For the Assumption: The politics of the Magnificat

The politics of the Magnificat
By Kenneth Leech

Editor’s note: For the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we offer an excerpt from the inspiring collection Prayer and Prophecy: The Essential Kenneth Leech. Kenneth Leech is an Anglican priest, Christian socialist and community theologian from London, England.

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The Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated throughout most of the Christian world, is not a feast to arouse wild enthusiasm among English Christians.

Seen often as a polemical and divisive dogma, an ecumenical embarrassment, or arrogant assertion of papal claims in the pre-Vatican 2 atmosphere, the dogma is now widely seen as more than an irritant, at best a peripheral factor, at worst the most outrageous of the Marian heresies.

Yet in the Eastern churches this is Mary’s feast par excellence, while Jung hailed the dogma as a sign of the restoration of the feminine dimension to the deity. Some feminist theologians such as Rosemary Reuther have pointed to the potentially liberating features of this andother Marian dogmas in an overwhelmingly male and cerebral Christian tradition. “Liberation Mariology” is certainly on the North American agenda.

Undoubtedly much Marian devotion has been based on a distortion of the Mary of the Magnificat, the prophetic woman who according to the Anglican Consultative Council in 1973, “praises the Lord for the radical changes in economic, political and social structures.”

The late Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Marialis cultus (1974) also criticized the false Mary of corrupt piety, stressing that “Mary of Nazareth … was far from being a timidly submissive woman; on the contrary she was a woman who did not hesitate to proclaim that God vindicates the humble and oppressed, and removes the powerful people of the world from their privileged positions.”

In fact, the dogma of the Assumption is a development of that of the resurrection. As Christ is the first fruits of the harvest of the dead, so his Mother, the God-bearer, is raised up to share in the risen life of the glorified Body of Christ. As in the Resurrection of Christ, so in the Assumption of Mary, it is the whole personality, the soma, which is raised.

The Assumption rejects the dualism of body and soul which still affects the Christian world: it is the whole person which is raised, just as it is the whole material creation which is to be transformed and share the freedom of the children of God (Rom.8).

Mary is thus the forerunner of the cosmic assumption of which Paul writes; she is the microcosm of the new and glorified creation. The dogma is part an assertion of the materialistic base of the Christian hope.

But the raising up of Mary represents also the exaltation of the poor, the anawim, God’s little people. Small is not only beautiful; small is Queen of Heaven. It is this reversal of power structures which Mary predicts in her “hymn of the universal social revolution” (as Thomas Hancock called it).

God has looked lovingly on her humble state, her littleness, and as a result she will be Makaria, blessed. God puts down the dunastas and fills those in need. “It would be easy to over-spiritualize the meaning of these verses and ignore that literal interpretation,” notes the evangelical scholar Howard Marshall. “The coming of the Kingdom of God should bring about a political and social revolution, bringing the ordinary life of mankind into line with the will of God.”

The Assumption is also a pointer towards the recognition of the feminine dimension in God. Not in the sense that Mary is exalted to the status of a fourth person of the Trinity: but rather that, through the raising of this woman to share the divine nature, we should face the necessary consequence that womanhood, as much as manhood, is involved in that nature.

God is not male, and the “motherhood of God” needs to be taken seriously. Marian devotion can only too easily be used as a safety-valve, a way of transferring the feminine dimension away from God to an idyllic, virginal creature. So we relate to Mary, while retaining the essentially male-dominated symbolism of deity.

There is much to be wrestled with before we can assert positively that Mariology is a potentially liberating tradition. But the place of Mary alongside her Son can hardly be questioned. As the late Fr. Raymond Raynes once said: “If Our Lady is not in heaven, where the hell is she?” The truth of the resurrection demands that, whatever else we say, we must at least say that Christ is in heaven and his Mother with him.

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From David Bunch and Angus Ritchie, ed., Prayer and Prophecy: The Essential Kenneth Leech (New York: Seabury Books, 2009), pp. 126-128. Copyright © 2009, Seabury books, reprinted with permission. (Amazon info here.)

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10 comments

  1. “God is not male, and the “motherhood of God” needs to be taken seriously. Marian devotion can only too easily be used as a safety-valve, a way of transferring the feminine dimension away from God to an idyllic, virginal creature. So we relate to Mary, while retaining the essentially male-dominated symbolism of deity.”

