Saint Mary the Virgin (tr.)
August 15, 2021
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.
In the past when we have celebrated this Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin, I have suggested that the Church has often used its devotion to Mary as a diversion, a blind to shield its historically negative attitude towards women. In effect, the church has always been able to reply, when questioned, “how can you say we hate women?” by saying, “we love Mary.” This is a stance that precisely mirrors the misogyny we hear when men (including many prominent in public life such as our soon-to-be former governor just this past week) say, “how can I hate women? I love my mother/my sister/my wife,” but yet continue to abuse women and deny them personal agency and economic freedom and justice. This view puts women on a pedestal where they can be, all at the same time, admired, ignored, and subject to mistreatment.
In this way, the church has set Mary apart, emphasising her vulnerability and purity. She is the Virgin, ever virgin, mystical rose, enclosed garden, most holy, most pure, immaculate. Using the power of names, we thereby domesticate her and strip her of any hint of real personal power and authority. We make her unthreatening, tame, docile. We re-imagine her as a traditionally beautiful example of feminine loveliness, almost always white and European, and indeed prosperous, well dressed, practically upper middle class. Our own parish image of Mary’s Presentation in the Temple on the right panel of the Lady Chapel altarpiece might as well be depicting her first day, first year at an all-girls boarding school or New England woman’s college.
This Mary, our mother or sister or wife or girlfriend, in need of protection is a safe locus of devotion. It keeps everything domestic and linked to a kind of private morality. She presents no danger, no hint of rebellion, no voice challenging the men who run the world, and yet that dangerous Mary is exactly whom we need today. Lucky for us, the real Mary, the teen-aged, Jewish girl on the margins of the Roman empire, is the Mary of scripture who boldly proclaims that God
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.
This Mary of the Magnificat is someone to whom we can turn. And it is clear to me and to many that in these days we are in great need of such a one as this Mary.
The last four or five years have seen outright and brazen displays of hate that we have not seen since, perhaps, the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Racism, anti-Semitism, and sex and gender-based bias, violence, and abuse have been given form, voice, and legitimacy. Whereas for about a generation people had feared shame and ostracisation for acting in these ways and voicing such views, now they seem to be simply the way things are, even part of our civic discourse in many places. The results have been violence and death, creating a climate of fear and anger. What is worse, men in power, even the ones who have not been accused of these sins themselves, have enabled and made apologies for both these vilest of sinners, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis, and the average men who casually and thoughtlessly continue to abuse those on the margins, especially people of colour, women, and queer people. Furthermore they have repeatedly refused to offer any moral guidance and leadership to a stunned nation that is slowly becoming numb.
There is no question that in these days, the Church must use its voice, the voice at the heart of which is that of Mary of the Magnificat, to call our leaders and the nation as a whole to account, to speak up for the marginalised and the persecuted, the humble and meek who suffer oppression and violence systematically and personally at the hands of a society and individuals that judge everything against a standard that is inevitably that of an able-bodied, prosperous, straight, cisgendered white man. We are called to this work not to sway elections or move politicians, but because we are called as Christians to cooperate with God in the unfolding of the Kingdom of our true leader, Christ, who, is working to build a new world order, one of love and justice where the lion will lie down with the lamb and swords will be beaten into ploughsharers.
Our hero in this moment, can and must be that young marginal woman, one who was marked as different by the powerful because of her sex and her ethnicity, one who would have seemed powerless to most observers, but to whom God assigned so much authority and power. Mary knew exactly where she stood in the pecking order of her society, singing “For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath magnified me; and holy is his Name.” Mary took God’s choosing her as a sign that something bigger was happening, something that was bigger than herself or God’s personal favour towards her.
Mary recognised God’s ability to work in and through her, even a woman of low social station from a small minority, as a sign that something fundamental had shifted, that there was something new happening at the foundation of creation. God was ushering in a new age, the age of a new kingdom with new priorities. The very definition of power was to be challenged and new models put forward. Those who seemed mighty in this age would see their might yield to God’s very purpose, which is love and reconciliation. Again and always she sings:
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.
These are the priorities ushered in by the choice of Mary to be the bearer of God into Creation. These are the priorities asking us to choose whether or not we wish to respond to God’s invitation into this new Kingdom or whether we wish to seek that vain self interest and power that calls us away from love and justice.
In her song, Mary is calling us to make a choice in this very moment (and every time we pray Evening Prayer – even on Zoom). Are we on the side of the mighty or of the humble and meek; the side of the hungry or the satisfied? Are we on the side of white supremacy and racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of hate or are we on the side of Love, the Love we identify as God? Everyone is invited to make this choice. No one need be left out.
Many of us here are holders of great privilege, afforded us by society merely because we were born male or heterosexual or white or into the educated upper middle classes. We may be mighty and rich, possessors of great knowledge, and yet, the Gospel calls us, invites us, challenges us to cast our lot with Love. And when we make that choice to name ourselves as Christian, to be on the side of Love, we limit the choices we can then make. In this way Mary, our Lady, demands us to side with the humble and meek, with the poor, oppressed, and the marginalised, and that we use our freedom and power, even sometimes give it up, in the service of the love and justice to which we are called in the Great Commandment.
We are called, a diverse collection of people, from every race and nation, across any spectrum of gender and sexuality, from all classes of society, into the Body of Christ, the body of the one who was born of the Virgin Mary, and entered into our world to inaugurate a kingdom of love and justice. None of us is inferior to any other, as we bring our range of gifts and talents and skills to the work of love put into our hands by God. This is the difficult and challenging work to which that dangerous and powerful Mary calls us. She cries out to us from her place, recentered as the true Queen of Heaven – like the woman in the window of the Lady Chapel – who began as one on the margins, disregarded and patronised, and yet who stands before us, fully herself, inspiring us to share her strength and her capacity for love.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
Jonathan M. Daniels, martyr, 14 August 2021
© 2021 Andrew Charles Blume