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The Rev'd Canon Dr William Taylor

The Blessed Virgin Mary - St Paul's Cathedral

Denny Chan

Sermon by the Rev'd William Taylor 

Given at St Paul’s Cathedral on Sunday, 15th August 2010
Readings: Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 1:46-55

A vignette from the Lebanon, where I was talking to someone in one of the militias in that country. He showed me his AK47, and on one side of the butt was a sticker of the crucifixion, and on the other side was a sticker of a well-known icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Rather piously, I asked him why he had these images on his rifle. He replied even more piously, “ Because the cross is our way of life, and the Virgin is our future – Christians and Muslims together.” Today is the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Feast is known as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and has been official dogma of that church since 1950. In the Orthodox tradition, this Feast is kept with equal importance, but with a different emphasis, and is called the Dormition of the Mother of God. When the Church of England adopted the liturgical calendar and lectionary that we now use, this Marian Feast was put back into the calendar on 15th August. It was added as an act of ecumenical solidarity with the majority of Christians around the world, and in recognition of the fact that ecumenical convergence has taken place around the role and position of Mary, rendering much of the old polemic about her sterile. In my own ecumenical work in the Diocese, I have found the book Mary, Grace and Hope in Christ, published by the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, or ARCIC, to be very helpful. This is a groundbreaking document, and it not only goes beyond many of the old, worn-out stereotypes and positions, but also brings our two Churches significantly closer together. In particular, I want to use two insights from that book, Mary pain-bearer, and Mary, mother of consolation and strength. These insights I believe are also helpful for Christians and Muslims together, especially in this season of Ramadan. 

So first Mary, pain bearer. Many churches contain images of a distraught Mary at the foot of the Cross, where her dying or dead Son is suspended. As an image of human pathos, it is hard to find anything stronger than this. Mary as pain bearer is an image recognised in Mary, Grace and Hope in Christ. The image is one of human pathos and tragedy, but more importantly, Mary, as Theotokos, or God-Bearer, shows us that all human pain and suffering is shared by God. We are not in the human venture alone, abandoned as the ancients thought, to the malicious slings and arrows of malevolent fate. Moving on from this, it also points to the fact that in the Christian community, we believe that all pain is shared. If you suffer, I suffer. This has a vital contemporary relevance at all times and in all ages. Images of human suffering, be they of a child with HIV/Aids in our partner Dioceses in Angola and Mozambique, or of the people caught up in the flooding in Pakistan, are images that touch us all. Mary does not stand by the suffering of her son as though watching it on a DVD - she experiences it for herself. The Prophetic and distressing words to her were “ And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” In this, Mary as the paradigm for involvement in the human condition is powerfully shown. This, above all, is the reason she is Theotokos, God-Bearer, for God is fully involved in the human condition, in its joys and in its sorrows. 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.” Mary is pain bearer, taking all human pain to the heart of God. 

Now to the second image of Mary, as mother of consolation and strength. Orthodox Churches all have an arrangement of icons, with the Virgin Mary on the right of Christ, Christ in the centre, and his cousin John the Baptist on his left. Mary points to her Son in the centre of the three images. These three images are called in Orthodox theology a deesis, because God in Christ is in the centre. On of the earliest known of these images of the Virgin come from the Coptic tradition, itself living life as a minority within the majority Muslim context in Egypt. That country, Egypt, was of course the place where the Holy Family spent years in exile as refugees. The Virgin Mary plays a central role, in that context, not only for Christians, but also for Muslims. The Virgin Mary, in folk piety, is also very important for Muslims. Visit any Marian shrine in the Middle East or Africa, and you will find significant numbers of Muslims are always attracted there as a places of prayer, as places of intercession, and as places of healing. Our own culture, desperately in need of this more emotive side of life, is beginning to rediscover this for itself. In the Gospel set for today, we hear Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which has a central place in the daily prayer of the Church. Come to Evening Prayer in this Cathedral on any day and this Gospel canticle, the Song of Mary, is recited. 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, 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. For this reason, the Chaplains of the East India Company in India were for a time forbidden from reciting the Magnificat, lest it gave people the wrong idea. Remember this was the Church that 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. I have found it striking how many people, Christians and Muslims alike, have spoken to me about how they have been helped by this image of Mary in their spiritual lives. Mary as mother of consolation and strength will help us to reconnect with each other, in ways that draw on, and respect, each other’s deepest traditions of folk piety. Mary, mother of consolation and strength. 

So we celebrate the Blessed Virgin Mary today and join our prayer to hers. Mary pain bearer, and Mary, mother of consolation and strength will help us in our prayer. As we pray with her, so she prays with and for us. I end with words again from ARCIC on Mary’s special place of honour for all Christians: “The Scriptural witness summons all believers in every generation to call Mary “blessed”; this Jewish woman of humble status, this daughter of Israel living in hope of justice for the poor, whom God has graced and chosen to become the Virgin mother of his Son through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. 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.” With all generations, with the whole Church throughout the world, and together with the House of Islam, we call Mary Blessed.