Saint Mary the Virgin (tr.)
21 August 2016
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.
As many of you already know, Saint Ignatius of Antioch was perhaps earliest among the Anglo-Catholic churches to welcome the ministry of ordained women. In 1980 Father Stowe asked the Rev’d Ellen Barrett, the first openly gay woman ordained in the Episcopal Church, to preach Good Friday and then, later, to become an associate priest of the parish. This was a big deal and caused division both within our community and more widely among Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians. Since then we have (more or less successfully over the years) welcomed and affirmed the ministry of women and this is an important part of our past, present, and future.
At the same time I do not think I am being controversial in stating that the Church (big “C”), both historically and to this day, has had a problem with women. Our foundational texts are unapologetically patriarchal, and in the New Testament even the remarkable women who follow Jesus are specifically marked as marginal figures. The Protestant reformation did not help matters by limiting forms of female religious experience, in closing down women’s religious orders, and curtailing the roles women could play in parish life. Indeed, as Fr Stowe recently shared with me, it was even controversial here as late as 1980 for women to be ushers. Our hierarchical structures remain patriarchal and when, in modern times, women have been granted access to these structures it has usually been with the idea that “now women can be just like men” and have what we have. It has been a matter of “welcome to the club” rather than rethinking the fundamental way in which the church operates.
We hear all kinds of excuses for this and people point to specific examples, the most obvious and usual of which is Mary. We say, “how can we hate women? We love Mary.” It mirrors a kind of misogyny where men say, “how can I hate women? I love my mother/my sister/my wife,” and this usually expresses itself through a sense of wanting to help or support or protect them. Most of our devotional language for Mary is about setting her apart and emphasising her vulnerability and sexual purity. She is the Virgin, ever virgin, mystical rose, enclosed garden, most holy, most pure, immaculate. We also focus on her maternal and nurturing qualities and her relationship with the bearing of suffering and so we call her mother of God, God bearer, health of the sick, mother of mercy, comfort of the afflicted, mother of sorrows. For all these reasons she is the maris stella, the star of ocean, whom we hail and follow.
Don’t get me wrong, these are beautiful images and they still can be very helpful for us, especially for men as we combat the culture of toxic masculinity in which vulnerability is equated with weakness. However, these have been the church’s go-to concepts both for what we admire in women and for modelling women’s behaviour and actions. Women are fragile and vulnerable, to be admired and protected, and turned to for inspiration and support. Our principle understanding of the place of women (and those who identify or present as women) has not historically been as leaders, organisers, thinkers, the roles we have traditionally assigned as male, the roles traditionally given to men.
Even the collect for today reflects the ways in which we do not value Mary in her own right:
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.
We make note that today we remember Mary’s Assumption into heaven, we refer to her as Jesus’ mother, and then we ask God to share with her the glory of the Kingdom. Yes, I know that is how collects work, and we do not pray to saints, but we are not really recognising Mary for anything about her other than how God favoured her, who her child is, and the hope that we may share in her reward. In a way it is akin to the Chicago Tribune last week referring to trap shooting Olympic gold medalist Corey Cogdell-Unrein not by name, but in reference to her famous, professional athlete husband.
So what can we do about this? The first thing is we can recast Mary, as I have done before, as the marginal, first-century Jewish teenager living under the Roman occupation of Judea that she was. Mary is not our daughter, our wife, our mother. She is a powerless person living on the edges of the Roman Empire, subject not only to the authority of the male leaders of the civil and religious society in which she lives, but also to the men in her family who had total control of her life. And she found herself unmarried and pregnant. Her circumstances rendered her even more vulnerable than she already was. Anyone might have crumpled under the weight of this and yet she didn’t. And it was not simply her meekness and mildness, her feminine charm, her nurturing instincts that helped her deal with what was happening to her. No, it was also her power and strength, her flexibility and resourcefulness, her ability to connect with others, tell her story, and get the things she needed.
Today our Gospel is the hymn that we now call the Magnificat that Mary sings to her cousin Elizabeth when she visits her before Jesus’ birth. In it we hear that Mary was able to recognise that God was doing something different, something special for her, despite her lowly social status. She wasn’t kidding when she talked about “the lowliness of his handmaiden.” And more than simply admiring her or showing her favour, God has magnified her, made her great, raised her up from her marginal position, and given her a place in the kingdom, a place that society would not have accorded her. And the purpose of that place is not simply to be a mom or exemplification of purity, but to be the agent of earth altering, seismic change.
Through her and in her relationship with God, now those on the margins begin to have a voice and a place.
And his mercy is on them that fear him *
throughout all generations.
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 this moment, in lifting her up, God is saying that the status quo must be changed and that we must begin to think of power in fundamentally different ways. The proud and privileged will see their position challenged and those who have been excluded will be included in radically new ways. This is not simply letting the outsiders into the club, this is about changing the fundamental structures of the world. Mary was the start of the monumental shift that God brings in Jesus. Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, the whole of the Paschal Mystery is about challenging the foundations of what society values and replacing it with the value enshrined in the reality that Jesus, through Love, has defeated the powers of death-dealing culture and of death itself.
Mary is not simply the Queen of Heaven, sitting in her Enclosed Garden. As the Mother of Mercy she does not merely shield the marginal from the vicissitudes of this life by wrapping her cloak around them, she is moving those people to the centre of the discourse, raising them up, and placing their concerns at the very heart of the seat of power. Mary, by reordering of our priorities, makes God’s Love present and can help us transform our communities. We can move away from patriarchal institutions where, at its best, business as usual is allowing those whom we consider “other” to become like us, into places that deal with people on their own terms and in which power is truly shared.
The Kingdom of God that lies ahead of us may look different than we imagined. Indeed this Kingdom is unlike any kingdom the world has seen, for here the values of self-interest and the accumulation of power and possessions for their own sake no longer dominate and in their place we find justice and divine Love. Mary is the harbinger and prophet of change, the kind of change Jesus was speaking of in last week’s Gospel lesson. This is “the cloud rising in the west” that will bring division. This is the work ahead that is hard and unpopular. What Mary sings about in the Magnificat is the triumph of God's values over the values that have reigned in the world and the ones that keep marginal people like Mary in their place and tame them into sweet, harmless caricatures of feminine virtues. Let us be inspired today by powerful, subversive Mary who was not afraid of the oncoming storm that heralds the coming of the Kingdom of God and join with her in the work ahead.
Andrew C. Blume✠
BNew York City
The Feast of the Assumption, 15 August 2016
© 2016 Andrew Charles Blume