A sermon preached by the Revd Maggie Guillebaud
Monday 31 May, 17:00
Luke 1:39-49. Psalm 113, Romans 12:9-16
My Lilies of the Valley have been spectacular this year. It’s probably all that rain. But one of the small pleasures of life, and how these small pleasures have gained in importance over this past year, is to pick a bunch of these gorgeous little flowers and bring their heavenly scent into the house.
Lilies of the valley are one of the many flowers associated with May, the month dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and they are sometimes known as Mary’s Tears, or Our Lady’s Tears, as legend has it that the tears Mary shed at the foot of the Cross fell onto the ground and turned into Lilies of the Valley.
These little flowers are therefore symbols of purity, sweetness, and chastity.
And then we have the other, more familiar flower associated with Mary, the ordinary lily, also a symbol of purity, often seen in paintings of the Annunciation, where Mary is seen reading, or doing embroidery, as a breathless angel flames across the canvas. Mary is delicate, submissive, even refined, a perfect reflection of how the ideal woman was perceived in art, and life, from the Middle Ages onwards.
But I would suggest that today, when we know so much more about what the psychologists call projection, this is not how contemporary people see Mary, projection being the way we like to project on to other people our own feelings and our own views. Think of the teenage crush, where the unobtainable object of one’s affections is perfect in every way. In the past when women were idealised as meek, submissive, pure, this was what Mary seemed to represent. She was a perfect example of what a woman should be.
Our reading from Luke today, however, paints a very different picture of the Virgin Mary from this rather sentimental and poetic one, one which is far more down to earth, as he describes Mary’s visit to Elizabeth.
For me this visit is one of the pivotal moments in the New Testament because it is profoundly revelatory. But it starts off in a rather peculiar way.
Luke is a little vague about the time and place when this visit happened– ‘in those days’, and ‘a Judean town in the country’. And we are given no reason as to why Mary should want to visit Elizabeth in the first place.
But in spite of this rather vague beginning, I can to think of one very good reason why Mary should want to get away from Nazareth: busy-body gossip. Think about it: an unmarried teenage pregnancy in a society where such a thing was deeply disgraceful. Why would she not go? And ‘in haste’, as Luke puts it. And for a good long visit of 3 months too.
And then there is the wanting to be with an older, wiser woman at this time of trouble and bewilderment. Sometimes women simply need the companionship, understanding, and affirmation which other women can provide, particularly around the time of pregnancy. A sisterhood of support, if you like. All part of being a mother, with a small ‘m’, but also in this case a mother with a capital ’M’, the Mother of God, or if we were Greek Orthodox, the Theotokos, the bearer of God.
Because that, at the heart of it, is what this visit described by Luke, is all about.
The visit follows immediately after the Annunciation in Luke’s gospel, and it reinforces and amplifies the message of the angel Gabriel.
For example we find similar salutations: Elizabeth cries out ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’, echoing Gabriel’s: ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you’.
Then Elizabeth refers to ‘the mother of my Lord’ coming to visit her – again re-affirming Mary’s special role as the bearer of her Lord, and by extension, ours.
And finally Elizabeth blesses Mary, ‘who believed that there would be fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord’ echoing Mary’s own ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.’ Mary in this visit moves from acceptance and belief in what the angel promised to a joyful expectation that God’s word will indeed be fulfilled: she will bear his Son. She is full of God’s grace. She believed, and now she must live by the events which will follow her acceptance of her task.
And it is this joyful expectation which leads on to Mary’s ecstatic vision of what the child she is bearing will become and signify, a song we know as the Magnificat, sung every evening in this Cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary. A vision of the world turned upside down, a world where everything is challenged, a world where she is from henceforth to be called blessed.
But we know, as Mary does not at this point, how hard the road she is to tread will be, and what horrors lie in wait for her as she witnesses her Son being crucified.
It is because of this passage that Mary is sometimes referred to as the First Disciple, because she was the first one to understand and accept what the birth of Jesus would mean. And I believe that this is one of the reasons that she has become so important to the life of the Church.
Now in the Anglican tradition we are perhaps not as fervent in our adoration of the Virgin Mary as our Orthodox and Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. If you look in the Audley Chapel just to the left of the High Altar at the ceiling boss in the centre, you will see that Mary has literally been de-faced. The Reformation was getting into its stride when this Chapel was finished, and someone with a long arm and a sharp instrument just knocked off her face, leaving the rest of her in place. It’s worth having a look.
Happily those depths of divisive and angry feelings over the importance of Mary are largely behind us. As a church in an increasingly secular society we have perhaps more pressing matters to attend to.
But Mary remains a pivotal figure. And perhaps she is a figure who needs to be re-evaluated for the C21st.
Why? Because the historical view of her, the acquiescent figure of purity and passivity, whose tears turn into flowers, who sits embroidering or reading as the Angel Gabriel announces to her the most earth-shattering news – she has little resonance with how women see themselves today.
But if we drill down into the gospels a very different woman emerges, one with whom women actually can identify.
She has agency: God did not just tell her that she was to bear the Christ child, end of story. Mary challenged Gabriel, asking how it was she could bear a child as she was a virgin. She got her answer, and then she accepted her fate. That brief moment of questioning made all the difference.
And as mothers we can understand what it means to have our souls pierced, as Simeon predicted Mary’s soul would be as he prophesied about the infant Jesus’s destiny in the Temple. Who of us mothers has not been in agony about what our children have, or have not, done at some point?
We know what it’s like to treasure things in our hearts about our children and not tell anyone, as we are told Mary did. We can recognise the moment when our children become adults and able to direct their own lives, as when Jesus ordered his mother at the wedding at Cana, during which he performed his first miracle, to do something about the wine when it ran out. So she did. He knew what he was doing, her actions imply. He was an adult.
And we know all about family rows, as in Matthew when we learn that Jesus did not allow his mother and brothers special access to him when he was busy teaching – ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ All families fall out sometimes. In other words Mary experienced just the kind of ups and downs all family life entails.
She is with Jesus from beginning to end. But she is finally left, as we are, with an absence. God has gone up with a great shout, but those of us left behind have to live with the knowledge that though we have a relationship with Jesus, we cannot see him. Mary’s pain is the greater because she gives birth to Jesus, and there is no greater pain than that of losing a child. Her stoicism at the foot of the Cross is almost unbearable.
She went through so much, so patiently, so wisely, knowing when to hang back, and when not. One of Jesus’ last actions from the Cross was to entrust her to the Beloved Disciple, a mark of the enduring love between them. She was present at Pentecost, so was one of the first to receive the Holy Spirit. Her quiet, steady presence is everywhere. Her life is like a golden thread running through the gospels.
Which is why she is still revered today. She is the mother we had, or never had. Not all mothers are good mothers. She understands our pain because she went though it herself. She understands the ebb and flow of family life. Like us, she goes from a young girl, full of expectation and joy, to the older woman we see striding out of the Cathedral Close in Elizabeth Frink’s moving statue, wrinkles and all, to proclaim the Good News to Salisbury and the world. She is both a pattern for, and a reflection of, what it is to be human, and what it is to be a mother. But she is, of course, also the Mother of God, already partaking of the heavenly banquet with her Son.
I shall still treasure the annual flowering of my Lilies of the Valley, and they will continue to remind me of their other names. But the Virgin Mary I meet in my old age is not the fantasy figure of my youth. She is wise mature woman, strong, patient, stoical, and deeply loved by her son. Theotokos, but also someone with whom C21st women can identify. Well may we still say, in company with Elizabeth, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.'