In the rubrical guidelines (p. xlii of the Anglican Breviary) there is very interesting passage dealing with the significance of the Sabbath Office of our Lady:
In Catholic usage the last day of the week is dedicated to our Lady, in honour of the Old Dispensation, and as the eve of the Lord’s Day or the first day of the week, which latter belongs to the New Dispensation.
Here again the Anglican Breviary tells us something about how we read the Scriptures, we already know that the entire Sciptures are testimony of Jesus Christ. Or as Fr. Ephraim Radner puts it much more profoundly:
That Christ has a form is stated by Scripture itself – the likeness and form of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Phil. 2:6; Col. 1:15) and the literal likeness and form of a human slave obedient to death on a cross (Rom. 8:3; Phil. 2:7). And this form, in all its complexity and with all of its temporal contours and details, is taken first by God, before all else, and also given first by him. This form is what all truthful speech about God entails and to what the Scriptures first refer. … Thus the Scriptures – and the Church – denote primarily the form of Christ … (Ephraim Radner, Hope among the Fragments, p. 13).
This is the point of view of the New Testament with regard to the Old and the attitude of post-Apostolic Christianity to the entirety of the holy Scriptures. The way the rubrical comment above speaks of the Old and New Dispensations and how they relate to Mary and Jesus Christ brings another aspect of scriptural reading into focus. First and foremost the Scriptures speak of Jesus Christ – that is a given for Christian reading – but the Old Testament speaks of Jesus Christ hidden as if it is pregnant with Him. The New Testament relates the coming to term of the Old Testament pregnancy and speaks openly of the Lord Jesus Christ – whose birth follows the pattern of prophecy discerned in the Old Testament. The inseparableness of a mother and child has never been stronger, perhaps, as it is between Jesus and His Mother. This unity is a figure of the unity of both ‘Testaments’ of Scripture. The reading from Lesson iii (p. G5) from February also puts emphasis on the unity of Christ and His Mother:
Christ was a virgin. And so the Mother of our virgin Lord was virgin also; yea, the Ever-Virgin, the Virgin Mother.
Jesus and Mary are united in the same category: virgin. But they are not conflated by this unity:
Thou wast the gate of heaven’s Lord,
The door through which the light hath poured;
Thou, Maiden-Mother, Life dost bring:
Ye ransomed nations, shout and sing! (Anglican Breviary, O gloriosa femina, p. G3).
Jesus is “Lord,” He is “Light,” and He is “Life,” none of these titles apply to His Mother despite their unity. The saying, sometimes heard among Roman Catholics, that we go to to Jesus through Mary is here given the lie. It is Jesus Christ to whom we go first and foremost and it is He that gives His Mother to be our Mother (Jn. 19, 26-27). Even though Jesus is born from Mary, and it could be said that she gives Him to us, the whole point made above is that Mary is who she is only in reference to her Son her Son is not who He is in reference to her. What I mean to say is Scripture defines Mary in terms of Jesus Christ not the other way around. The Scriptural veneration of Mary is therefore Christocentric and not an end in itself. Likewise with the saints, they are our brothers and sisters first and foremost by reference to Jesus Christ. Most of us have no physical genetic relation with St. Thomas Becket so it is preposterous to claim he is our brother. It is with reference to Jesus Christ that the statement he is our brother – in spite of the flesh – is true.
The Anglican Breviary puts before us the unity of Scripture in the unity of Jesus and His Mother, and puts before us the true order of the veneration of Mary (and the saints) so that our reverence for Scripture, Mary and the saints are always in reference to Jesus Christ and never ends in themselves. Not even Scripture is an end in itself – all pivots on Jesus Christ!
The Old Testament speaks of Jesus Christ first and foremost but the way in which it does this could be likened to the pregnancy of Mary. Jesus is hidden in the womb until his birth which gave rise to the New Testament. And just like Mary is styled Mother of God – a name she is given only in reference to her Son – so the Old Testament is Gospel only in reference to the same Jesus Christ:
Before the sojourn of Christ, the Law and the Prophets did not contain the proclamation which belongs to the definition of the Gospel, since he who explained the mysteries in them had not yet come. But since the Savior has come and has caused the Gospel to be embodied, he has by the Gospel made all things as Gospel (Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on John, 19, 28).
Similarly Mary was not, strictly speaking the Mother of God, until her Son had embodied the Gospel by His birth from her. The old Testament, as Origen said above, is Gospel only in reference to and because of Jesus Christ. Likewise Mary is Mother of God only in reference to and because of Jesus Christ. The relation between Jesus Christ and His Mother becomes, in the Anglican Breviary, a figure of the relation between the Old and New Testaments. The relation between Jesus and His Mother emphasizes a traditionally Christian way of reading Scripture – that is both Old and New Testaments have as their primary referent Jesus Christ if in distinct manners. For Origen the entire point of the Scriptures becomes clear only in the Passion – the Cross – of Jesus Christ as Fr. John Behr has correctly noticed: “it is as the crucified and risen one that he [Jesus] opens up the hidden sense of Scripture, the Word of God embodied in the Gospel (John Behr, The Way to Nicea, p. 173).” Christian reading of Scripture is precisely that: reading Christ in Scripture!
