Monday, 9 September 2013

The Muscling-In of Mary

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Monday , 9th of September 2013, 9 a.m.
Being the Feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God, translated

for the Sisters of the Love of God
Fairacres Priory, Oxford

Gospel: Matthew 1:1-23

The Muscling-In of Mary

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

In twenty years of ministry I’ve never had to read either of the Gospel genealogies in public, and what a breathless read it was! In fact, they were a stumbling block on my road to faith, because when I was about 12 I read them, compared them with one another, and decided if they couldn’t agree on the name of Joseph’s great-grandfather, they were obviously rubbish, and you couldn’t trust anything else in the book either. And it’s a slightly odd choice of reading for this feast of Mary, when it’s not actually about her at all. But there’s no accounting for lectionaries.

Today we are translating the feast of the Nativity of Mary from yesterday, and translating is an interesting thing – much can be lost in translation, and names themselves can be very charged things. I was thinking of the Marys who come to my mind. The first is one of my great-grandmothers – Mary Ann Patterson, whose birthday was last week, known as Polly, in that rather peculiar way that we have diminutives which are just as long as the original name, who died at ten years younger than I am today, having given birth to twelve children, and endured nearly twenty years of marriage to one of the worst men in the world, who unfortunately was my great-grandfather. The name Mary evokes deep sympathy. And being an aficionado of the comedy and songs of the old music hall (which died out before I was even born), I think of Max Miller’s girlfriend, Mary from the Dairy, who resolutely refused to fall in love with him. And I also think of Muscle Marys.

This is a slightly different use of the name, and it describes gentlemen who spend altogether too much time in the gym, no longer seeking to become fit, but actually shape-changing, into muscle-bound hulks. Psychologically, it is akin to anorexia, a similarly shape-changing mindset. The nickname is used to tease those who think they are being hyper-masculine, with a name perceived to be the epitome of femininity. When I worked in the West End, our parish bordered that of S. Anne’s, Soho. Muscle Marys abounded just over the road. It’s not about sexuality, it’s a different sort of thing, but it’s big in the gay subculture. I got talking to a police officer one time, who had responsibility for that little patch of London, and she surprised me twice. First, by saying there can be as many as a quarter of million people there on a Friday or Saturday night. And secondly, by saying there could be as few as two uniformed police on the beat, for those quarter of a million people. “How on earth is that possible, how can you keep the peace?” She said, “it’s very easy. The Romford wide-boys [it still makes me wince when the people of the town where I was a most happy curate are traduced in this way] come in from Essex looking for a fight, and they take one look at the Muscle Marys and think maybe they’ll postpone it just for now. And they don’t have a clue that the Muscle Marys don’t want a fight anyway – they’ve just spent a fortune having their hair done”. And thus the peace was kept.

And that’s the thing about Mary – and Muscle Marys, and Romford wide-boys, come to that - we make a whole load of assumptions, based on first impressions. We look at a beefy chap and think he’d be handy in a fight. We listen to an Essex accent and assume it leads to trouble. We look at simpering Mary in a painting, and assume she’s at least as meek and mild as the child we sing about at Christmas. I used to work with a priest, who used to shudder, visibly, on the mention of Mary’s name in a prayer or a sermon. For her, “Mary” meant virgin, and mother, and don’t make a fuss, and get back in the kitchen; it meant centuries of male domination. And for Christians of a lower (churchmanshipwise!) cast of mind than those of us who are comfortable with this fine statue of Our Lady in the chapel here, the concern is that we’re giving Mary too much muscle. “Blessed Mary, Ever-Virgin, Co-redemptrix ….” And they hold their hands to their ears and pray us away from them.

The Scripture doesn’t allow us to make such eccentric assumptions – because that is all they are. We know very little about Mary. But we do know that for the Incarnation to happen there had to be a mother, and that was Mary. And she must have done an at least OK-ish sort of job, because the lad grew up and found his vocation and saved the world. We know she cared, because she sent his brothers to bring him home because people were saying he was barmy. She was his mother, she knew he wasn’t mad, but she had other sons and daughters to marry off, and it’s not good for business if people say there’s a loony in the family. But we also know, if we choose to believe Saint John, that she was at the foot of the cross, and that, according to Saint Luke, she was there with the disciples at Pentecost. Not in his life, but in his dying, and after his rising, she got the hang of what he was about, and she wanted to be with the other people who had loved him.

I read something lately about Lord Mountbatten’s mother, a princess of deepest royalty on all sides. She said, shortly before she died, “now I am only known as your mother. And that’s fine.” All we really know about Mary is that she was Jesus’s mother. And that’s fine too. Amen.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2013

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