In an edited extract from his new book Mary, Bearer of Life Christopher Cocksworth finds Mary still visible in some unexpected places.
‘Where is she?’, I thought, as I marvelled at the restored Frauenkirche in Dresden. The eleventh-century Romanesque church first built on the site and dedicated to ‘Our Lady’, pulled down in the seventeenth century, rebuilt in a protestant Baroque style, destroyed through allied bombing in 1945 and rebuilt again after the fall of the Berlin Wall showed no sign of Mary herself or any other women in its architecture. Mary’s absence in the Frauenkirche symbolised a sense that had been growing in me about my own life and heart, and about the theological and spiritual tradition that had shaped and mothered me, and to which I owed so much.
My time in Germany was split between Erfurt and Wittenberg, cities that played such a formative part in the Reformation. Intrigued by his views on Mary, I was on the trail of Martin Luther. Part of me felt like part of him: drawn to Mary in affection on the one hand, yet conscious of how misplaced attention to Mary can disrupt the clarity of the gospel on the other. I visited the Mariendom in Erfurt, the Cathedral dedicated to Mary that Luther would have known well in his university days and that had a particular association with a charming but exotic medieval mythology about Mary meeting a unicorn. I walked through the streets of the city where Luther made sense of his terrifying thunderstorm experience in nearby Stotternheim when he had called out to St Anne, Mary’s mother, to save him. I prayed in the monastery where he later implored Mary to turn away Christ’s wrath. And so I came to taste something of the spiritual air that Luther breathed and found so stale. All that was reinforced in Wittenberg where Luther was sent to oversee a group of Augustinian monasteries and to teach in the newly-founded university. I was fascinated by the position of the bronze relief of Mary being crowned Queen of Heaven right next to the door of the Elector of Saxony’s Schlosskirche where Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses. I was intrigued that the church where Luther had served as a parish priest before the Reformation, and as parish pastor during it, was called the Marienkirche. I could see that the stone relief of the crowned Mary in heaven holding the infant Christ above the west door of the Marienkirche belonged to a religious culture that seemed to place Mary somewhere between the worshipper and her son, and risked – entirely against Mary’s own desires – deflecting them from him.
There is certainly no such risk in the Marienkirche now, dominated as it is by the magnificent Cranach altar piece. Lucas Cranach, a Reformation artist, paints a stark and contemporary crucifixion. Luther is preaching from a short biblical text and pointing to the cross while on the other side of the picture the people of Wittenberg look and listen on. Its simplicity is stark and its combination of cross, Bible, preached word and activated faith is a brilliant précis of Reformation theology. Mary, so familiar in traditional depictions of the crucifixion before the Reformation, is nowhere to be seen.
Wittenberg’s Marienkirche is known as the Mother Church of the Reformation. The only appearance Mary makes in the building is the one I mentioned earlier on the outside of the west wall above a door which is no longer used. Luther may have said that Mary is mother to us all but there seemed to be no positive part she could play in the reform of the Church of her son, except to remain out of sight and not to get in the way. But Mary will not go away, not even in historic Wittenberg, carefully preserved to tell the Reformation’s story. I saw her making a tentative, temporary but determined re-appearance in three places. The castle of the Thuringian rulers who had supported Luther now housed an exhibition of modern Christian art. From Marc Chagall’s ‘Mother and Child’ crucifixion, to Käthe Kollwitz’s ‘Mary and Elizabeth’, to the more contemporary Katerina Belinka’s striking depiction of a pregnant woman, Mary was very present. Further down the main street, between the great Scholsskirche and Marienkirche, three well-produced posters brightened some hoardings which covered up some building work. Glauben, Hoffnung, Liebe – Faith, Hope and Love – they proclaimed, each with a biblical text to define them. Mary’s Magnificat had been chosen for love. More off the beaten track but still in the historic part of the city, a huge mural adorned a bare wall. Mary, bearing her sacred heart, was texting on an iPhone. Wittenberg, the heart of the rediscovery of the overwhelming goodness and unfathomable grace of God, to which the whole Church – and I, like Cranach, standing at the foot of the cross – owed so much, told its own history of Mary: medieval devotion with more than a touch of excess, Reformation, then absence, followed eventually by contemporary return, subtly but firmly saying, ‘Can woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb’ (Isa. 49.15).
