The Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin
15 August 2008
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.
So often when doing theology—which is nothing more than working at understanding our faith—we fail to look to our corporate practice as a place to begin making meaning of those things most important to us. I was particularly struck by this at my first meeting as a member of the Anglican Roman Catholic Dialogue in New York a few months ago. This group has been meeting over the past year or so to consider the most recent document produced by the Anglican-Roman International Commission, “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ.” Much of the conversation on that day centred on summing up the areas of agreement around the status and importance of Mary in both the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions. I was fascinated that completely absent from our discussion was any mention of the significance of Mary in current Anglican practice or within the history of Anglican worship and their significance on how regular Episcopalians understood Our Lady.
I took a deep breath, raised my hand, and found that my first contribution to the group was to remind everyone that however briefly, the document does mention two facts about Mary in Anglican practice and that both are highly significant in understanding her looming presence in the Anglican imagination. The first is that in England most Lady Chapels retained their dedication through the dislocation of the Reformation, keeping her constantly in people’s minds and ensuring the continuation of some personal, popular devotions. The second was that Mary has been an important figure in Prayer Book worship since the First Book of 1549 due to the invariable inclusion of the Gospel Canticle Magnificat at Evening Prayer. Furthermore since the Prayer Book imagines that Evening Prayer will be daily, this Marian hymn from Luke was to be seared into the Anglican consciousness. Indeed much more than the enriching of Anglican worship in some parishes over the past hundred or so years with the Marian anthems, Angelus, Regina Caeli, and the others, the Magnificat has broadly influenced the Anglican and Episcopalian understanding of Our Lady.
I would argue, in fact, that because of the power of its poetry, its consistent use in worship, reinforced by its having been set to some of the most beautiful Anglo-American church music of the last five hundred years, that it is Our Lady of the Magnificat who is dearest to the hearts of most Anglicans around the world. Who, then, is Our Lady of the Magnificat, of whom we hear in tonight’s Gospel, and what makes her so compelling?
In Luke’s Gospel, we meet Mary, a young Jewish girl, probably in her early teens, who has just learned from an angel that she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit and that she will bear a son who
will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever and of his kingdom there will be no end (Luke 1:32-33).
Not much more than a little girl, Mary has been chosen by God and assumes an enormous burden from which she does not shrink, telling the Angel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). She goes off to visit her relative Elizabeth, who is also to bear a child of no little significance and when Mary gets to Elizabeth’s house, the latter greets her young kinswoman with encouraging words. It is with what is now known as the Magnificat, from the first word of its Latin version, that Mary makes her reply.
Mary shows no fear or hesitation—and she probably felt both. Mary shows not mere acquiescence to God’s command and to her fate, but rather talks joyously of her mission, talks joyously of how God makes her feel.
My soul doth magnify the Lord, *
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded *
the lowliness of his handmaiden.
God fills her heart with joy and gladness because he has chosen someone of little importance to the powerful to help him change the world. She, a simple girl from a small nation of people in an outpost of the Roman Empire, will be honoured and remembered and “from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” And not because she thinks of herself as being so special, but because “he that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is his Name” and because “his mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations,” meaning that she knows and loves God. And what is more, she is not the only person whom to the rest of society might seem insignificant that God embraces and loves and makes important. In selecting her, in selecting a teen-ager, a girl, someone on the margins, God shows that he will raise-up and include others whom society things as of little value.
He hath showed strength with his arm; *
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, *
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
In selecting Mary, God shows that he is about to turn the world upside down. God shows that in sending Jesus Christ to be born of a human mother that the tide of power is to be set back, that the rich and powerful are no better than the poor and lowly and that all deserve to be loved and cared for.
Our Lady of the Magnificat is the one who cares for the poor and the outcast. Our Lady of the Magnificat knows that God intends to enfold all people into his plan for salvation. Our Lady of the Magnificat shows us that God uses and includes the poor and those on the fringes of society to help him bring about his kingdom of Love. Our Lady of the Magnificat stands up and speaks for all those for whom there is no one conventionally powerful to help them. Our Lady of the Magnificat, celebrated today as taking her place at the left hand of God, so powerfully depicted by Michelangelo in his Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, reminds God and reminds us that all people matter. Indeed, her song rings in our ears whenever we pray Evening prayer, whenever we sing Solemn Evensong, so that we may never forget that God in Christ came into the world and forever changed our human understanding of what is supremely important, making the love of God and the love of neighbour our priority in the ordering of our daily lives.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Florence Nightingale, 12 August 2008
©2008 Andrew Charles Blume