Readings: Isaiah 61: 10,11, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 1:46-55
On October 10th this year, we will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death on active service of Ralph Adams whose memorial is on the south wall of this church. He was shot down over France at the age of 20 in the plane he was in. The local school of St Francis of Assisi have been doing a fascinating project on him, which will be available in the Autumn, before we have the service of commemoration on October 10th. We know much more now about the first World War than we did a few years ago, and one of the moving accounts of the final moments of soldiers on the battle field was how often their last words were mother or mum. 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 very often Mother. I also think of the Armenian woman survivor of the Armenian genocide who I was with as she died, and at the very end she could only speak Armenian, which she had not spoken since being a small child with her mother. This is reality very close to something very primal and basic and probably something to do with pain. But when the reverse happens, and a mother buries her own child, the pain is even greater. 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 is 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. 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.
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. Anglicans share this term with the universal Church, and it has been a joy in this Church to have commissioned a twenty-first century icon of Mary the God-bearer pointing to her Son. 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 the book : “ 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. 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.” 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 0-8912-8132-8