Any discussion of Mary’s place life in the Church takes one deeply into the sixteenth-century debates which convulsed the western Church, with Catholic and Reformed emphases vying with each other. So it was refreshing to be able to spend time with the Orthodox traditions of the Eastern Church. Oriental Orthodox Churches – who had made their own protest against majority views in the Church in the fifth century – have always struck me as gentler on the evangelical eye than at least some forms of Greek Orthodoxy. Perhaps it is the absence of an iconostasis in the churches, the familiarity with extempore prayer and the enjoyment of Bible study and the love of hymnody. Or perhaps it is something less tangible that gives one the sense that these ancient Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, Iraqi, Armenian and other traditions have preserved a close connection with the early centuries of the Church that is deeply enriching. One of the many gifts of my time with the Armenian Church was the discovery of the revered Gregory of Narek and his intensely spiritual poetry of the tenth century. Narek became a good friend during the writing of this book and his love of Christ, of the Church, and of Mary, nicely complemented the fourth-century poetry of Ephrem the Syrian that I already knew, with its similarly profound poetry that plays with biblical imagery in all sorts of imaginative ways. I draw on both writers in the pages that follow.
Conscious of the way Mary has evoked such strong theological emotions, I knew that writing about her would not be straightforward. However, the greatest challenge to my confidence proved not to be that any consideration of Mary so soon touches upon profound issues that have caused Christians to argue vehemently with each other in the western Church since well before the Reformation, or even the further level of complexity and contention that feminist critiques of Marian tradition have permanently and rightly introduced. What made me wonder whether I should dare to write a book on Mary was the recognition that two dimensions of my person and background made me, in a very real sense, alien to insights that would come instinctively to others. I was writing about Mary – a woman and a mother – as a man. Moreover, I was writing about Mary as someone formed in the Anglican-Evangelical tradition which, though generally respectful to Mary, saw no dynamic place for her in the life of faith. On the first, I came to accept that being neither a woman nor a mother would bring limitations to my understanding of Mary that, even though they could be reduced by listening better to women and mothers, could not be fully overcome. At the same time, I decided that I needed to claim my own voice as a man whose life has been richly blessed by my own mother, by the other mothers I have known and loved and by the mothering I received from women, men and, moreover, from the Church herself. I say a little more about my experience of mothers and mothering in chapter 1.
On the second – my distance from an inhabited, deeply formed Marian piety – I came to the view that although there would be insights I would miss because the deep spiritual dynamic among Christians more devoted to Mary than I, there was at the same time some value in writing positively about Mary from a position of genuine theological enquiry rather than as someone propounding or defending one’s own spirituality. Having said that, I should add also that while my formative theological, spiritual, and ecclesial experiences have not offered a ready place for Mary, I have found myself increasing drawn towards her over the years. There was one occasion in the early hours of a night, when, kneeling before an icon of the cross with Mary and the beloved disciples at either side of Jesus, I was so moved by the agony of a mother witnessing the death of her son that I felt more affectively connected with the presence and pain of God the Father in the dying of Jesus than I ever had before; and Mary too became more present to me than she had been previously.
My own experience of being drawn closer to Mary is of being brought closer to her son. She is my companion with whom I travel as I follow Jesus. She is my sister from whom I learn as I seek to be faithful to him. She is my mother whom I have taken into my home because, as the mother of my Lord, she belongs to him and so belongs to me, for I belong to Christ.
Christopher Cocksworth is the Bishop of Coventry and former principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge.