The Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin (tr.)
August 16, 2020
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.
With a fitful start beginning on the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25th, and settling down into a daily routine by April 20th, as a community we have consistently been praying the Magnificat five days a week at Evening Prayer throughout this period of isolation and lock down. The Magnificat, along with that other canticle from the Gospel of Luke, the Nunc Dimittis, have been our most consistent companions as we have lived through, and tried to make meaning of, the dislocations of the past five or so months. Perhaps this is how Thomas Cranmer intended it when he included these two texts as the invariable interludes between scripture readings when he constructed the evening office, combining in one the old liturgies of Vespers and Compline. The Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis were to be there always, every day—for Cranmer envisioned the Daily Office as truly being a daily communal practice—comforting, guiding, inspiring us at the end of, what were certainly in those Tudor times, long and challenging days.
The Nunc Dimittis gets its day in court, as it were, on Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, when Simeon pronounces those words at the sight of the Saviour, proclaiming him “to be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.” Today the Magnificat gets its turn. Of course, that’s a modern Episcopalian invention, since historically the Magnificat is the gospel lesson for its associated feast day, the Visitation, which comes at the end of May and celebrates Mary’s meeting with Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and her proclamation of those extraordinary words. Today’s mid-August celebration sits on the traditional day of the Assumption of the Virgin, when Mary falls asleep in death and is taken up to heaven and assumes her place in the celestial court, a story of great antiquity, yet which does not appear in the Scriptures. Maintaining a connection with an historical date associated with Mary while satisfying our Protestant inclination not to celebrate a story some believe to be apocryphal, we have unsurprisingly taken the middle way and selected this to be simply the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin. With that in mind, the authors of our lectionary then chose the Magnificat as our gospel, for it truly is Mary’s greatest proclamation, the summation of her character and her faith. Over the years, I have taken up both themes (and even connected them), but this year I am drawn back to the Magnificat, as Mary’s words have been lingering on my lips these past months more that they have for quite some time.
It is, of course, a consequence of the changes wrought to our lives and routines by this pandemic, many of which are achingly obvious every time we leave our house masked, armed with Purell, performing routine errands complicated by social distancing. This is even more true for those who have fallen ill and their family and friends, for those who have lost loved ones to the disease, been separated from family or home for as many as six months. We have also changed how we have been gathering as a community and worshipping, watching this Sunday mass on YouTube. It is our daily worship on Zoom, however, that has been the most interesting and that has brought me the most personal sense of hope and joy, and it is the place from which the Magnificat has been seeping into my waking and sleeping consciousness.
Every day, a rotating group of between ten and twenty parishioners gather on the screen, depending on your cultural reference point, “Brady Bunch” or “Hollywood Squares” style, and we see each others faces, enter each others homes or offices, and pray, day in, day out, the familiar words of the Prayer Book Service. We have heard the Psalms several times through and are making our way through acres of Scripture. We are digesting these contents and discussing them, finding new insights every day. And while from time to time, we have gotten down to the nitty gritty of a Greek or Latin translation (as we did just the other night when we decided the Greeks had a much better term for “diefication” than those whose preferred tongue was Latin), we have had a jolly time and learnt a great deal from each other and from the texts with which we have been engaging as living expressions of our faith.
Central to this, for me at least, has been the continual presence of the Magnificat looming over us. Mary’s words stand to us as a beacon from two thousand years ago and are as relevant to our lives and our situation as they were the moment they first were uttered. Probably still in her teens and from a modest background, Mary would not have been a very important person in the world into which she was born. She lived in a minor Roman province and practised a faith at odds with the official religion of the Empire of which they were a part. When not stirring the pot, the Romans left the Jews to themselves, but at the slightest sign of trouble or rebellion came down on them harshly, culminating, of course, with the destruction of the Second Temple by the Roman army in First Jewish-Roman War of a.d. 70. Mary’s insignificance within her own society is underscored by our scriptures and figures significantly in our understanding of her importance.
That God might entrust a girl like Mary with the work of bearing the very son of God into creation is a thing to be marvelled. We look upon the “lowliness of his handmaiden” and from our vantage point know how indeed “all generations [have called her] blessed.” God chose someone like Mary and “magnified” her and if God might do this for Mary, why not for another like her, someone on the margins of society, disregarded, unseen. In God’s choice, God makes it clear that all those forgotten by society are not forgotten by God and we should take note, we should take action, and expand our field of vision to include all the Marys who remain unseen.
In God’s choice of Mary, he has made it clear that there are to be reversals in our comprehension of what and who are important, of what matters. The powerful men who formed the patriarchy of those days, and still of our day, can only tremble once they grasp Mary’s significance. She knows, and we have been reminded every day, that God shall “scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts”, shall “put down the mighty from their seat,” and shall “exalt the humble and meek,” fill “the hungry with good things,” and the rich are to be “sent empty away.” Indeed, this work, Mary tells us in her song, is already begun. This reversal of fortune, begun in God’s choice of Mary and recognised by her as such, is still God’s promise to us, who live in the world that already knows the resurrection and the works of the God in Christ.
In our nation over these past five months the powerful have failed us over and over again. The proud should have been scattered in the imagination of their hearts, and yet we remain here. We face more trouble ahead as we begin another school year, making difficult choices about how we are to proceed, how we are to contain a pandemic that can only be contained by paying attention to science and with discipline, consistency, and sacrifice on our parts. The words of the Magnificat strengthen us and fill us with the knowledge that God’s desire for us is health and healing, that the least among us are to be cared for, that everyone, no matter how seemingly insignificant or different from those in power, deserves the regard that God has already shown for Our Lady, Saint Mary.
Perhaps we should have been doing the Daily Office every day all these years, as the Book asks us to do, and as I know some of you have done all along. It has taken a pandemic; it has taken our physical separation from one another to force us as a community back to this fundamentally Anglican and Catholic practice that centres Mary and her great song at the heart of our common life. Facing the uncertain financial and public health environment that lies ahead of us, we do so armed with Mary’s words and her promise: God loves and attends to the least of us, even when we feel forgotten or insignificant ourselves; God has showed that the powerful in this world, whose power comes from money and position, are not those counted as powerful in the Kingdom of God; God has promised that the humble and meek and those who are hungry will receive their due and be satisfied. These are the promises our Lord makes us through Mary’s words, words she believes with all her heart and that she proclaims with courage and conviction.
It is in this spirit that we pray these words each day, even in the midst of the difficulties we face, even as we feel as powerless as Mary may have felt before God showed her her future, her calling as the God bearer and the voice of the oppressed. She was the one who would know love and joy, but who would also know the deepest of sorrows, and who was afforded a place in the Kingdom by the side of our God in Christ. Let this song continue to fill our hearts as we move into our own uncertain future, certain, however, of God’s priorities and God’s steadfast purpose.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
The Transfiguraion of Our Lord, 6 August 2020
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume