Religion as wisdom quest

Dormition of our Lady
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
15 August 2021

[ video ]

Mary, Mother of the Lord

Our liturgical headline this Sunday is the feast day to commemorate the death of Mary, mother of our Lord.

For Christians in the East, this the feast of the Falling Asleep of the Virgin, the Dormition. For Roman Christians in the West, it is the Feast of the Assumption. For Australian Anglicans it is the last of a series of six Marian festivals which retain “red letter” status in our calendar:

Like all the other Marian feasts, this festival is a mix of fact and pious imagination.

The factual element is simply that Mary surely died at some stage during the first century. It is actually remarkable that she was still alive around the time of Easter, since peasant women rarely lived into middle age or beyond. We can presume she died within a decade or so of Easter.

The rest is pious imagination from much later times, reflecting devotion to Mary as the ever-Virgin Mother of God (Theotokos in Greek).

Truth to tell we know almost nothing about Mary, and we know even less about her personality, her emotions or her personal religion. That, of course, has not prevented the hagiographers from providing intimate details of her life and inner disposition.

The ancient Christians—and many modern believers—like to imagine Mary as perfect in every way, as befits (they imagine) the mother of our Lord.

Solomon

In the first reading, which comes from the regular lections for this Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, we have a very different character: Solomon, the fabled ruler of Jerusalem.

Here too the character is mostly sketched by pious imagination. There is very little history, if any, in the way that the Bible describes Solomon. 

However, Solomon could hardly be more different from Mary of Nazareth, mother of the Lord.

To take one simple point of difference: Mary is widely believed to have been a virgin when Jesus was conceived and to have remained a virgin throughout her whole life. Solomon, on the other hand, famously had 700 wives (all of them princesses) and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3).

Despite that remarkable conjugal achievement, as the Bible tells the tale, Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived. 

Yet the same Bible describes his reign as a failure and his legacy as civil war.

Truth beyond factuality

Neither character’s story is based in history.

These tales are the stuff of legend, and they are spun by powerful men who despised and feared the feminine. They seem mostly to be repeated and defended today by men with those same mindsets.

Yet the point of these pious fictions is not what they pretend to tell us about either Mary or Solomon.

The point of these stories is that they invite us to imagine what constitutes a good life.

Today we reflect on the death of a peasant woman from a remote Galilean village, and the career of a powerful king who collected women as trophies the way some people collect sports cars or race horses.

So what is the good life?

And what part does religion play in us attaining the good life?

Is the Cathedral offering medication for anxiety, or wisdom for life?

Are we selling fire insurance for the next life, or making meaning out of this life here and now?

Are we pretending to have the answers for everyone’s questions, or are we seeking to form a spiritual community which follows a path that allows us to live with the questions and not need to have all the answers?

In the story of Mary, the good life is to SAY YES to God.

In the story of Solomon, the good life is to SEEK WISDOM not power.

As we come to the Table of Jesus this morning, I am seeking wisdom for life. 

How about you?

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dean, Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton and Rector of the Anglican Parish of Grafton. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. The opinions expressed in my publications, including my blog posts, are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Diocese of Grafton nor Christ Church​ Cathedral in Grafton.
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1 Response to Religion as wisdom quest

  1. jamoses@bigpond.com says:

    Dear Greg,

    I like „pius imagination“! But as John Robinson emphasised If Jesus was fully human he must have had a normal mother.

    Trust you have managed to steer clear of the dreaded virus. After a whole free year in the ACT the lockdown has bitten with a vengeance. Confined to barracks is OK if you have something challenging to write about.

    Will keep in touch enjoying your mails.

    Best,

    John

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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