A Sermon for the Feast of Mary, Mother of God
15th August 2004, 11 a.m.
Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street, London SW1
Readings: Galatians 4:4-7 & Luke 1:46-
Mary & the Intimacy of the Incarnation
I am a great enthusiast for graffiti. I know it’s very annoying when it’s your wall they’re scribbling on, and I’ve never had the courage (if that’s the word) to do it myself, but there is much of social and political, and even religious interest to be gained from this particular form of vandalism. Nigel Rees has compiled no fewer than four volumes of this stuff, from different times and places, and records this from a wall somewhere inside a Roman Catholic Convent Boarding School:
Holy Mary, we believe
That without sin thou didst conceive;
Blessed Virgin, thus believing,
May we sin without conceiving?
Which brings us, not only to today’s Saint, but also to part of the problem with her. In art and literature Mary is portrayed as the most gentle and serene of saints – with the possible exception of the new sculpture in the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral. There she carries an expression one might imagine from Germaine Greer if asked at tea-time “and will you be mother?” Perhaps you can imagine the sense of fury. So, apart from that one, Mary is depicted for us as tranquil and calm and yet she has been without question the most controversial saint of them all.
People tend to be very pro, or very anti. I used to work with one of the antis. She was a priest of evangelical background – a recovering evangelical, I like to think, someone who would never quite throw it all off – who would visibly flinch at the mention of Mary’s name. Now, I’m not much given to mischief, but after noticing this, I managed to find a way of mentioning Mary in every Eucharist at which we were both present. My former colleague is not alone. The old Book of Common Prayer, compiled in the 1500s makes not a single mention of Mary by name in a Collect – not even at Christmas, when it must surely be admitted she had put in the lion’s share of the work. This was all in reaction to the sometimes excessive devotion to Mary in the Middle Ages. The reformers felt, and with some justice, that Mary had been turned into a goddess, and that distracted from the true worship of God. Some Christians to this day share their misgivings.
We can understand how all this came about. Christian people began to think of Mary as special in herself, rather than in relation to her son. They pondered how this might be, how could Mary have been qualified to be chosen for the role? Their answer was that she herself must have been without sin, and that led to the doctrine – made Dogma for all Christians to believe by the Pope in 1854 – of the Immaculate Conception. Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna (“Holy Annie, God’s grannie”) – who are themselves never named in Scripture – conceived her without original sin being passed on as it normally was, from one generation to another.
Then – another problem. If Mary was without sin, then surely she couldn’t die, as sin and death were part of that miserable package deal worked out for us by those incompetent agents, Adam and Eve. So, if she couldn’t die, but wasn’t here with us, she must surely have been bodily assumed into heaven – the doctrine of the Assumption as it became, which was made Dogma by another Pope as recently as 1950. Incidentally, the Orthodox Churches, thinking the Assumption too presumptuous, refer to the same event as the Dormition, or falling asleep, of Mary.
From here it is but a short step to Blessed Mary, Ever-Virgin, Queen of Heaven and all the rest. A medical friend of mine assures me that it would be a very surprising thing indeed for a woman who had borne seven children to be still a virgin, but enough has been said.
All this stuff – pious and kindly meant as it is – comes at a cost. It makes the Incarnation impossible. S. Athanasius – the 4th century Bishop of Alexandria who is responsible for much of the text of the creed we are about to say together – wrote in his great work on the Incarnation: “that which was not assumed, could not be redeemed”. By this he meant that Jesus must have been truly human in order to redeem humanity. If Mary is immaculately conceived, sinless and immortal, then Jesus could not inherit true humanity from her. It is ironic that those who wish to grant Mary the greatest honour have run the risk of unfitting her for her central theological task – to be the human agent of the Incarnation, the Word of God being made flesh, Mary’s flesh.
A more modern, and perhaps less weighty, strand in theology has become angry at the apparent impossibility of Mary as a role model for women. A woman friend summed this up in the remark: “as far as I can see, the New Testament has only two well-developed female characters – one is a virginal mother, the other is a tart. It could be argued that Christianity is not really taking women seriously”. This is a fair point and one which we have begun to address in recent times, but there is more work to be done.
The late, and very distinguished, artist Francis Bacon, famed for his gory, tortured canvasses, was once asked what he would have liked to be, if not a painter. He replied: “a mother”. I don’t know what Bacon’s view of the Immaculate Conception was, but I think this rather surprising source points in the direction of something rather important. Like those Catholic schoolgirls who wanted to sin without conceiving, the Western Church has got its priorities wrong about Mary. Our Church Calendars call her the B.V.M. – the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the East, Christians call her the Mother of God, Theotokos, the God-Bearer, and have done so since the 4th century.
Because that’s the fascinating thing, that’s the mystery – that a normal, ordinary woman gave birth to God. She fed him at the breast, taught him to talk and to walk, even changed his nappies, or whatever they used in 1st century Galilee. Imagine that! A mere human being changed the nappies of God. That is how intimate the Incarnation is. That is how close God wants us to be with him. There’s nothing very clever or interesting about being a virgin, blessed or otherwise, but to be God’s own mother – that is an astonishing thing.
Once we learn to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation in this way, we find we don’t need made-up doctrines to glorify Mary, because nothing in this life could be more glorious than to be the Mother of God. And once we’ve got rid of the Mediaeval paraphernalia we have a more realistic and accessible saint. We don’t need to picture Mary as always serene, tall, elegant and gracious. Let’s think of her as plump, or plain; let’s picture her laughing and getting cross – have you ever seen a mother not laughing and getting cross with her children? Let’s picture her normal.
The glory is in the ordinariness of the scene, and because she is ordinary, and we are ordinary, we can strive to follow her example. Often we think of Mary as a supreme example of obedience, and yes that’s true, but it’s much more dynamic than that, as all relationships with God are. Her reply to the angel – “be it unto me according to thy word” is matched with the revolutionary anthem, the Magnificat, which is the Gospel reading today, with its manifesto of the lifting up of the humble and meek, and the casting down of the mighty from their pomp and luxury. Mary has got the hang of the Good News from the start. Mary is not merely acquiescing in the will of God, but co-operating in the work of God..
In that sense, she may stand as a role model for all Christians, men as well as women, not of obedience alone, but of creative co-operation. Of course it is not given for us all to be the Mother of God – what a worry that would be! – but there is work in the world which God wants us – you and me – to help him to bring to birth. Whatever it is, may God give us light to find it, grace to do it, and the joy of knowing that with God’s love, and the prayers of Mary and all the saints, we will never work alone. Amen.
The Revd Richard Haggis
(edited from notes)