    I’ve long pondered about this. For those persons who cannot accept God as purely masculine, Mary is the only god-like figure who is feminine. This, of course, raises Mary to godhood–which is not true. Mary is not God. She bore God. If the feminine is recognized and revered in the Holy One, there is no need to be (what I think is) idolatrous and make Mary into God. If we accept the motherhood of God, we can accept that Mary is our sister.

    Here endeth the ramblings of a sleep-deprived undergrad…

  2. Since God has revealed himself as Father, there seems little reason to waste much ink on “the motherhood of God,” still less on Mary as our sister. To one saint who asked that Mary take him as her son, she replied, “I took you at my son at Baptism,” but this is true of us all. “Mary, Mother of God and my mother….” Everyone baptized into Jesus Christ can say the same.

    How useful is it, really, pious, reverent or sensible, to minimize that fact and refer to her as a mere sister? She is incomparably more, and *so are we* with such a mother as this!

    To the most exalted of the other saints we only owe the loyalty of siblings in the Lord while she is our Mother in the order of grace. She towers above the rest of us in her very being. She is, after all, the Immaculate Conception, super-resplendent with moral beauty and full of grace. With respect to intercession, too, she is supreme, for no one else have the Popes, Fathesr and Doctors of the Church been moved to call Ominipotentia Supplex- Suppliant Omnipotence.

    A goddess? No, but omnipotent in her supplication nevertheless. Such is our mother in the order of grace, a fact that we lose sight of or minimize to our own great loss.

    1. No less than Pope John Paul I referred to God as ‘our Mother.’ Once again, a super-Catholic is disagreeing with the Holy Father!
      awr

  3. Fr. Anthony,

    It is obvious, is it not, that the successors of Peter agree with me overwhelmingly when I write,

    “Since God has revealed himself as Father, there seems little reason to waste much ink on “the motherhood of God,” still less on Mary as our sister.”

    They have in fact not wasted much ink on “the motherhood of God.” Or perhaps you can refer me to a contradictory bibliography.

    Two or three references in one Angelus address do not exactly add up to a corpus of papal teaching, do they.

    If anyone is in disagreement with the papacy on this score, then, it is Anthony Leech, Anglican priest, and those who agree with him. Perhaps they are more deserving of the “super-Catholic” honorific you wished on me in your charity.

    1. God has revealed himself as Father; God has not revealed the divine nature as male. To claim this would, of course, be heresy, since it would require God to have a physical body.

      Certainly the motherhood of God is a minor theme in the tradition, but it is certainly there (for references, see André Cabassut: ‘Une dévotion médiévale peu connue: la dévotion à “Jésus nôtre mère” ‘ ( Revue d’Ascétique et de Mystique 25, 1949, 234-245).

      As to whether writing about this is a “waste” of ink. . . well, that is a judgment call. I happen to live in a world in which women are asking why it is that God has been spoken of in primarily masculine terms and what difference it would make if we sometimes spoke of God in feminine terms. I’d like to be able to give some answer that does not imply that God is spoken of in masculine terms because maleness is inherently better suited to speaking about the divine, nor that speaking about God in female terms would involve a complete break with the Catholic Christian tradition. Perhaps you are not faced by these sorts of questions. In which case, feel free to save your ink for more pressing topics.

    2. Here’s a quote from that old liberal rag Catechism of the Catholic Church:

      “By calling God “Father,” the language of faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that He is at the same time goodness and loving care for all His children. God’s parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood (Isaiah 66:13; Psalm 131:2), which emphasizes God’s immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature. The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents.” [CCC 239]

  4. Lee Gilbert wrote: “How useful is it, really, pious, reverent or sensible… to refer to [Mary] as a mere sister?”

    In the conclusion of his Apostolic Exhortation, Marialis Cultus, Pope Paul VI wrote:

    “Mary, in fact, is one of our race, a true daughter of Eve — though free of that mother’s sin — and truly our sister, who as a poor and humble woman fully shared our lot.” (56)

    Truly our sister.

  5. We truly are children of our time – from the whole breadth of the initial post/article, we focus almost exclusively on the gender issues once again. Not that it isn’t important, but why can’t we be a people who “praises the Lord for the radical changes in economic, political and social structures.” as well?

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