The group is currently engaged in studying what can be said together about the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a number of participants were asked to prepare preliminary papers. With the permission of the authors, we will be posting five of these papers over the next five dayspapers by Edward T. Oakes, J.I. Packer, T.M. Moore, Cornelius Plantinga Jr., and Matthew Levering.eds.
Perhaps the earliest litany of praise to Mary for her role in the incarnation of our Lord is from Gregory Thaumaturgas (ca. 213–c.a.270):
Thy praise, O most holy Virgin, surpasses all laudation, by reason of the God who received the flesh and was born man of thee. To thee every creature, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under earth, offers the meet offering of honour. For thou has been indeed set forth as the true cherubic throne. Thou shinest as the very brightness of light in the high places of the kingdom of intelligence; where the Father, who is without beginning, and who power thou hadst overshadowing thee, is glorified; where also the Son is worshipped, whom thou didst bear according to the flesh; and where the Holy Spirit is praised, who effected in thy womb the generation of the mighty King. Through thee, O thou that art highly favoured, is the holy and consubstantial Trinity known in the world. Together with thyself, deem us also worthy to be made partakers of thy perfect grace in Jesus Christ our Lord: with whom, and with the Holy Spirit, be glory to the Father, now and ever, and under the ages of ages. Amen. (Four Homilies: The Second Homily, On the Annunciation to the Holy Virgin Mary)
His offering is the culmination of his exposition of the annunciation to Mary of the ensuing birth of the Messiah and seems to flow effortlessly and without inhibition, as though he were emulating the angel Gabriel's greeting. As a preacher, Gregory appears to have felt no reluctance whatsoever to respond to Mary's prophetic word concerning her blessedness with this paean of praise and adoration, in which he acknowledges her place among the members of the Trinity as above all men worthy of praise.
The Fathers of the Church are curiously silent about Mary's intention in the phrase "For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed." Contemporary Protestant commentators are not of much help either, preferring either to avoid any detailed exposition or to refer the meaning to that of praising God, not Mary herself. But the plain sense of "call me blessed" seems to entail more like what Gregory offers than any praising of God for her sake (although, of course, such is altogether laudable).
That the apostle John seems to have regarded Mary, in some sense, as the Mother of the Church is clear in Revelation 12. Here the one who gave birth to the Ruler of the Nations embodies a dual imagethe culmination of the promise of Israel (v. 1) and the mother of all who believe in Jesus (v. 17). Mary is the Mother of the Church in the vision of the beloved apostle and, thus, holds a place of prominence as all mothers should, especially in the eyes of their children. By the times of her visit to Elizabeth, Mary would have had some time to contemplate the words of the angel and the meaning of the child forming in her womb. Did she make the same associations John would many years later? Clearly, she was aware that the faithful generations leading up to her would share in the mercy of God shown to her through the gift of the generations past and future, and she would be the bearer of that mercy as the mother of the Christ and, by association, the mother of all the faithful.
In addition, it is not impossible that Mary, who evidences a broad familiarity with the Scriptures of the Old Testament, would have made the association between the great blessing bestowed upon her and the response to her that all generations should give with the blessing of the faithful woman in Proverbs 31, whose children rise up and call her blessed because of her many excellent virtues (Prov. 31:28). The meaning of this text seems clearly to involve some address of benediction and admiration, not a prayer but, in recognition of the favor of God, a word of adoration and gratitudea blessing.
Mary anticipated that all the generations of those to whom the mercy of God comes would see her as their mother and, acknowledging the favor of God upon her and the extraordinary vocation appointed to her, would speak words of blessing to her. Gregory did not hesitate to make his lovely offering, nor, it would seem, should we. As the Venerable Bede put it: "Her preeminent blessedness would be marveled at by the voices of all nations." Irish litanies of the early and late Middle Ages incorporate many very useful phrases of honor to celebrate Mary and the favor of God upon her:
O Mary, great beauteous diadem, who didst free our race;
O Light most beauteous, O Garden of Kings,
O lustrous one, O shining one, with deed of white chastity,
O fair bright Ark of gold, O holy birth from heaven,
O Mother of Righteousness, who didst excel all . . .
O great Mary;
O greatest of Marys;
O paragon of women;
O Queen of the Angels;
O Lady of Heaven;
O Lady, full and overflowing
with the grace of the Holy Spirit;
O blessed and more than blessed one;
O mother of the eternal glory;
O mother of the Church in
heaven and earth . . .
Such tributes would appear to be altogether appropriate as expressions of private or corporate devotion. In the judgment of this writer, however, these and other similar litanies go too far when they move from adoration to supplication, and speak to Mary for intercession with Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, and for help and assistance in their daily struggles of faith. Christian devotion would seem to require some exercises expressing admiration and gratitude for and even to Marybut these must not drift into seeking from Mary that which it is appropriate to request only from the Triune God. The spontaneous paean of the Wonder-Worker thus strikes me as more toward the sense of Mary's prophetic word than the liturgical formulas of the Celts.
T.M. Moore is dean of the Wilberforce Forum's Centurions Program and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic tradition.