction exerted by the Son of Man will lay hold of all the whirling elements in the universe so as to reunite them or subject them to his body....[1]

Yes, we live in the tension of the meantime of promise, feeding on him who we know only explicitly as proclaimed Word and ingested Sacrament, but we shall see face to face. But this feeding nevertheless opens our eyes to a creation ever being spoken into being by this One, ever groaning forth shoots of light, and so the catholic Christian gives each due reverence, even praying that God remember a Holy Thorn Tree cutdown without thankfulness or purpose when others would scorn:

Blessed are you, O God, Creator of the universe,

who was, and is, and will ever be our only life: Receive into your care this holy thorn tree, daughter of that which you gave to the people of Glastonbury to twice yearly bloom as remembrance and sign of the incarnate deity and risen humanity of your Son; Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

By Word and Sacrament, we may read Christ in his Other Book from hurtling Asteroid to braying Zebra. For me, the Mystery of God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, and of the Body nurtured by him, and the promised fulfillment of all creation in the Consummation is no where better discovered than in Mother Mary. I cannot help but see that promise most fully in the she who birthed the Creator of earth, and sea, and sky:

Mother of Christ, hear thou thy people's cry
Star of the deep and Portal of the sky!
Mother of Him who thee made from nothing made.
Sinking we strive and call to thee for aid:
Oh, by what joy which Gabriel brought to thee,
Thou Virgin first and last, let us thy mercy see.

[1] Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, 266.


  1. Thank you for sharing your reflections. Your text touches upon some very important issues, and since I was looking for inspiring pieces on the Incarnation, I would like to ask if you would be kind to grant me permission to translate it into Polish and reproduce on my blog (