7 September 2014
St. Mary’s Patronal
Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 1:46-55
May I speak this morning in the name of God, whom we know and worship as +Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Today we remember and celebrate the patron saint of this church, the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Unlike many saints who only have one day in the church calendar on which they are generally celebrated Mary played such an important role in the life of Christ that we have a number to choose from: it could have been the Solemnity of the Mother of God on 1 January, the Annunciation in March, the visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth in May, it could have been the Feast of the Assumption on 15th August, the Queenship of Mary on 22nd August, the feast of the Immaculate Conception on 8 December or it could have been the festival we are celebrating today which is the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary which is actually transferred from tomorrow. I choose to celebrate our patronal festival today because after the dog days of Summer the beginning of September feels like a new start and celebrating our patron saint seems like a good way to get ourselves off to a new start, in the run up to the Nativity, in which, of course, Mary also plays a pretty important role.
Now it will be appreciated that the birth of Mary, as opposed to the Nativity of Jesus, is not in the bible and, therefore, the information we have about her conception and birth comes from later church tradition. The written information we have actually comes from the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James. According to this account, Mary’s parents Anna and Joachim were infertile but they prayed for a child and they received the promise of a child that will advance God’s plan of salvation for the world. I actually have an icon of St Anna holding Mary, which I have put into the Lady Chapel for today.
After Anna had given birth to Mary we are told that Mary was taken to the Temple and spent her childhood living there until Joseph was chosen by the priests to be her betrothed. Hence not only was Mary conceived as a direct result of prayer and God’s promises but she lived her life in the presence of God in his temple until the time came for God to advance his plans further. Although, as I said, this is not in the gospel we do know from Luke’s account of the annunciation that when the angel spoke to Mary he said
“Greetings, you who are highly favoured.”
That may trigger a memory of Christmas carols singing of the ‘most highly favoured lady’.
Now it has to be said that many within the protestant tradition react almost instinctively against anything to do with Mary, and that is no doubt a result of the Marian worship in parts of Medieval Catholicism which went too far in seeming to give Mary more prominence than Jesus. However I have no doubt that in rejecting anything to do with Mary some protestants are ignoring important pieces of scripture, not to mention ignoring a hugely important biblical figure. In choosing the person to give birth to Jesus, God did not just choose a random girl from the street to act as a convenient incubator. God choose someone who was ‘highly favoured’ in heaven and to be highly favoured it seems to me that there must be a significant back story there, even if we aren’t told expressly what it was in the gospel. So although we ought to resist the temptation to elevate Mary into an object of worship on a par with God we ought also to resist the equal and opposite temptation to treat Mary as no more than an ordinary person who was accidently caught up in an extraordinary story. The angel called Mary ‘highly favoured’ and Elizabeth said to Mary ‘blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear.’
And when we talk about Mary giving birth to Jesus it is important that we keep our Trinitarian understanding of God at the forefront of our minds. God wasn’t just choosing someone to give birth to a human baby like any other. God the Father and God the Holy Spirit were choosing someone to give birth to God the Son. They were choosing someone to be the human mother of the incarnation of God. For this reason I like the Orthodox title for Mary, the Theotokos which means the God-bearer.
Mary was the one chosen by God to bear God within her womb, to bear God in her arms as a baby and to bear him from childhood to adulthood. How could she be any less than both highly favoured and blessed among women?
But if we are to resist the equal and opposite temptations either to deify Mary or to completely ignore her then we also need to resist the temptation to view her as a holy but passive figure of motherhood and kosher apple pie. The woman chosen by God to bring God into the world was actually a strong and even a radical women. And how do I know this? Well, this is thoroughly biblical and came from our gospel reading this morning from Luke 1. This is Mary’s song, or the magnificat, and it will be familiar to many of you as a choral piece sung during evensong. But although the music is often beautiful the slight danger of simply singing the magnificat is that we miss the radical message contained within the words.
Mary, this young girl who was only a few months pregnant, is giving thanks to the God who has done great things for her and she extols the virtues of God who:
“scatters those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”
Mary’s vision of God is not the God of the rich and powerful who maintains the status quo but is of a God who favours the poor over the rich and who overthrows the powerful in favour of the powerless. This is the women who brought up Jesus and perhaps it is possible to discern the seeds for the sermon on the mount being sown here, before Jesus is born. We should not underestimate the importance of Mary either in the eyes of God or in the upbringing of Jesus. And when people say that the church or its clergy should not get involved in politics on the grounds that faith is somehow ‘otherworldly’ I think we can point to Mary as evidence that faith demands engagement with the injustices of the world, wherever and whenever they are found.
And so Mary is the mother of God, in the person of Jesus Christ, and if we are the adopted children of God and brothers and sisters in communion with Christ then in some mystical way we are connected with Mary. If nothing else because she is part of the great cloud of witnesses of those who have gone before us, whose prayers rise like incense before the throne of God, and we give thanks that she is the patron saint of this church and this community.
“Hail Mary, Mother of God, Blessed are thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.”