August 15, 2021

Mary – who and what is she for us?

A Sermon Preached by Leslie Spatt on the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Luke 1:46-59

The Virgin Mary, Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, Theotokos, God-bearer.  What a collection of accumulated titles describing someone who was probably a very ordinary, very frightened teenage peasant girl from a nothing village in the Middle East. Pregnant without an obvious husband, so two of the Gospels tell us. But both Mark’s and John’s gospels don’t even mention her by name. What has the Christian church made of her? How can this person: this remote figure, thoroughly sanitised by the Church from any taint of sin or sexual identity, perfection of sacred motherhood, and impossibly exalted submissive holiness, have any genuine connection with us, human sinners that we are?

Our spiritual cousins down the road at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church will today be celebrating the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – where it’s believed immediately after death, before her body could decay, she was carried body and soul directly into Heaven to be at Christ’s side. You may also hear the title of the Dormition of Mary in Eastern Orthodox churches – the ‘falling asleep’ of Mary. Both are ancient titles with a long and rich history of celebration.

The Church of England, in its ongoing pursuit of compromise, trying to please the entire spectrum of Anglican belief (dream on!) neatly sidesteps any doctrinal controversies by simply calling today a feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Make of it what you will, says the Church of England.  And, not very far from here, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary will be celebrated today with great pomp, clouds of incense and priceless vestments, with a grand procession in the evening in the streets around Oxford Circus. In an Anglican church in the heart of central London. Ironically, with no women at all participating in the ritualistic bits. Yes – this is the Church of England!

There’s so much churchy stuff surrounding Mary that many Christians are content to simply regard her as very important because she’s Jesus’ mum, and not think too much about the theological tangles. But…..don’t we all hope that when we die, we will also be carried, body and soul, into God’s presence? Isn’t that the same as Mary being ‘assumed’ body and soul into Heaven?

Who was she, really? There’s scattered references to a person called Mary, as Jesus’ mother, in Christian scriptures. By comparison, much more is made of Mary Magdalene in the Gospels. But Christianity can’t lay exclusive claim to her.  There’s actually more attention paid to her in Islam where she’s the only woman named in the Quran, has an entire chapter devoted to her; considered the greatest woman in the history of humankind, and mentioned or referred to a total of 50 times.  St Paul seems to be singularly uninterested in Mary the mother of Jesus – his genuine letters don’t mention her by name at all, and nothing about her role in the Jesus story. No mention of any birth stories of Jesus, virginity, angel messages. All Paul says is that Jesus was born of a woman, as any fully human person would have to be; and born under the Law, as the Messiah would have to be. So, apart from the fact that she’s named as Jesus’ mum, why is Mary considered so important?

What can Mary possibly have to say to us 21st century Christians today? And there are lots of answers to that, especially among Anglicans who don’t have a compulsory dogmatic definition of her meaning; and need to think and frequently argue about it. What Mary means is far more significant than the arguments about the very sketchy picture we get of her from Scripture.  Part of the meaning of Mary is that Jesus had to have a real human mother like all the rest of us in order to be born into full humanity. Otherwise he has no connection with us. Without the human part of him we could, of course, worship Jesus as a god. But without the “fully God and fully human” marriage he can’t really be our bridge and pathway to God: Jesus as “only God” without any part of being human has been considered a heresy since the very early Church.

Mary, Maryam, Miriam, was an obscure ordinary person called to do extraordinary things. Whatever you might believe about the Virgin Birth, or angels or the birth stories, there was this child who found herself pregnant and just knew that she’d been asked by God to do something special.  Not ordered to – but asked. She could have said ‘no’. Eventually of course she does say “Oh, OK then, as you wish, I’ll go along with it and God will just have to sort things out.” Mary gives us the example of aligning yourself with God’s will, trying to understand it and then work with it; not necessarily blind unknowing acceptance, but in the assurance that whatever decision you come to, it’s the one you believe is what God wants. Her answer to the angel “Let it be with me according to your word” before Jesus’ birth has its ultimate expression in Jesus’ “Not my will but yours be done” before his death.

And, like Mary, we as ordinary people are all called in our own ways to do extraordinary things to help make our world and all of creation a better place. We may think we have no influence, no power, no importance in the face of all the mess that the current world is in. God, fortunately, has plans for everyone to contribute something to help build the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s up to us to be open to discovering what that is for us; and then go do it. Ask permission, get training, use imagination if needed. But not to wait around for someone to tell us what to do. To say, I’ll try, instead of, I can’t.  Or even worse, I won’t.  Remember Mary – she wanted a bit of explanation first – but then said yes.

If we start to despair as we look around, of how the rich seem to get richer, the poor just get less and less and eventually become invisible; when climate change and exploding population threaten our very existence, where dictators and fanatics rule societies where those who don’t conform, or who are considered inferior are persecuted and marginalised, we can remember Mary’s song of confidence in God, what she sang to Elizabeth as she hid her pregnancy from a society who would have stoned her for being pregnant without a husband:

God will show his strength. The proud and the mighty will be cast down, and the weak will be strong. God will feed the starving poor and the powerful rich will have nothing.  This is what God has promised, from the days of Abraham, right up to now.

We can all hope for a world called the Kingdom of Heaven, where people will care for each other and make sure that nobody is forgotten or excluded because of their social position or their financial worth. Where nobody is discriminated against because of their gender, skin colour, religion, tribe, age or who they love. And in our attempts to make it real, we, the ordinary people, can try to align our wills with God’s will, find out what we’re supposed to say yes to. And where lots of little things done by ordinary people can become big things which make a difference.

And what about Mary?  Where could she fit in? We can learn about trust and hope from Mary. But I wonder if we can say yes to God like she did, regardless of personal cost. Mary is the one who showed that saying Yes to God resulted in humanity being able to see God’s reflection in a human being, God-with-us instead of God being a distant uncaring deity who only wants to punish wrongdoing. She’s someone who accepted, waited, watched, suffered and lived with God’s promise that it all meant something even if she didn’t know exactly what.  Praying to Mary, with Mary, can mean for us something timeless; of connecting with God, however we understand it. She knows what our problems, fears and doubts are like because she’s been there.  Mary’s Inbox always has space for us.

 

Hail Mary, full of grace,

Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

Amen.

 

Leslie Spatt 2021

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