Patronal Festival – Rediscovering St. Mary

Sunday 6 September 2015

St. Mary’s Hadlow

Patronal Festival

Rev. 11:19 – 12.6,10, Luke 1:46-55

May I speak this morning in the name of God + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today, in this church dedicated to St. Mary, we are celebrating our patronal festival.

To those not fully fluent in Church-speak this means that this Church has a special dedication to Mary, the mother of Jesus, that she is therefore the ‘patron saint’ of this church. Nearly all churches are dedicated to a particular saint and remember them at special times throughout the year. The patron saints are celebrated at patronal festivals.

Some churches like to hedge their bets and are dedicated to All Saints, like the church where I served my curacy, and I am aware of one Anglican church that has no dedication at all – that is the church in Keston near Bromley, which is simply called Keston Church.

But I am pleased to say that we are not simply Hadlow Church we are St. Mary’s Hadlow and today we are remembering and, I hope, thinking and contemplating a little more deeply on her place in the bible, in the church and possibly in our lives.

But first, to coin a cliché, let’s name the elephant, which has just come trumpeting into this room. Talking about the Blessed Virgin Mary makes some people uncomfortable and I suspect there may be people here already going into mental flight this morning.

Not to put too fine a point on it many people have grown up with the perception that Roman Catholics do Mary and that if you are not Roman Catholic then it is best not to think about her too much, for fear of falling into Papism.

Interestingly, as an aside, we went to Kentwell Hall in Suffolk a couple of weeks ago for a Tudor re-enactment and we hadn’t been there for half an hour before Henry had been charged by the Magistrates with being a Papist Sympathiser. He told them that on Good Friday the Protestants of Hadlow go round holding hands with the Catholics and the Tudors were scandalised. The question is how far have we really come in our thinking or is our inner-Tudor still scandalised at the thought of Mary?

I have no doubt that there are many good churches and good Christians out there who only think about Mary once a year, and that is not at their patronal festival but when choosing which six year old girl is going to play Mary in the nativity.

Someone told me recently that I need to have the courage of my convictions and not be scared to take a stance even if that gives rise to debate. So here is my stance on St. Mary: I think that most protestants and Anglicans have a huge theological blindspot about her and that this historic unwillingness to fully engage with her role in God’s plan for the salvation of the world is a major handicap in our Christian growth and our spirituality. I believe that we need to have a wholesale re-appraisal and re-engagement with Mary and, if we do, that our love for God and our discipleship will be deepened.

There is neither time nor space here and now to look at everything, and even if I spoke for an hour we would only be scratching the surface. Therefore what I want to do this morning is to offer up not an argument for Mary but rather a series of vignettes and thoughts on which to ponder.

What we believe about Jesus ought to affect what we think about Mary. Do we think that Jesus was simply a good man who taught good things and was then executed for his troubles? If Jesus was only a man then his mother was only a woman and her only possible value to us is as an example of motherly love, but there are many such examples. Or do we believe that Jesus was divine, that he was God the Son incarnated on earth to show us the way back to the Father? If we believe that Jesus was divine then Mary was chosen by God the Father and God the Holy Spirit to carry God the Son within her womb, within her arms and within her heart at Calvary. I believe that Jesus was divine and that affects what I think about Mary. She was the bearer of God.

If Mary was highly favoured by God then who are we to say otherwise?   The words of greeting by the Angel Gabriel to Mary in Luke 1:28: “Greetings you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” God was with Mary and he found favour with her before she had done anything else recorded in scripture. Extra biblical tradition says that Mary had lived in the temple since childhood and was thus prepared to become a new temple carrying God within her. In any event this was not someone chosen at random but was someone with whom God dwelt before she said ‘yes’. God chose Mary and therefore who are we to ignore her?

Mary’s ‘yes’ to God is an example of perfect discipleship. The old testament begins with the story of Adam and Eve. Their collective ‘no’ to God began the story of mankind’s fall from grace. The new testament begins with Mary’s ‘yes’ to God and thus begins the story and mankind being lifted back up into grace. There is much theology in the writings of St Paul about Jesus being the new Adam and the early Church Fathers take this further with Mary being the new Eve. By being open to the plans of God and the grace of God wherever it would lead Mary made possible the ministry of Jesus. Yes, that lead to the cross but it also lead to resurrection and to Pentecost and beyond. As disciples of Christ we have everything to learn from the discipleship of Mary.

