Sunday 16 August 2020 – Revelation 11:19-12:6,10; Luke 1:46-55 by Rev’d Paul White
There can be little doubt that 2020 has been an unexpectedly challenging and difficult year for everyone and, although some things are gradually opening up again, you only have to watch the news to know that we are not out of the woods yet. We proceed but we do so with caution.
Personally, the lockdown started about three weeks into my sabbatical and only a few days before I was due to fly out to Kenya. I had had my jabs and even started my security training, learning which people with guns to be wary of and that if the bullets started flying not to hide in the car but to take shelter behind a mound of earth if possible. That could come in handy at the next Deanery Synod.
But, as we know, lockdown happened, the flights were cancelled, Nicky was keen to continue the experience of running things on her own and so I was left wondering what to do in a world which was suddenly closed.
Apart from finally getting around to reading Proust I did two main things during April and May, one physical and one spiritual. On the physical front I worked in my garden virtually every day, clearing a really overgrown border and planted a rose and lavender bed. On the spiritual front I sought to enter more fully into the rhythm and discipline of daily prayer and to broaden my diet of prayer.
I had been aware of a group of Anglican priests, male and female, called the Sodality of Mary, Mother of Priests, for a couple of years previously, not least because one of the people I trained with is a founder member. I had made contact with them in that time, but their meetings never quite fitted with parish commitments here, and so it didn’t happen. But, one of the unexpected side-effects of lockdown has been the rise of online worship and the Sodality started meeting and praying together online, and that made it possible for me to participate.
So, I entered into an almost Benedictine rhythm of daily prayer and physical work and I discerned that I wanted to be a part of this Sodality. Fortunately, the Superior, Fr Richard, agreed and I was admitted as a member on the last Sunday of my Sabbatical. I mentioned broadening my diet of prayer and this included praying the Rosary, which I did every day during May in preparation for my admission.
Of course the reason I am speaking about this today is because we are thinking about and celebrating the Blessed Virgin Mary as the patron saint of this our church of St. Mary’s.
But, I am acutely conscious that this is a topic which splits opinion.
I suspect that as soon as I even mentioned that we are celebrating Mary today that a number of you thought something along the lines of “What is all this Popish nonsense?”.
Some Anglicans appear not to want to think about Mary at all, despite her huge importance in the story of our salvation, and her own discipleship which went from conception to the cross and beyond.
If you are tempted to dismiss any thoughts about the importance of Mary then you should probably start with the person of Jesus, because what we think about Mary must be affected by what we think about Jesus.
One of the central tenants of Christianity is that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. We talk about Jesus being the Son of God, or God the Son, so frequently that it trips off the tongue. We sometimes also remember that Jesus was the Son of Man, or a human being. But how often do we think of Jesus as the Son of Mary? Perhaps we do at Christmas but, to be honest, most nativity plays are, thankfully, short of realism and there is little real sense that Mary has given birth to Jesus and even less sense that this same person will feed, clean and look after this baby on their dangerous flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, that on their return to Israel she will continue to raise him through childhood, adolescence and onto adulthood, that she will sit at the foot of the cross and watch her son die when nearly all his followers had fled and she will still be with the church at the day of Pentecost. Jesus’ divinity comes from God, and from being God himself, but his humanity came from his mother Mary – Mary is humanity’s link with the humanity of Jesus.
We should also remember that Mary was chosen by God the Father to give birth to God the Son. The Angel Gabriel told Mary that she had found favour with God. Out of all humanity, she was the one chosen to carry God in her womb. Who are we to dismiss whom God has chosen? In Orthodoxy Mary is often called the Theotokos or God Bearer and in the Rosary she is called the Mother of God. Whilst that may cause some uneasiness the theology is completely sound – Jesus is the Son of Mary, Jesus is God the Son, Mary is the Mother of God the Son.
By any measure the Mother of God should feature in our faith and we should not be embarrassed that the Virgin Mary is part of our story. God the Father choose her to bear and to raise God the Son and her response to God of “May be unto my according to your will” is one that she passed onto Jesus as we see from the prayer that he taught us “thy will be done” and one that we would do well to take to heart in every aspect of our lives.
But it would be wrong to see Mary as purely submissive. The song of Mary, the Magnificat that was today’s reading from Luke, is not a song of quiet submissiveness but is one of exuberant joy:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”
How wonderful both to magnify the Lord and to rejoice in God – what a soul to be so alive to the love and blessing of God.
But there is also a recognition that what God is doing through her and through Jesus will upset the status quo and will turn accepted values and norms of society upside down:
“…he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away.”
The person who says such things is no mere submissive vessel, but is a powerful person in her own right. This is the person who brought Jesus up.
Over the years and at various times and places Christianity has been the faith of the wealthy and the powerful but that is changing. The biggest growth area for Christianity is in Africa and in Asia where converts to Christianity are often the poorest and are often persecuted for their faith. They would recognise the power behind the song of Mary, they would recognise that by joining himself to humanity through the person of this poor girl God is doing something new and radical and for us to recapture something of that radical ness may revitalise something important about our faith.
The Magnificat is not just something nice to sing at Evensong but it was Mary’s revelation that the baby she had been chosen to carry was going to change the world forever.
The reading from the Revelation of St John also contained the imagery of a pregnant woman about to give birth. Interestingly, unlike the nativity plays I mentioned, this reading does not shy away from mentioning the agonies of giving birth. I should know, I have stood near someone doing that twice.
Revelation is obviously a challenging read, because it is written in a very different genre from, say, the gospels, and there is no doubt that it can be read in many ways and on many levels. However, the mistake some people make when reading this book is to think that it is only talking in a prophetic way about things to come in the future. Another way it can be read is the heavenly view of things which happened on earth. On that basis the gospel accounts of Mary giving birth to Jesus and then fleeing from Herod tell the nativity story from the human perspective whereas St John’s vision tells the same story but from the perspective of the birth of Jesus being part of the battles in heaven. That reading would make Mary into the pregnant woman in Revelation and it is on that basis that Mary is sometimes referred to as the Queen of Heaven and shown wearing a crown of 12 stars.
You may be quite happy to accept Mary as the Mother of Jesus and all that entails, but you may still wonder about the Mother of Priests thing. Whilst there is much else that could be said there I was really intrigued by a part of Revelation 12 which immediately follows todays reading, but does not form part of it.
There is a battle between the woman who has given birth to the child who has been taken up to the throne of God and the dragon, but the dragon cannot overpower the woman because of the help she is given both by God and even the earth itself. Then, it says, that the dragon was so angry that it went off to wage war against the rest of the woman’s offspring – and her offspring are those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimonies about Jesus. (Rev 12:17). This is something really worth pondering, and is not something I had really thought about before. If we interpret this story as being about Jesus and Mary then this verse says that this woman’s other offspring are those who follow Jesus, i.e. the church. If we are sisters and brothers with one another and with Jesus then what does this make Mary? The mother of the church, the mother of priests, because we are a kingdom of priests.
We should not be afraid of Mary. We should liberate her from the confines of the nativity play and recognise her as a fellow human being but one who was chosen by God to give birth to God. Without her story, both human and divine, our story would be very different.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”