Today is the commemoration of the birth of the Virgin Mary. It is a time to think of Mary’s unique role in bearing the Son of God into the world, and the gift of her whole and healed humanity to the Incarnation.
The Early Church did not have a developed doctrine about exactly how her birth-giving of the Savior was free of all the effects of human fallenness, but they certainly believed this. As time went on in the West, the teaching about Original Sin developed to a point where a specific doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception became necessary. Eventually, that teaching was made a Dogma of the Roman Catholic Church—long after the Reformation. But, the theme of Mary’s being “without spot” (cleansed of Original Sin) certainly goes back a long while in our tradition, and elements of it can be found in prayers and hymns we use today. We, too, believe that Mary gave the best of humanity to her son and Our Lord.
For Anglicans, who do not have an official “position” on this matter, the wider point is that Mary was, from the start, given a vocation that was revealed to her over time. This vocation culminates in the Biblically-attested events of the Annunciation, Visitation, and Christ’s Nativity, but it has an earlier element, as well: that of her own birth and formation as a Jewish girl and young woman, a daughter of Abraham.
Each of us, too, has a vocation. There may be decisive moments when that vocation is presented in clear terms and a choice must be made—our own equivalents to the Annunciation. Yet, if we step back from the moment and gain the greater perspective of Faith, we can trace the ways in which we were prepared, tested, healed, and opened to the calling and mission God has for us. That is, in part, what today is about.
The Scriptures tell us almost nothing about Mary’s early life; the focus in her mission was always to point to Christ. This is important. Our own biography as disciples ultimately finds its meaning and validity to the degree which we point to, show forth, Christ. When we live as signs revealing God’s redeeming work, or windows allowing God’s loving presence to flood into the darkness of this world, then we join Mary—in a very much less exalted way—in bearing the Word.
This give particular meaning to today’s collect, wherein we pray that we may be “kept unspotted” from the world so as to be a “pure temple for his dwelling.” In our sordid age, in which vice is painted as virtue and sin seen not as a choice with consequences but an inevitable movement of our DNA and upbringing, the freedom to live a Holy Life by God’s grace is perhaps more powerful and revolutionary than it has been since the Church’s beginnings.
When we turn to the example of the Theotokos (God-bearer), we do so not for sentimental or purely doctrinal reasons: we do it because in her we see a pattern for living the Kingdom Way now, free to choose the good and reject the evil. For us, this feast is not the study of an ancient event: it consecrates this moment as the holy prelude to the rest of our vocation—and calls us to honor this and every moment’s sacred potential and significance.
The Collect for
The Commemoration of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Almighty and everlasting God, who by the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost didst prepare the body and soul of the Virgin-Mother Mary to be a dwelling-place for thy Son; Grant that we who rejoice with her in Jesus may ourselves be kept unspotted from the world, and made a pure temple for his dwelling, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, now and evermore. Amen.
Almighty and everlasting God, who by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit prepared the body and soul of the Virgin-Mother Mary to be a dwelling place for your Son; Grant that we who rejoice with her in Jesus may ourselves be kept unspotted from the world, and made a pure temple for his dwelling, who lives and reigns with you and the same Spirit, now and evermore. Amen.