Friday, August 15, 2008

Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos

For the Dormition of the Theotokis:

Apolytikion (First Tone)
In birth, you preserved your virginity; in death, you did not abandon the world, O Theotokos. As mother of life, you departed to the source of life, delivering our souls from death by your intercessions.

Kontakion (Second Tone)
Neither the grave nor death could contain the Theotokos, the unshakable hope, ever vigilant in intercession and protection. As Mother of life, He who dwelt in the ever-virginal womb transposed her to life.

Today is the Feast of the Going to Sleep of the all-holy, ever-virgin, most blessed Theotokos, the Mother of God. An Orthodox friend asks why Lutherans are so skittish about Mary. And she also asks why the Lutheran propers for today are essentially the same in content as those for the Annunciation in March. I don't have a liturgiologist's answer to her questions. But, as you might expect, I do have some ideas that don't treat of the liturgical history.

First of all, contrary to the teaching of Luther, Lutherans have all but cut Mary out of our church's celebration and life. Oh, we have a few "Mary" or "St. Mary" Lutheran Churches (Europe has vastly more, at least in part, I suspect, because they were inherited from pre-Reformation times). But we look in vain for much evidence that she figures as prominently in piety as the Apostles and St. Paul blocks all hint of glow that may attach to her.

Part of it, I'm sure, is an earnest effort to remain Biblical, and there just isn't much to go on in the New Testament if you're trying to build a biography or hagiography for the Virgin. Lots of "traditional lore" has built up -- as a sometimes misguided response, I think, to the promptings of the Spirit to keep her prominent. And so we have holy legends about her parentage, her early life, her post-resurrection doings, and her death. But the Scriptures themselves don't give much of a toe hold for those seeking to integrate her into the life of the Church.

But Scripture does witness to her importance: "Henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed, for He who is Mighty has done to me great things." And that is an evangelical witness. She is, in her own words, blessed and importance because of what God has done (and does)to and through her. The witness of the early centuries of the Church also testifies to her importance. She has been declared the "Theotokos" over some objections -- the "God-bearer" or "Mother of God." So we can't and ought not ignore her.

I also hear a lot of concern raised from good Lutherans that we "don't need" Mary because we have a straight shot to God through Jesus. But I think that's a sign of a very low ecclesiology among most Lutherans. If these folks think that asking Mary for her intervention is a way to approach an essentially unsympathetic Jesus, then they don't know the Gospel of Christ. (But then, they may be projecting their own unacknowledged use of Jesus to approach an unsympathetic God -- just at another step removed.) But come on: We ask fellow Christians to pray for us all the time. And asking the heroes and heroines of the faith to join with our here-in-tangible-form saints to pray for us only makes sense if you have a good sense of the Church.

The Church is the gathering of believers where the Gospel is preached and practiced. As such it is synchronic and diachronic: That is to say, it transcends the one location where I stand to include all Christian gatherings going on in this era AND it comprehends all Christian gatherings through all time. Thus, in St. Paul's language, "we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses" who join with our prayers. That I call on my wife to pray for me makes no more or less sense than asking Mary -- and Matthew, Mark, Stephen, and Dietrich, for that matter -- to join her prayers to ours.

I think the Orthodox have a better handle on this than the Western Church. When I attended vespers for St. Seraphim of Sarov, I was stunned (finally!) by how much the Orthodox take for granted that the saints are with them. Leave it to the West to layer on issues of "merit" and "standing": We don't pray to the saints because they have special merit -- on this the Lutheran Confessions are correct. We pray to them because they are remembered more directly (and probably for good reason) by the Church catholic and are available on a more general basis to the consciousness of a greater number of the faithful gathered in one place. And pray to them we may and should -- and on this the Lutheran Confessions get it wrong when they discourage praying to the saints. (Given their time, there may have been warrant for such advice, but it is advice that doesn't hold up. But once again, the Confessions don't offer much in terms of an ecclesiology.)

The Reformation, the Enlightenment, scientism, and various other influences have given Lutherans problems with saints. It would be a worthwhile endeavor for the Church -- certainly the Lutheran branch -- to reclaim her heritage and integrate saints more completely into her life.


Pr. Derk-Michel Strauch said...

I very much enjoyed your comments on the Holy Theotokos, and praying to/praying with the Saints. If by His resurrection, Christ has destroyed the ontological barrier between the living and the dead, are those who have died then not alive in Christ no less than you and me? I have long ago rejected the notion that intercessions of the Saints is not Lutheran because it is not biblical - the answer is quite biblical, one need only look at the resurrection and the eschaton - both the "eighth day." How said that we Lutherans have exchanged the glorious examples of the Saints for "we are all saints." Frankly, I don't know about you, but sinner is more apt title for me. (I know it is better to light a candle, but I often find it more emotionally satisfying to curse the darkness.) Sad too that we have excised the Virgin Mary from our churches - she is our common mother if we are brothers and sisters in Christ, she is an example of complete submission and surrender to the word and will of God, she was devoted to Christ and to His Church after His ascension. And what have we put in her place? a void, a sentimentality, and I venture to say, a gospel coated works-righteousness. Without the Saints, the Church is merely "today," not the great multitude of believers and faithful who were before me and who will come after me. "Weep not, O Mary, for He whom you bore without stain or sin shall arise, and He shall be glorified, on the third day."

Dwight P. said...

I am ashamed of myself, Derk-Michel for not thanking you for your reply. What an eloquent summary of a fine theological point. I think I agree with every syllable. I am pleased to have the chance to share that "great cloud of witnesses" with you.