The Blessed Virgin Mary
A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham, at Choral Evensong
Sunday 14 August 2019- 16:30pm – First Evensong of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Proverbs 8:22-31 and John 19:23-27
Today is the first Evening Prayer of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a feast that we mark not only this evening but will celebrate more fully tomorrow, with a special Eucharist tomorrow evening.
This Feast has a long history. For many centuries, there have been commemorations and celebrations of the saints on the days on which they died. For Christians, Christ’s resurrection, ascension and glorification in heaven sets the pattern for all other Christian believers, as Christ draws redeemed humanity to himself and into the company of saints in heaven. Mary has always been seen as foremost amongst the heavenly company of saints. At the start of Luke’s Gospel, she is presented, not just as having the special vocation to be Jesus’ mother, but, in doing that, as the first person to accept that he is the Redeemer of humankind, and therefore the first believing Christian disciple (see the writings of the feminist Roman Catholic scholar Elizabeth Johnson, especially “Mary and Contemporary Christology: Rahner and Schillebeeckx,” Eglise et Theologie 15 (1984), pp.155-182, or her book Truly our Sister (2006)). In freely accepting her vocation to give birth to him, Mary is the first person to understand and accept Jesus’ own vocation to redeem the world, and so it makes sense to think of her as having a special place of honour amongst the saints.
In the Eastern Church, August 15th is the Feast of Mary’s Dormition, her repose or falling asleep. In Western Churches, it has been kept as the feast of her Assumption, her being received into glory, blessed and graced as ever, and finally transformed by God. In artistic depictions of Mary’s death, such as Titian’s in the 16th century, she is surrounded by Christ’s grieving disciples, whilst Christ himself receives her into heaven, into life with him. Just as it’s notoriously difficult to paint Christ’s resurrection and ascension, so the same can be said for attempts to depict Mary’s Assumption, her being taken up into heaven.
Although there are several highly significant texts about Mary in the bible, not least the Magnificat, her song of praise, that we heard earlier, and hear daily, in Evensong, there is no real scriptural basis for her assumption, though it’s thought that the Dormition and assumption traditions can be traced to apocryphal texts as early as the second century. It’s not known why 15th August was originally chosen; perhaps it related to the dedication of a church in her honour. Either way, the Feast disappeared from many churches, including the Church of England, at the Reformation. In the current Church of England calendar, it has been restored, hence celebrating it in this service and tomorrow, but not as the Assumption specifically, more as a generalised Feast of Mary, and the principal day in the year when we remember and celebrate her.
Even if the tradition of Mary’s assumption is quite hard to relate to, to my mind it’s right that we keep this day as a day to venerate her. The tradition of devotion to Mary, over the centuries, may have functioned to exclude women from the Church and its leadership, portraying her as unique among women and therefore beyond the bounds of anything a normal woman could aspire to religiously. But it also probably reflected a desire to recover and recapture something of a feminine or female element in what was- or had become- a highly patriarchal religion. We see this element of the feminine in our reading from Proverbs, which talks about Wisdom, the dimension of God which- as opposed to the male and rational Word of God- is gendered female. Wisdom calls out, raising her voice “on the heights and beside the way,” to say that God’s wisdom can be known and has been present since the start of creation: “whoever finds me finds life and obtains favour from the Lord.” God’s wisdom is liberating, not least for the poor and oppressed, whose freedom Mary sings about in her Magnificat.
In recent years, and with the changing role of women in society, the Church has discovered new ways to understand Mary. She must have been exceptional in the way she lived in relation to God and others, so that at the Annunciation she could respond in freedom and delight to God’s initiative. She is no “door-mat,” clearly, for when the angelic presence greets her at the start of Luke’s Gospel, she quizzes the archangel, takes him on and responds with courage and generosity. In turn, she makes her son uniquely free for the full expression of God’s life in him. That doesn’t mean that all was always sweetness and light between them- there are quite enough indications in the gospels to rid us of that kind of sentimentality. Christ struggled to find his own vocation, and in the gospels we catch the echoes of her own struggles as a disciple, such as at the end of John’s Gospel where from the cross Jesus entrusts her to the beloved disciple’s care, after she has endured his experience of hideous betrayal and death. And yet at Pentecost, at the start of the book of Acts, she is found at the very centre of the disciples. Then, as the “Walking Madonna” statue outside the Cathedral depicts, like wisdom she strides out into the highways and the byways to proclaim life and freedom to all, but especially to the oppressed.
In her book on the wisdom tradition, She Who Is, the Roman Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes that “The mystery of God, Holy Wisdom… is the dark radiance of love in solidarity with the struggle of denigrated persons…to… lay hold of their genuine human dignity and value”. The freedom and life that God brings in Christ is also the message of Mary. In the Creed, we affirm that Christ “was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary.” The same Spirit who caused Christ to become and remain incarnate, is the Spirit who gives us life, who gave and gives life to Mary, and to us. So today we thank God for her, and honour her, praying with her that her Son may indeed draw us to himself, that we too may enter the joy and unimaginable life of God.