"At the lap of the Virgin": Laudian Marian piety at the Epiphany

Diarmaid MacCulloch ends his essay 'The Virgin Mary and Protestant Reformers' by referring to the emergence in the 1620s of "hints of a different voice within Protestantism".  I am not at all convinced that the examples offered by MacCulloch - "cultured Protestant noblemen" in England displaying "Scriptural scenes from the life of Our Lady in their private chapels", a work by French Protestant divine Charles Drelincourt, and "the clerical party fostered by Lancelot Andrewes" - equate to a "different voice".  In each case, the key doctrinal commitments of the Reformation regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary were affirmed and maintained.  

What is more, as has recently been discussed regarding Cranmer's Christmas collect, the Reformed Marian piety of the Lutheran and Zurich Reformations found quiet but earnest expression in the Book of Common Prayer.  That said, perhaps MacCulloch, while certainly overstating matters, rightly identifies a change: definitely not a different voice, but instead a deeper confidence confidence amongst the avant-garde and Laudians in Reformed Marian piety, in reverence for the "pure Virgin" of Cranmer's collect.  MacCulloch describes the magisterial Reformers as being on the defensive regarding the Blessed Virgin, challenged by both Papal Catholicism and Radical Reformation.  By the 1620s, a new confidence in a Reformed Marian piety had taken root, a confidence that it expressed a Scriptural and patristic reverence for Our Lady, superior to both Tridentine excesses and Puritan neglect.

In Laudian Epiphany sermons we see this new tone, in a warm, unembarrassed while yet doctrinally Reformed Marian piety.  Epiphany was an appropriate occasion to give voice to such piety, as the Gospel reading for the feast embodied both devotional warmth and Reformed doctrinal safeguards: "And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down and worshipped him".  

As mentioned in a previous post, Cosin's 1621 Epiphany sermon is his earliest extant sermon, preached in his first years as a cleric, and in the parish of his mentor, John Hayward.  This would suggest that the sermon was unlikely to have been an outlier, removed from the thinking of his mentor (and, indeed, of Hayward's circle: he was the nephew of Overall, Bishop of Norwich).  In the sermon's description of the scene which the Magi beheld, Cosin took care to refer to the Blessed Virgin's loving presence:

to behold Christ in all his poverty, his robes being but the poor swaddling-clouts that His Mother's mantle could make Him, His attendants not lords of the chamber but beast of the fields, and His throne not of six fair steps, or a great ivory covered over with gold, but a rude manger covered perhaps with dust, or at the best His Mother's arms. This was the magnificence that they came to see, and this the King That they took all this pains to search and come from the East this day to worship.

The Blessed Virgin, in other words, was integral to "the magnificence that they came to see".  What is more, this Epiphany was the conclusion of a series of epiphanies, which began with Mary:

There were many Epiphanies before this, for it was made manifest many times before. To the Blessed Virgin first, for she knew it nine months before.

And it is the Blessed Virgin who models for us our response to the Lord's Epiphany:

but be sure ye take that along to make your joy sweet which the Holy Virgin taught us at the very first news of all, of any Christmas rewards, at the Annunciation, "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour."

Richard Gardyner's sermon for the Epiphany in 1639 similarly sets before us the vision which the Magi beheld, urging us to imitate them:

falling down at the Manger, and at the lap of the Virgin, where this blessed Child lieth ... and there behold him given to us.

Again we are to behold the Incarnate Lord as did the Magi, "with Mary his mother".  We might also note that Gardyner evokes centuries of Christian iconography at this point by declaring that we encounter the Christ Child "at the lap of the Virgin", imagery associated with traditional Marian piety.

Mark Frank's Epiphany sermon - posthumously published with his other festival sermons in 1672 - delighted in the feast's Gospel description of the Magi encountering "the young child with Mary his mother":

the Shrine and Altar, the glorious Virgin's Lap, where the Saviour of the World is laid to be adored and worship'd.

This is also to be our experience within the Church, in which Christ is presented to born as the One "born of the Virgin Mary":

to the House of God, to the Church of Christ; then shall we be sure to find him, find him with his Mother, our souls find him, our affections embrace him, then will he be exalted in us, and exalt us from this House, the Church Militant below, to that above, the Church Triumphant in the Heavens.

Frank also interprets the Gospel's depiction of the Incarnate Lord held by His Mother as a sign of our union with Christ:

yet not only to find a Saviour in the flesh, so near allied unto us, and so soon almost as he is so made to us, but also ... to find him in his Mother's arms, fast claspt within our souls (for every faithful soul is Christ's Mother, as well as blessed Mary, conceives, and brings him forth, and nourishes him, as well as she, the soul spiritually, as she naturally) to find, I say, Christ thus conceived and brought forth in our own souls, this Child in our own arms too, Christ with us, is that indeed which makes this finding worth the finding, this sight worth seeing.

The Blessed Virgin at the Epiphany, then, becomes a sign of our redemption, of "the riches of the glory of this mystery amongst the Gentiles" proclaimed by the Apostle, "Christ in you, the hope of glory".

While clearly within the bounds of Reformation orthodoxy (no invocation; the use of Scriptural titles; a quiet reverence), there is a warm delight evident in the Marian piety present in Laudian preaching on the Epiphany, a warm delight rooted in a confidence that such reverence for the Blessed Virgin was deeply Scriptural and patristic.  What is more, it is also a merry rebuttal of suggestions that the Blessed Virgin Mary had disappeared from the life of the ecclesia Anglicana at the Reformation. At the feast of the Epiphany, Laudians demonstrated how Protestants encountered Christ our Lord "at the lap of the Virgin".

(The depiction of the Adoration of the Magi is from a 13th century window in Canterbury Cathedral.)


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