‘Born of a Woman’
A sermon preached by Revd Canon Dr Stella Wood
Monday 15 August 2022, the Eucharist for the Feast of the Virgin Mary.
This week sees exam results for thousands of teenagers: A Level results this Thursday, GCSE results next Thursday. Spare a prayer for them because they went into those exams after both of the years of their courses being wrecked by Covid. My natural habitat is in a school, just over the wall at Bishop Wordsworth’s School with 1200 teenagers. I’ve been a school Chaplain for over 20 years and I’d make a case for it being one of the best jobs in the Church of England. Not least because half of my time is spent teaching. As I looked at today’s readings for the Feast of the Virgin Mary, I smiled. I smiled because of all the funny answers I’ve read about Christianity across the years, some of the absolute corkers have been about the Virgin Mary. Not from my current school of course.
There was one question on the pilgrimage site at Lourdes in France, a place where pilgrims flock to the shrine of the Virgin Mary to seek healing in the waters of the spring and to renew faith by being where Mary is believed to have appeared to St. Bernadette; a place where there is a thriving souvenir industry selling statues of the Virgin, sometimes even illuminated with LED lights. So the question ‘Explain why a pilgrim might visit Lourdes’ brought a response: ‘The town of Lourdes is full of flashing Virgin Marys’. A second, GCSE question. I wonder what you’d write? It’s worth 8 marks. Explain why the Virgin Mary is important to Christians. My favourite answer ever, picked up by a colleague: ‘The Virgin Mary is important to Christians because of her humidity’.
I could go on. But in a way I’m not surprised that there is confusion about the Virgin Mary. The Church in England and then of England has had a complex theology about her. You can travel to Walsingham and the shrine of the Virgin Mary, England’s Nazareth and find very strong devotion and veneration of our Lady. Or you can dip into earlier periods where there was fierce distrust of any devotion to her in sculpture or liturgy; fierce distrust of doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception or the Dormition which had no explicit roots in Scripture. Mary has sadly been what politicians term a ‘wedge’ issue. Capable of producing a strong and polarised reaction.
So where to go with the Feast of the Virgin Mary on a sleepy August Monday, when you and I don’t want any more wedges in the world? Well, it was our first reading, from Paul’s letter to the Galatians that caught my eye. Paul is in the middle of some pretty tricky, tightrope walking theology in this passage. It’s not about Mary at all really. It’s about how salvation can be for Gentile as well as Jew. But in the midst of it you get this little nugget ‘’But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship’
It was that phrase ‘born of a woman’, the only time Paul mentions Mary in the passage that struck me. For two reasons. First the two words ‘a woman’. Of course, Paul is in the middle of some complicated stuff here and is wanting to press home the importance of the ncarnation. But ‘a woman’ sounded dismissive to a 21st century me when I read it out loud, trying to unlock the passage in my mind. I went hunting and I couldn’t find a single time Paul calls Mary by her name. I so wish he had. Isaiah has that glorious passage which is inscribed on the font here ‘I have called you by name, you are mine’. Names matter. Individuals matter to God and so they should to us. Jesus was born of a real woman, named Mary.
I think it is so important to find out people’s names, to always treat them as individuals, not rely on a lazy stereotype. The alarming rise in abuse of front-line workers shows the need for this. Oh they are just ‘one of those’, ‘a receptionist’, ‘a shop-worker’, ‘a teenager’. Last week’s report about customers in Waterstones throwing books at assistants in frustration that their book isn’t in stock said it all. It assumes it’s OK because the firm has let them down. No, it isn’t OK. They are individuals and it isn’t their fault. Please, St. Paul, can we give Mary her name? I think it always ends better that way. She was indeed a woman and a marvellous example of one. But she was also a real person, an individual in her own right and that probably matters more.
I said there were two things which made me stay with this phrase ‘born of a woman’ that St. Paul uses. The emphasis throughout the passage is heavily on the born. Jesus was ‘born’ from Mary, ‘born’ under the Law. I think my second reflection, on the Feast of the Virgin Mary is that, important as the Incarnation is, there is so much more to Mary than her giving birth.
Ask any parent and they’ll tell you, Perhaps you know for yourself, those with children awaiting exam results will certainly know, that there is a lot more to parenting than just the giving birth. There are times when I wish I’d kept some gas and air for later on rather than using it up in labour. What I’m wanting to say is let Mary come to life, see her in three dimensions. So often she’s a two-dimensional figure in a stunning icon with a colossal, shimmering gold dinner plate halo. But I find it’s when you look at her whole life that she becomes really relevant for our times.
I thought of Mary when I followed the tragic case of Archie Battersby. When his mother who went through all the courts for her son found herself helpless, with no agency to change things, and watched him die where and when others decided. I thought of Mary at the foot of the cross, watching her Son die. There’s more to Mary than giving birth.
I thought of Mary at a service in a village Church 20 miles away, as I met a Ukrainian woman who had fled to England with no English and far from family. She was frantically putting my sermon into Google translate. That was unnerving and I dread to think how it came out. As I held her hands at the end of the service, tears in her eyes which spoke dictionaries worth of language. I thought of Mary, soon after giving birth, away from home already, having to flee to Egypt for her and her baby’s life. She was on foot, not knowing when, if ever, she could come home, with nothing with her. There’s more to Mary than giving birth. I think of Mary when I read troubling stories of mothers in poverty, in East Africa, in Ethiopia, in South Sudan, from where we’ve welcomed Bishops in the past few weeks, facing severe hunger and choices no person should have to make about their children. Sadly, stories from our own country about mothers going hungry during school holidays when free school meals aren’t available, to be able to feed their children. I think of Mary who gave birth in poverty.
I think of Mary when I see relationships in families and in society, fraying, breaking, at times exploding. Sometimes irretrievably. You’ll know what I mean. You’ll know examples. I think of the tensions the Bible hints at within Mary’s own family: of Jesus nonchalantly staying back in the Temple without telling his Mum. You can imagine, can’t you the anguish of not knowing where he was and the conversation that followed. We hear Jesus saying to her ‘didn’t you know I’d be in my Father’s house?’ but we don’t know what Mary said to him. Maybe just as well. Let your imaginations fill in the gaps. Mary gets a pretty curt response at the wedding of Cana when she asks Jesus to help the groom out of his embarrassing wine shortage. I don’t think it was easy being the mother of the Son of God. I think of Jesus telling his followers that they were all his mothers and brothers when she came to see him. Ouch. But then I see the tenderness of Jesus on the cross making sure she’d be OK by telling his beloved disciple to care for her and you see the beauty of a relationship that’s gone through the mill but come through with deep love.
Maybe we see something this evening in Mary for ourselves of the pattern of faithfulness to those around us which could make our relationships better, of sticking with rather than being quick to take offence, digging deep not walking away. Refusing to stack up the wedges and end up bitter and angry.
So, born of a woman, born of a real woman named Mary, born from her but also loved by her. Three-dimensional, not an alabaster statue, flashing or not. Humble not humid, immensely strong.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.