'I Sing of a Maiden'

To think of Christmas is to think of shepherds and lambs, an ox and an ass, angels and a star, kings from the East with their rich gifts, wicked King Herod, and the providential escape to Egypt of the Holy Family. But most of all it is to think of a mother and her child.

The understanding of Mary’s role parallels the development of Christianity itself, as Mary came to be seen as occupying a central position in the mystery of God become man.

It is the motherhood of Mary that is central in the Gospels, and in Matthew and Luke are gathered the stories later known as the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Flight into Egypt, a brief episode of the young Jesus visiting the Temple in Jerusalem.

The most poignant of these stories, in John’s Gospel, depicts Mary, and John, the beloved disciple, at the foot of the Cross, a witness to her son’s death. Luke’s account of the first decades of the faith, the Acts of the Apostles, includes Mary among those on whom the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost, and, so, present at the moment the Christian community itself was born.

As Christians teased out the meaning of the life and death of Jesus, so did they seek to understand the role of Mary in the plan of salvation. They searched the Jewish scriptures for incidents, images, and symbols that could be seen to foreshadow and prophecy her significance.

It was Mary’s descent from King David that forged the link between the Old and the New Testaments, for both Jesus and Mary. And as early as the 2nd century, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons introduced the idea of Mary as the second Eve, who was to Christ, the second Adam, parallel to that of the first Eve in relation to the first Adam. It was the surpassing holiness and obedience of Mary that would cancel and redeem the Fall of Eve and Adam.

Alongside these theological speculations, there clearly were traditions in the early Christian community about the parentage of Jesus. The most popular were collected in the Protevangelium of James which contains the story of Mary's own birth, infancy and childhood, in which she too, like her son, is marked out from before her birth by God for her divine destiny. It is here also we learn the names of her parents, Joachim and Anne, and that her birth is a divinely sent answer to their prayers for a child. Mirroring the angel’s visit to Mary, Anne is told by an angel that she will conceive and bear a child that “shall be spoken of throughout the world”.

The great Church Council held at Ephesus in 431 proclaimed Mary as Theotokos – the ‘Godbearer’ – and in the centuries that followed, especially during the High Middle Ages – the 11th to the 13th centuries, devotion to Mary led to the building of great cathedrals dedicated to her name, the spread of popular devotion reflected in feasts and Holy Days established in her honour, and the rich legacy of art and sculpture, music and poetry, all inspired by “Holy Mary, mother mild, fairest flower of any field”.

Two early 15th century English poems express with great beauty the mystery of the Incarnation, the first likening Mary to a flower upon which falls the dew of the overshadowing Spirit of God:

“I sing of a Maiden,

A Matchless one;

King of all Kings

She chose for her son …

In quiet he drew

To where she lay,

As the April dew

Falls on the spray.

Both mother and maiden

Was none but she:

Well may such a lady

God’s mother be.”

The second is a capsule history of the Fall and Redemption, echoing the liturgy of the Easter Vigil - "O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer.” But here our poem draws out the implications as they apply to Mary, declaring that, had there been no Fall, Mary would not have become the Queen of Heaven, that, in a divine paradox, the ruin of Adam brought more good to humanity than if he had stayed perfectly innocent.

“Adam lay in bondage,

Bound in fetters strong;

Four thousand winters

Thought he not too long;

And all was for an apple,

An apple that he took,

As holy men find written

In the holy book.

Had the apple not been taken,

The apple taken been,

Never would Our Lady

Have been Heaven’s Queen.

Blessed be the time

That apple taken was!

Therefore must we sing,

‘Deo gratias!’”

Barnaby ffrench


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