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Saint Mary the Virgin (transferred)
Sunday, 16 August 2009

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume

O God, who hast taken to thyself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of thy incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of thine eternal kingdom; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Isaiah 61:10-11
Psalm 34
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 1:46-55

As you probably know if you are subscribers to the New York City Department of Transportation’s email updates about alternate side of the street parking, yesterday, August 15 was officially the feast of the Assumption. If your neighbourhood is like my neighbourhood, suspending alternate side of the street parking on a Saturday makes little difference, so that tidbit may have gone unnoticed. Nevertheless, in Western Christendom, August 15 traditionally marks the principal feast of Our Lady, a feast so important that it is one of the very few major feasts of the church calendar, apart from Christmas, Holy Week, and Easter to catch the New York City DOT’s notice. Given its significance, and the significance here at Saint Ignatius of our devotion to Our Lady, not to mention my fear that I couldn’t reasonably expect you all to turn up both Saturday evening and Sunday morning, we have transferred this commemoration to today. I am afraid that I could not arrange any special parking dispensation for today as well. I guess I could have asked our own connection at the DOT, Deacon Paul, but I am sure he would have reminded me again that he is in “bridges” rather than “parking.”

The place of Mary is a significant one in the life of our Church. Despite the quashing of many aspects of the cult of Mary at the time of the Reformation, devotion to Our Lady has been persistent within Anglicanism. The Magnificat, as the principal canticle at Evensong and in continuity with its place at pre-reformation Vespers, has been prayed daily now in our churches for over a thousand years. It has been set to music by our greatest composers and its language, in the BCP version, is usually at the tip of an Anglican’s tongue (didn’t you just want to correct the Gospel version today). Chapels dedicated to Our Lady continued to bear that name as a constant reminder of Mary’s presence in our great churches. Since the Catholic revivals of the nineteenth century, Mary’s stature within our churches has only grown. Indeed, although you will hear me gripe about the changes to the Episcopal Church’s calendar made at the recent General Convention, an excellent new provision is for the addition of one or two sets of Eucharistic propers dedicated to Mary, for what we would style votive masses.

Mary has remained at the centre of many people’s imagination. She represents for people motherhood, selfless devotion, the virtue of pietas, of mercy, and of love itself. Each of these images can be explored at length with much spiritual profit. What struck me this week as I was thinking about the feast of the Assumption for us here today, was the image presented in so much Medieval and Renaissance paining. Often scenes of Mary’s assumption are coupled with a scene of her death, an image often known as the Dormition of the Virgin. In these latter, death bed images, Mary is shown surrounded by Jesus’ disciples. The have returned to her after so many years to minister to her in her last hours. Mary, who had been with the disciples from the moment of Jesus passion, through the dark hours of wondering and fear, with them shut up in the upper room, through the days of his resurrection, and with them again after his Ascension on that day of Pentecost, that very Mary was now gathered with her son’s friends as her own mortal life was at an end. Often in these pictures of her death, Saint Peter is dressed ... well, very much as I am right now: in an amice and alb, girded, and wearing a stole crossed at the breast in the manner of priests. He is there to offer—although anachronistically—the Church’s rites of Unction to one who had ministered to Jesus at his death and to so many of them.

But as for Jesus, mortal death was not the final word, for as we celebrate today, Catholic theology has taught that Mary was taken up into heaven. In countless depictions of the Assumption, from Titian’s monumental picture in the Frari in Venice to many smaller anonymous images, it is the disciples who witness this event—whether in awe and surprise or silent devotion. How appropriate! From the moment of Jesus passion when in John’s account Jesus told the beloved disciple to “behold your mother” to this victory of eternal life over death, it was Mary around whom the disciples formed community.

In the popular imagination and throughout pious legend and in countless artistic images, it was alway to Mary that the disciples returned, Mary around whom the disciples gathered for strength and comfort and for a physical, human connexion with Jesus. Even in representing heaven, artists have depicted the community of the Godhead, the perfect community of the Trinity, gathered with Mary, not as a fourth member of that divine and perfect unity, but as the one who offers another connexion between humanity and divinity, another way for us to approach God, another way for God to reach out to us.

Since the beginning of the Christian story, Christians have gathered and formed community around Our Lady. Devotion to Mary, connexion with Mary, in churches dedicated to her, religious communities bearing her name, lay confraternities offering service to the world in her honour, has energised the church, energised the Body of Christ to love more deeply, love God more deeply, love our neighbour more deeply, energised the people of God to action in the world in her name. The one who bore our Lord into the world, who cradled him in her arms after his death, who witnessed the great acts of his Resurrection, who gathered the disciples, who knew the greatest of joys and the depths of sorrow, this Lady helps us form community with each other, form connexions with each other and with God. This Lady, honoured by God above all others, also knew all the complexities of human life and shares in our own joys and sorrows. The Lady, whom we honour today, helps God give us power—acquired through our devotion to her, our contemplation of her life and death, our recognition that her life is related to our life and that she has helped so many before us—to love more fully and to become as fully human as she was, as fully human as God wishes us to be.

Andrew Charles Blume+
New York City
Saint Mary the Virgin(tr), 16 August 2009


©2009 Andrew Charles Blume