In recent days a publishing initiative was announced with the title, 'Reclaim Her name'. A twenty-five book 'Library' represents a range of female authors who in times past wrote under a male pseudonym. Much has been made of the inclusion of Middlemarch by the renowned George Eliot. While the aim of the enterprise is a contemporary attempt to revisit perceived wrongs of the past, the choice of George Eliot is not entirely straighforward. Mary Ann Evans was a well recognised and much respected, serious writer in her own name. She had published significant works. Her choice of pseudonym does not quite fit the library's assertion: female writers were forced to use male pen names for their writing to be published or taken seriously'
The choice of a name can be a complex and revealing process.
The name of today's feast is a case in point. In 1950, Pope Pius XII proclaimed the Dogma of the Assumption. Not only the Catholic Church, but the whole of Orthodoxy and indeed many other Christians, believe that at the end of her life Mary was taken ('assumed') body and soul into heaven. The dogma refers to a conviction from the very earliest times that Mary as Mother of God, or 'God-bearer' (θεοτοκός -theotokos) was totally united with Christ, in life and at the end of life on earth.
The Orthodox Church prefers the name, 'Dormition' - (κοίμησις - koimesis) literally, 'the falling asleep' of the All Holy Mother of God.
George Eliot - aka Mary Ann Evans
Cavallini - Mosaic: the apostles gather round Mary's death-bed, while Christ carries her soul to heaven - 1291, S. Maria in Trastevere.
Taddeo di Bartolo - 'The Resurrection of the Virgin', 1410, Pinacoteca, Vatican
Artists over the centuries have imagined the moment of the end of Mary's earthly existence in different ways. One painting even refers to the 'Resurrection' of Mary and envisages Our Lady being raised, not from a death-bed, but from a sarcophagus by Christ. We see a struggle with names: Assumption, Dormition, Death, Resurrection.
While it can be interesting to tease out the significance of various terms and with the artists, to wonder over this episode, we would do well to ponder also the Scriptures chosen for the Mass for the Solemnity.
The First Reading from the Apocalypse presents imagery which has fired the imagination of many. We need to be careful in our interpretation of a text which is complex.
The Second Reading, from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, is straightforward, even blunt in its expression of Christian faith and hope.
Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of all who have fallen asleep. Death came through one man and in the same way the resurrection of the dead has come through one man. Just as all die in Adam, so all will be brought to life in Christ, but all of them in their proper order.
I Cor. 15; 20ss)
At the very heart of everything is the Resurrection of Jesus. Everyone is redeemed in Christ. Paul deliberately uses the phrase: but all of them in their proper order. We have no difficulty in giving Mary her place in that proper order.
The Gospel, from the first chapter of Luke, takes us into the life, the discipleship of Mary. She has just given her consent to the angel to carry out God's will, in a way that she can hardly understand. However, rather than turn in on herself and her own concerns, let alone her highly favoured status, Mary 'set out and went as quickly as she could' to visit her cousin. Elizabeth greets Mary prophetically. She calls her 'the mother of my Lord' and declares, 'blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.' This is sometimes called a paradox of blessedness - a privilege and blessedness in which a sword would pierce her own heart!
There follows a passage which is saturated in Old Testament themes e.g. the 'Song' of Hannah (I Samuel 2;1ff) My heart exults in the Lord, my strength is exalted in the Lord. My mouth speaks boldly against my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation.... The Magnificat has been called the most revolutionary document in the world. Scholars have seen in Mary's words a moral revolution, a social revolution and an economic revolution. It has been said that "there is a loveliness in the Magnificat, but in that loveliness there is dynamite."
We can see in the Magnificat a charter for the discipleship of Mary - but a charter and a challenge for the faith journey of each of us.
In the Gospels we see Mary shadowing the footsteps of Jesus - right to Calvary and the tomb. Everything in her life is turned towards Jesus, every day renewing that 'fiat' uttered humbly at the Annunciation, even if the implications and consequences of it were unknown at the time.
We might do well to return frequently to Mary's great hymn, not just for our recitation of Vespers, but as an examen, an instrument for reviewing and converting our hearts and minds, trying to get closer to the mindset of Mary, the heart of a disciple.
Mantegna's representation of the 'Death of the Virgin' has the artist's signature fascination with perspective. We might do well to have a fascination with perspective - to try to have the eyes of Jesus, the instinct of Mary for seeing where we can bring compassion to bear.
The Dormition of the Virgin, Oak, Workshop of Tilman van der Burch
Late 15th century, 'The Cloisters', New York
Mantegna - The Death of the Virgin, c. 1461,
Prado Museum, Madrid
Ivory 'Dormition' - Constantinople, 10th / 11th century,
Musée de l'Age Médiévale, Paris
What's in a name? was a thought that started our tour of titles and images of the final moments of Mary's earthly life.
Everything in that life was of a piece - the absolute integrity of the sequela Christi, the following of Jesus.
What's in a name? has to be a real question for every Christian. At Baptism, we are called by a name - the name by which we are known and loved by God - for ever. It is also the name by which we are called to continue the work of Christ. What's in that name that whispers God's insistent call every single day to be like Mary, to fall in with God's plan?
What's in my name? Can I still see the imprint of the anointing that offered me strength to be Christ-like? Do I still allow myself to feel washed from sin? Do I hesitate to feel signed with the Cross? Do I give any hint of being 'signed with the Chrism of salvation', configured to the priesthood of Christ?
As we come to the end of another day (every other day) in our journey of successes and failures in living up to our name of Christian, we need as many images of Mary as we can find. We can treasure these and learn from them. We can review our successes in her humility and more often be accepting of our failures with her confident optimism of faith and love.
Visual images help enormously. There are others. Jules Massenet in his 'Last Sleep of the Virgin' has left a truly serene and uplifting piece. It can be accessed very simply on YouTube - music to close the day, to quietly accept the 'loveliness of the Magnificat' that can be made real in our lives.
Massenet's 'Légende Sacrée' - La Vierge - was first performed in Paris in 1880. Only Le dernier Sommeil is ever heard today. It is well worth hearing!
In 2002, Sir John Taverner composed his own 'Last Sleep of the Virgin, this he called a 'Veneration for String Quartet and Handbells'. Taverner was facing major heart surgery and said he could scarcely hear his music, but this inspired him to insist that the piece be played just at the 'threshhold of audibility' - something to accompany meditation, not encroach upon it.
Jules Émile Frédéric Massenet (1842-1912)
The monument to Taverner in Winchester Cathedral. The molten glass is ringed by a quotation from St Gregory of Nazianzus in Greek, found in Hagia Sophia, Constantinople: 'Wash thy sin, not only thy face.' Taverner was inspired by Orthodoxy and its influence is so apparent in his music.
Rutter said that Sir John Taverner "had the very rare gift of being able to bring an audience to a deep silence". This came from his profound spirituality.
You bore for me the One who came to bless
And bear for all and make the broken whole.
You heard His call and in your open ‘yes’
You spoke aloud for every living soul.
Oh gracious Lady, child of your own child,
Whose mother-love still calls the child in me,
Call me again, for I am lost, and wild
Waves suround me now. On this dark sea
Shine as a star and call me to the shore.
Open the door that all my sins would close
And hold me in your garden. Let me share
The prayer that folds the petals of the Rose.
Enfold me too in Love’s last mystery
And bring me to the One you bore for me.
Rev. Dr. Malcolm Guite
Chaplain, Girton College, Cambridge
(Used with permission)
'Koimesis Theotokou' (The Dormition of the Mother of God)
17th century, Palazzo Bollomo, Syracuse, Sicily
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