O Virgo Virginum: O Virgin of Virgins

The O Antiphons:  O Virgo Virginum

(Isaiah 66:1-2, 6-11 / Psalm 113 / Luke 1:26-38)

In the words of the angel Gabriel and Elizabeth, mother of the forerunner of our Lord:  Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.  Amen.

I have no real homily to offer today:  no explication of doctrine from my head, but rather a reflection from my heart as we approach the nativity of our Lord.

For seven days — starting on 16 December — the Church has been singing or chanting or saying the great O Antiphons, the Advent refrains that frame the Magnificat at Evening Prayer.  These antiphons form the basis for the hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and they invite us to reflect on the Song of Mary — as we ought always to do —  through the lens of her Son, Jesus, specifically by invoking Biblical names or descriptions of the Messiah:  O Wisdom, O Adonai (Lord), O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O King of the Nations, O Emmanuel (God-with-us).  The O Antiphons are focused, laser-like, on Jesus.

But not today.  Today, the last of the O Antiphons shifts focus a bit:  O Virgo Virginum — O Virgin of virgins.  We sing today of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

O Virgo Virginum

O Virgin of virgins,

how shall this be?

for neither before thee was any like thee,

nor shall there be after.

Daughters of Jerusalem,

why marvel ye at me?

The thing which ye behold 

is a divine mystery.

I know that many faithful followers of Christ are wary of any devotion given to Mary lest the Church drift back into the medieval excesses of undue Marian piety.  While I understand and respect that, I think we need not throw out the baby with the bath, or in this case, the Baby’s mother with the bath.  God the Father honored Mary with the unique vocation of uniting humanity with Divinity in her womb.  The angel Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, stood in Mary’s presence and hailed her as “the favored one,” meaning surely “the one whom God favors.”  This is proper honor.  And, if it is fitting for God to favor Mary and for Gabriel to called her blessed, should we do any less?  Any love we show for Mary, any devotion to her, redounds to the worship and praise of her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.  Mary is worthy of honor only because Jesus is worthy of worship; we do not confuse the two.  We honor Mary; we worship the Lord Jesus.  We even see that right ordering of devotion expressed clearly in the antiphon itself.  Mary asks:

Daughters of Jerusalem,

why marvel ye at me?

The thing which ye behold 

is a divine mystery (emphasis added).

Mary is clear and we can be, too.  It is not about her, but about the divine mystery at work in and through her.

And we marvel at the mystery of what God did in and through Mary, the Virgin of virgins.  This excerpt from the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, one of the Eucharistic liturgies from the Orthodox Church, captures that mystery in two stunning images:

All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace,

the ranks of Angels and the human race;

hallowed Temple and spiritual Paradise, glory of Virgins;

from you God was incarnate,

and He, who is our God before the ages, became a little child,

for He made your body a throne

and made your womb more spacious than the heavens (Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great).

He made your body a throne.  The Logos, the Word of God, the Lord — God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father — this one reigned eternally, enthroned at the right hand of the Father.  And yet, when he entered creation he chose as his first incarnate throne the body of a virgin daughter of Israel.  In Morning Prayer we sing the Benedictus Es, Domine:

Glory to you, Lord God of our fathers;

     you are worthy of praise; glory to you.

Glory to you for the radiance of your holy Name;

     we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you in the splendor of your temple;

     on the throne of your majesty, glory to you.

Glory to you, seated between the Cherubim;

     we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever (BCP 2019, p. 19).

The throne of majesty.  Seated between the Cherubim.  Is Mary any less exalted when the Lord reigns from that throne, from the throne of her body?  No.  As we sing in the Te Deum:

You Christ, are the king of glory,

     the eternal Son of the Father.

When you took our flesh to set us free

     you humbly chose the Virgin’s womb (BCP 2019, p.18).

The Lord chooses his throne as he will.  He chose the body of Mary and, later, he chose the cross.  Both are glorified in his choosing and by his incarnate presence.  Why marvel at this — at her?  The thing which we behold is a divine mystery.

He made your womb more spacious than the heavens.  Solomon was granted the honor of building a temple for the Lord, the meeting place between God and man on earth.  And yet, Solomon himself knew the utter inadequacy of such a structure.  It is there in his planning:

2 Chronicles 2:3–6 (ESV): 3 And Solomon sent word to Hiram the king of Tyre: “As you dealt with David my father and sent him cedar to build himself a house to dwell in, so deal with me. 4 Behold, I am about to build a house for the name of the Lord my God and dedicate it to him for the burning of incense of sweet spices before him, and for the regular arrangement of the showbread, and for burnt offerings morning and evening, on the Sabbaths and the new moons and the appointed feasts of the Lord our God, as ordained forever for Israel. 5 The house that I am to build will be great, for our God is greater than all gods. 6 But who is able to build him a house, since heaven, even highest heaven, cannot contain him? Who am I to build a house for him, except as a place to make offerings before him?

It is there in his prayer of dedication:

1 Kings 8:27 (ESV): 27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!

Heaven, even the highest heaven cannot contain God.  And yet for nine months the womb of Mary did just that.  For nine months the womb of Mary became more spacious than the heavens, even more spacious than the highest heavens.  This is not geometry.  This is not architecture.  This is the divine mystery of the incarnation and the honored role of Mary in it.  Scripture names Eve as the mother of all living, as the life-giver (cf Gen 3:20).  In some sense, she held in her womb all mankind.  The Church names Mary as Θεοτόκος (Theotokos), the Mother of God, for she held in her womb the savior of all the sons and daughters of Eve, the One who was fully man and fully God.  

In one sense Solomon was right:

27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you.

But, in another sense he was quite wrong.  God did dwell on earth — Emmanuel, God-with-us.  And though heaven cannot contain God, the womb of Mary proved more spacious than heaven, and encompassed her Creator.  Why marvel at this — at her?  The thing which we behold is a divine mystery.

The Anglican Church places little emphasis on Mary in its worship, though some Anglicans do in their personal piety.  It’s a bit ironic then that most Western churches — the Roman Catholic Church and the various Protestant bodies — do not count O Virgo Virginum among the O Antiphons; it is found almost exclusively in Anglican churches and among the few Anglican religious orders that remain.  I like to think that this is because we Anglicans rightly order our worship, giving honor to whom honor is due, and worship to Whom worship is due:  honor to Mary, worship to God alone.  The undeniable truth which we recognize, the truth which we sing in O Virgo Virginum is this: Mary was unique among women, uniquely readied for her role in our salvation.  Neither before her was any like her, nor shall there be after.

O Virgin of virgins,

how shall this be?

for neither before thee was any like thee,

nor shall there be after.

Daughters of Jerusalem,

why marvel ye at me?

The thing which ye behold 

is a divine mystery.

Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s