To continue with a bit of a challenge … The hymns for Matins (p. G2) proclaims that the Lord who created Mary, is the same who was born from her as man. The Scriptures, because they speak of Jesus Christ, also contain patterns in which we discern his Mother. One such text is given by the Anglican Breviary for Lauds (p. G2):
He created me from [or before in the Authorized KJV] the beginning before the world, and I shall never fail. In the holy tabernacle I served before him (Eccl. 24, 9).
It is perhaps not too difficult to see how this passage can be read as referring to Jesus Christ. St. Paul in Col. 1, 15 refers to Jesus as “the firstborn of all creation” because in Him “all thing in heaven and on earth were created” (Col. 1, 15). That is we are not to read the term “creature” as denial of the Lord Jesus’s Godhead but we are to understand that term in relation to His “economy” or His saving work. Jesus Christ is both the Eternal Word of God who created all things and the One born from Mary – in Him creation and Creator are united. In Him all creation is given salvation, and in Him a new creation has begun. Thus understood the first part of the phrase can be understood to refer to Jesus’ two natures and the term ‘created’ is to be taken in two distinct senses. It refers to His humanity insofar as Jesus is the One born from Mary as a creature, but it simultaneously refers to His Godhead as the One eternally “born” (generated) from the Father. In other words we are not to take the term created as exclusively indicating creatio ex nihilo here. Rather it denotes a twofold creative divine act of the two distinct births of on and the same Word of God. It is more obvious how it can be said of Jesus that He never fails as God or man. And it is also easy to understand how the last part of the passage can be understood as Jesus serving His Father in the dispensation of our salvation (usually called economy in the Fathers of the Church) and as a reference of their intimacy and unity. Particularly in the light of John 1, 1-18.
It is perhaps more challenging to understand this passage in the context of the Office of which it is a part, and to which the Anglican Breviary seems to be nudging us. How can May be understood to have been ‘created from the beginning of the world’ – and that is just for starters! What we have been doing – and will have to continue to do here – is standing still at the what Origen called the stumbling blocks the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures. Such stumbling blocks, far from being an embarrassment are – according to Origen – places particularly filled with meaning. Sticking with them and pushing deeper will therefore be very rewarding.
One avenue of investigation could be to look for a similar passage in Scripture and see if they illuminate each other. Surely such passages could include: 1 Peter 1, 18-20:
Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers. But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you …
and Revelation 13, 8:
And all that dwell upon earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
The sacrificial imagery concerning the Lamb is of course itself a reference to the Old Testament sacrificial system and throws a very particular light on how to understand what it all means. The main referent of this imagery is not actual performed sacrifices (though that is included) but the Passion of Jesus Christ! Pursuing this line of thought will take us too far afield and I will refrain from doing so here. Instead I will return to the marian theme we have been investigating here. The slaying of the lamb is – as was said above – a reference to the Cross of Jesus Christ. But from Rev. 13 it would seem that the Lord was crucified before the world was ever created just like the passage from Lauds applied to Mary would require her to be created before the creation of the world (or at least simultaneously with it). But let us go back to 1 Peter where there is a qualification of this language of before the foundation of the world. In 1st Peter we find the qualification that makes it clear that the Lamb was foreordained to be slain from before the foundation of the world not that He had actually been slain from the beginning of creation. Putting all this together with reference to the Blessed Virgin-Mother that would mean that her purpose and office had been similarly foreordained and not that she actually existed from before the foundation of the world.
The affirmation of never failing could be taken as an indicator of the truth of the early Christian doctrine that Mary was and is without personal and original sin. In this regard the readings for the Octave of the Conception of the Virgin Mary, as contained in the Anglican Breviary, is most enlightening (it does not include the Papal Bull defining this doctrine in the Roman Church, but rather Patristic commentary is provided and an extended excursion on sin and salvation and how that impacts Mary). The Anglican Breviary does not simply imitate Rome here, but does invite acceptance of this doctrine on Anglican terms. Again a whole avenue of meaning is opened up here and again we will not pursue it further here. It will suffice here to have indicated how the Anglican Breviary’s direction leads us to read and understand Scripture. It gives us both knowledge and a proper manner of applying this knowledge (as we saw above, a scriptural veneration of Mary is Christocentric and does not treat her as an end in herself; that is true knowledge inspiring true devotion).
In this post I have opened up several avenues of contemplation by pushing deeper into Scripture in the context given by the Anglican Breviary. I have not followed these avenues to the end, and have not even explored all the branches that shoot off at every turn these avenues lead to. Perhaps that is unsatisfying, but I would that inspires the reader to follow an avenue, follow one of the branches on that avenue, and to continue that path him/herself. The number of avenues and the number of branches are not unlimited. There are not unlimited meanings to Scriptural passages. The pursuing of avenues of meaning is within the parameters set by Anglican Breviary – that is the limits are provided by Apostolic, traditional Christianity.
Fr. Gregory +