August 15, 2010    The Blessed Virgin Mary    Years ABC

Psalm 45.11-18    Galatians4.4-7    Luke 1.46-55    Sermon in CR Chapel

A celebration of Mary

Throughout the Christian centuries, the centuries of Christendom, both in east and west, Mary was exalted so that she became, at least in appearance, a Goddess. At the reformation, the observance of 15 August was deleted from the Church of England, alone of all the other feast days associated with her, as if to take Mary down a peg or two. However, her conception, her nativity, the annunciation, the visitation, the purification all kept their places in the Kalendar. For the first two, the Conception and the Nativity, there are no biblical accounts. It is rather amazing they were left in but that was part of the wonderful compromise that the Church of England is. Only those events which actually appear in the New Testament are provided with readings in the Book of Common Prayer.

Now, blessed by Common Worship, 15 August has been restored to us and why not? It is her heavenly birthday and that is the day we remember other saints, the day they departed this life. Just as we remember our own departed brethren on their heavenly birthdays, whether they were saints or not - mostly not, except in the sense that we're all called to be saints.

What people do on birthdays is to celebrate and that is what we are doing.

Because we read the Bible so long after the events it describes, it has become solemn, even monotonous, to be read out as part of the liturgy, in solemn, dignified voices. That's OK for some biblical texts but it's all wrong for the Song of Songs and for the Gospel reading today.

We are used to Psalm 45, the part provided by Common Worship for this festival; starting like this: "Listen O daughter, consider and listen closely...the king will have pleasure in your beauty". Here is the rather more erotic Jewish Study Bible reading: "Take heed, lass and note, incline your ear and let the king be aroused by your beauty. O Tyrian lass...the royal princess is lead inside to the king".

Our departed brother Benedict used to say this Psalm 45 was about the wedding of Ahab and Jezebel, who certainly was a princess of Tyre and who used eye shadow and a good deal more.

The reading from Galatians, one of the earliest parts of the New Testament, again is about rejoicing; that we have been released, not only from the slavery of sin but from slavery to the law, by the birth of God's son, Jesus, to a woman, a real woman. That's why we can shout out "Abba Father" because the very spirit of Jesus bursts out from our hearts in excitement at our freedom.

Mary hadn't always been so excited. When the angel told her that she was chosen to be the mother of the Saviour she had her doubts. "How can this be?" she asks. The proof, she is told, is that even the elderly Elizabeth will have a son too. Perhaps Mary thinks in her heart I'll believe that when I see it. She hurries off - maybe she already knows she herself has conceived, maybe not.

The only way Mary can know the angel has spoken the truth is by going to see cousin Elizabeth for herself. No mobiles, no e-mails. What does she find? Elizabeth is indeed well into her pregnancy, which is miraculous enough. Then the babe leapt in Elizabeth's womb, as they do, no doubt in response to Elizabeth's own joy. So then you can imagine the swirling of skirts and headscarf, the leaping, the dancing, the clashing of saucepan lids or whatever was nearest, as Mary dances round and round, stamping her feet, sings and sings for joy. Next time we sing the Magnificat, Mary's special song, let's try to think not only what it meant to her but what it means to us today, to the world of today.

Later would come the doubts, the pain, the questioning, the rebuffs but not now. Mary, the teenage daughter of Israel, knows for certain that she is for ever and ever the most blessed, the happiest, of all women, in time and eternity. This is the moment God has chosen her. She is to be the mother of his son, who will turn the whole world upside down. As he has done and as he needs to do some more (and how).

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

           Antony CR