A sermon preached by The Revd Stephen Tucker, on 15 August 2019, the Feast of the Assumption.
In the Trinity Chapel behind us there is a notice about the use of that part of the Cathedral for prayer. The notice suggests that ‘focuses of devotion might include the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary to whom the Cathedral is dedicated.’
That simple statement is a cause of difficulty for some visitors. As a weekday chaplain I have on various occasions been challenged by people who think that devotion should not be given to Mary. They think Mary can get in the way of our devotion to Jesus. God gave us Jesus as our Saviour, they say; we don’t need Mary in our worship.
So, I suspect such visitors might be shocked by this service. August 15th is marked out by our Common Worship calendar as the principal day on which the Church of England should remember the Virgin Mary. As the Cathedral is dedicated to Mary, you might say that today is our patronal festival.
Other Christians know today as the feast of the Assumption - the day on which they celebrate the belief that at her death God took Mary to himself. Mary is taken bodily into heaven. Orthodox icons celebrating this event, touchingly show Mary lying on her death bed and also wrapped in swaddling clothes in the arms of her Son in heaven. So today can be a celebration of Mary’s rebirth in the heavenly presence of God and of her son.
But of course, all of that adds to the problems of those who feel that we are paying far too much attention to Mary. So how might we answer them?
Tonight’s reading comes from the end of Luke’s account of the Annunciation. Mary has just learnt that she is with child of the Holy Spirit and she has taken the news to her cousin Elizabeth.
Think of all those pictures of the Annunciation in which the angel Gabriel is bowing or kneeling to Mary. The idea of an angel bowing to a human being is rather odd. The story of Mary's encounter with the will and power of God begins with this unexpected reverencing of her humanity by an angel. She is honoured by an angel in the ordinary circumstances of her everyday life. And that, perhaps, is where we find it hardest to reverence ourselves. We tend to believe that a relationship with God must always begin somewhere other than where we are now, with a different kind of person than I am now, a person somehow better and more spiritual and more peaceful. But God begins with Mary as she is, and he begins with us as we are and not as we think we ought to be. God reverences Mary, as he reverences you and me, as we are at this moment.
For Mary as for us this may be hard to accept. Mary is troubled by the angelic encounter. She wonders what's going on. Her calling is not an easy thing to take on board, for every encounter with God in this life, whatever its manner, must leave us asking questions. Her acceptance of her role means for her a life of uncertainty as well as joy, of rejection and fear as well as love. The few references to Mary in the Gospels point to a life full of shadow which culminates with her standing at the foot of the cross and then watching at the tomb. Her self-offering is not achieved without a struggle and raises many questions. But that is not a sign of failure. Mary is the first example in the gospels of God's strength ‘made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:8). God works in her because she does not try to work out of her own human strength. She is the handmaid of God as in her weakness and uncertainty she waits upon God.
After the story of the annunciation, we are told in Luke's gospel that Mary goes to share her experience with her cousin Elizabeth. God has something for Mary to do, which only she can do, but that does not mean that she is alone in her task or must keep it to herself. She has companions on the way with whom to share both the joys and the sorrows; she has companions who will help her see more clearly what it all means. So it is in her encounter with Elizabeth that Mary begins to understand how she might celebrate her calling: 'My soul doth magnify the Lord.'
The central theme of this song is that her exaltation must involve the exaltation of the poor, the humble, the meek and the hungry. God is to be glorified in Mary only if the poor and oppressed will be able to rejoice with her. Mary's hymn is revolutionary - it is a hymn of liberation. And that liberation begins in being able to magnify God - to make God bigger, to let God burst the bounds of all our understanding of him. Let God be liberated from my narrowness that he may become big enough to liberate us all.
And so, if our devotions in the Trinity Chapel are to include Mary, we might reflect on these four aspects of her life: in her we see God reverencing our humanity;
in her we see how God also works in us and for us wherever we find ourselves, and with whatever questions we are forced to ask; with her we recognise that we may find encouragement from all those who travel with us; and from her we learn that whatever God wills to do for us he wills also for all who are oppressed by their needs, their poverty and hunger. And if such a life as Mary’s was at the end taken up in glory, then ours will be also.
At the end of the story of the annunciation the angel departs. We might imagine that as he did so Mary would seem smaller to him as the distance between them increased. But perhaps according to the perspective of faith the opposite was the case. As Mary accepts God's will for her, so her soul is magnified. As Gabriel withdraws perhaps Mary seems to grow larger in his eyes. The new life in her womb is the life of Jesus; and Jesus comes to give us life in all its fullness. So, in Jesus, we might say, we are all, with Mary, magnified in the eyes of angels. Amen