Readings: Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 1:46-55
In November of this year, we will commemorate 100 years since the first woman entered Parliament as an MP. This was the famous Nancy Astor, and you may remember the not so glorious exchange between her and Winston Churchill. Reprimanding Churchill she said “ Winston, you’re drunk” To which he replied “ And you Madam are ugly, but in the morning I will be sober.” Commemorating the role of a powerful woman is what we do today. This is something deep in the human psyche. One of the most sacred aspects of a priest’s work is to be with people at the end of their lives, and for me, it is always moving and basic. Our last words are often Mother. This is reality very close to something very primal and basic and something to do with pain. But when the reverse happens, and a mother buries her own child, the pain is even greater. We have seen this already 15 times this year in the murder of teenagers by stabbing in this country, by the tragic death of Nora in Malaysia, and by the murder of Police Officers in their line of duty, in our increasingly violent country. I know from my own family’s experience that there is probably nothing more painful than for a mother to bury a child. It feels like a cruel reversal of the natural. We expect in the course of life to bury our parents, but not the other way round. In this Church, one of the more powerful pieces of religious art is the distraught Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross in Emmeline Halse’s powerful depiction on the reredos. This is a mother’s pain. And it is the Blessed Virgin Mary whom we commemorate today, together with most of the rest of the Christian world. So today, I want to speak about the Virgin Mary today by using Mary, Grace and Hope in Christ, published by the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, or ARCIC. I have used this before, but today, I want to use two insights from that book, Mary pain-bearer, and Mary, mother of consolation and strength.
First, Mary pain-bearer. Any mother knows that this is one of the things mothers do, from the pain of child-birth to the shared pain of rearing offspring, to use a farming term. This never goes away. Anything your child does at whatever age will affect you, for good or ill. This is part of being connected through the human family, and isn’t necessarily restricted to those who are biological mothers. There are many who take on and experience this mothering role, both men and women, who may not have produced children of their own. This is part of the destiny and role of the Virgin Mary, willingly accepted. When the child Jesus was brought to the Temple by his mother, Simeon said to her amongst other things. “ And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” This is Mary, pain-bearer, and in Christian spirituality it has been especially powerful and helpful. My own mother chose this reading at the funeral of her own son, my younger brother. ARCIC recognises this in these words, speaking of Mary the pain-bearer at the foot of the Cross: “Understood in terms of discipleship, Jesus’ dying words give Mary a motherly role in the Church and encourage the community of disciples to embrace her as a spiritual mother.” This, amongst other reasons, was why the early Church gave Mary the title Theotokos, or God-bearer, because it is ultimately God who shares all human pain by becoming fully human. This helps many in their worship, and can be real source of unity. An urgent contemporary issue is of course how Christians and Muslims can find common ground. What better person than the Virgin Mary to do this, as she holds a place of high honour within Islam. Go to any Marian shrine in the Middle East, and you will find it full of Muslims, especially women, invoking Mary the Pain-Bearer.
Now Mary, mother of consolation and strength. Mary sings the Magnificat, her song. We hear this in the Gospel set for today, and indeed it has a central place in the daily prayer of the Church. Come to this Church on any day to Evening Prayer and this Gospel canticle, the Song of Mary, is recited every day. Marian devotion thus takes pride of place in the universal Christian tradition. Why has this song been such a powerful influence on Christian spirituality? For an answer, we need not go to the rich, the powerful, and the self-contained, because it is manifestly not their song. It is the song of the powerless throughout the ages, which is also a song of strength and of defiance. Let me quote again from ARCIC: “ In Mary’s response, we can see an attitude of poverty towards God that reflects the divine commitment and preference for the poor. In her powerlessness, she is exalted by God’s favour…Issues of justice for women and the empowerment of the oppressed have arisen from daily reflection on Mary’s remarkable song. Inspired by her words, communities of women and men in various cultures have committed themselves to work with the poor and the excluded.” So this is not a quietist piety, but an active, powerful, revolutionary one. It is no surprise that the Church of England, often siding with secular power at the expense of the poor, has not been particularly keen on Mary, mother of consolation and strength. The Chaplains of the East India Company in India were forbidden from saying the Magnificat, the song of Mary, lest it gave the native Indians the wrong idea. Remember this was the Church which produced “ the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, he made them high and lowly, and ordered their Estate.” But Mary, mother of consolation and mother of the poor comes to invert all of that in her Kali-like turning of the world upside down.
So we celebrate the Blessed Virgin Mary today and join our prayer to hers. As we pray with her, so she prays with and for us. This a model of mutual listening, and one which all communities should take to heart. She could not listen to God and give her “Fiat” if she was always uttering and opining, and nor can we. We recognise through her that the vulnerable and helpless have a special place in the economy of Grace – one of the most powerful reasons we baptise infants, and it is a delight to baptise Maisie on this special day today. I end with words again from ARCIC on Mary’s special place of honour for all Christians: “We are to bless her as the “handmaid of the Lord” who gave her unqualified assent to the fulfilment of God’s saving plan, as the mother who pondered all things in her heart, as the refugee seeking asylum in a foreign land, as the mother pierced by the innocent suffering of her own child, and as the woman to whom Jesus entrusted his friends. We are at one with her and the apostles, as they pray for the outpouring of the Spirit on the Church.” So today be encouraged by Mary, Pain Bearer and Mary, Mother of Consolation and strength. When we speak or pray with her, she always listens.
Further Reading: Mary, Grace & Hope in Christ (Morehouse Publishing) ISBN 0-8912-