Mary was blessed by the Holy Spirit. We often speak of the Church being born when it was filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. However the Holy Spirit was with Mary long before that first Pentecost. Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. When Mary visited Elizabeth the Holy Spirit came upon them and, Elizabeth declaimed the opening words of the Rosary prayer: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear.” And, of course, having mentioned Pentecost, we know from Acts 1 that Mary amongst the believers when the Holy Spirit fell upon the church there. Mary was present when Jesus was conceived and born by the power of the Holy Spirit and she was present when the Church was born by the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary was truly blessed among women.

Mary was uniquely present with Jesus. Mary is the only person who journeyed the whole way with Jesus. In fact, as we just heard, Mary was present in the new testament before Jesus was born and she was still there after the Ascension. In between she was with Jesus, not only as a child but in his adulthood we know that they attended the wedding at Cana together, that Mary tried to care for Jesus during his ministry and, of course, she was there at the foot of the cross and beyond. If we are tempted to desert Jesus when times get tough then we have much to learn from the constant, patient, presence of his mother.

Mary reminds us that the feminine has a unique and highly favoured place in the story of salvation. The language we use about God is all too often masculine. It is useful to remember that this is not just a story about Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If Jesus was fully God and Mary was his mother then it is by no means inappropriate to use the title or the phrase: “Holy Mary, mother of God.” No man, or indeed any other human, is placed in such a position in relation to God. Mary is not a fourth member of the Trinity but having been chosen by God to give birth to God she stands in a unique relationship to the Trinity. Most highly favoured lady.

 Mary was humble yet thankful and joyful. As we heard in the words of Mary’s song this morning:

My soul glorifies the Lord
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49     for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.

Whatever the circumstances of our life surely we have much to learn from such joy in the presence and in the work of God? Again Mary has much to teach us about discipleship.

There is a heavenly as well as an earthly aspect to this story. The nativity has already been mentioned and we all know the story of Mary and Joseph and the birth in Bethlehem. That is the earthly side of the story. However the book of Revelation reading that we had this morning reminds us that God was not simply enacting the story of salvation here on earth but that this drama also has a cosmic dimension. Although academics love arguing about the authorship of different books in the bible there is a strong tradition in the church that the author of the Book of Revelation is the same John who wrote the gospel of that name and who is also the same disciple that became the adopted son of Mary at the foot of the cross. If you think about the prologue of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” it puts the story of Jesus directly into a cosmic or heavenly context and, of course, that is exactly what Revelation does too. Let me just remind you of the pertinent part from this morning’s reading:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. 

This reading is usually associated with Mary and is why you will often see images of her surrounded by sun and moon and stars, and why she is sometimes given the title Queen of Heaven. And this illustrates also how God’s plan to save the world via the birth of this child was immediately opposed by the devil. And you only have to think of events such as the slaughter of the innocents to see how the devil was hoping to devour this child as soon as it was born, albeit working in the world through Herod the Great. Mary was not just a convenient vessel to give birth to Jesus but is an essential part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world.

And what about Mary now? Is Mary simply a good example from the past who is now dead and gone and awaiting the resurrection or is she still active in the economy of God in the cosmic realm? There is so much to say here but so little time, so let me just say this. When Jesus was on the cross and he spoke to the repentant sinner, what did he say? He said “This day you will be with me in paradise.” If a thief was to join Jesus in paradise as soon as he died then why should be believe any less of the Mother of God? Although I would add a slight caveat to that. There is a Russian story that when St Andrew was crucified he hurried to heaven and, when he got there, he began searching for the Queen of Heaven. He asked his heavenly guide where was Mary and he was told: “She’s not here. She is in the suffering world drying the tears of her weeping children.”

I haven’t spoken today about the terrible events of the past week and, in particular, about that photo of the poor dead child on the beach in Turkey. But I have been dwelling with that photo whilst preparing this sermon and I can’t help but feel Mary weeping for that child, who sadly symbolises so many others we have not seen, and also drying the eyes of those that weep.

We know from the incarnation of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit that God does not stand far off from his creation but enters into it to redeem it and so why should Mary and all the saints who form that great cloud of witnesses stand far off when the world is still in such need of healing and redemption?

And so I am happy to pray:

Hail Mary, full of grace.
Our Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb,
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.

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