21 August 2010

Proper 20 C - Mary the Virgin

Sermon for 15 August 2010

St. Mary the Virgin

Luke 1: 46-55

by Sharyn Hall

For most of us, the iconic image of the Virgin Mary is the image of her holding the infant Jesus. That image, often called the Madonna and Child, has been the inspiration for innumerable paintings, drawings and sculpture by famous and not-so-famous artists. For many people, the Madonna and Child is the Christmas card idealization of Mary as the Mother of Jesus. Perhaps some of us also see Mary at the end of Jesus’ life, standing at the foot of the cross with other women and with John, the beloved disciple, who took Mary into his home. A poignant image of Mary is captured in the famous sculpture by Michelangelo called La Pieta. That sculpture, which is in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, depicts Mary as the grieving mother holding the body of Jesus after he has been lifted down from the cross.

Mary is the image of motherhood with its joys and sorrows. Her motherhood began with anticipation and anxiety, hardship on her journey to Bethlehem and danger in her flight to Egypt. Her role as mother of Jesus ended with fear and heartbreak. Mary pondered in her heart events in the life of her son, which reminded her that he was not only her flesh and blood, he also was the divine Son of God. In a few gospel references, Mary is pictured as bewildered and worried about Jesus. The gospels give us these pictures of Mary and very little other information. Outside of the gospels, Mary is hardly mentioned in the rest of the New Testament scriptures.

The scarcity of information about Mary before the birth of Jesus and after his death led to the development of fictional stories about her in the early church. Initially, Mary was not held in greater esteem that the apostles, but by the second century, increasing interest in the importance of the birth of Jesus as proof of his divinity encouraged speculation about Mary. One particular document at the end of the second century is the source of stories about Mary’s parents, her birth, her purity and dedication to God as a child, her perpetual virginity and her ascent to heaven at the time of her death. This document has no basis in fact and was banned by the early Church Fathers in the western church, but it appealed to the imagination of the people and became popular in the eastern church.

Not surprisingly, controversies about the role of Mary continued for centuries. By the Middle Ages, the western church in Rome had adopted all the feast days around Mary’s birth, life and death, but the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century rejected all non-Biblical references to Mary. As usual, the Church of England chose a middle way. In the Book of Common Prayer of 1662, our church calendar restores memorial days for the Conception and Nativity of Mary, and those dates are retained in our Canadian Book of Common Prayer and Book of Alternative Services.

The stories about Mary, which are not in the scriptures, are not accepted as dogma in the Anglican Church, but people are not denied the right to believe them. Perhaps the most significant difference between our Anglican veneration of Mary and her veneration in the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches is that we do not see Mary as an intercessor for us with God. We see Jesus as the only advocate we have with God, and there is no impediment for us to pray to God directly. Anglican teaching emphasizes the honour of Mary in bearing and nurturing God’s Son, and in her faithful devotion to the will of God for her child.

Mary’s unique importance is that she personifies the coming together of humanity and God’s divine power. By willingly bearing the child of God, she embodied the amazing potential of God and humanity creating together, acting together to bring into the world God’s original will for creation. Although Mary embodies this potential, she is not a symbol of blessing for herself alone. In her song of praise called the Magnificat, Mary recognizes that her role is part of a long history of salvation for her people, both of the past and of the future yet to come.

God had saved her people for generations. The Hebrew people were conquered repeatedly by foreign armies and ruthless kings, but God always cared for the poor and oppressed, overthrowing the proud and raising up the humble, taking away from the rich to provide good things for the hungry. Mary sees her role to be the mother of God’s Messiah as the instrument of God to bring salvation to her people in their oppressed state. She sees herself as a servant of God’s will and mercy, not for her own benefit, but for the benefit of others. In this way, she is the model of true discipleship. She receives the message of God, and despite her awe and anxiety, she accepts God’s role for her, not reluctantly, but with a song of praise for God’s enduring faithfulness to her people, to Abraham and his descendents for ever.

We are descendents of Abraham. Sometimes we Christians forget that we, along with Jews and Muslims, are descendents of Abraham. Although Jews and Muslins do not accept Jesus as the Messiah, they do honour him as a great teacher and prophet. For Jews, Mary was the blessed mother of a prophet. In the Islamic tradition, Mary is considered one of the most righteous women, and she is the only woman mentioned by name in the Islamic holy book, the Qur’an. Although Mary is honoured in various ways by different faiths and by different branches of Christianity, she is a unifying symbol of God’s desire to interact directly into our world.

God chose Mary. We can be sure that God knew Mary’s heart and her suitability for the role chosen for her, but Mary had a choice. Would Mary be willing to endure the condemnation of her pregnancy out of wedlock, the dishonour for her family, the hardship of her poverty and the sorrow of Christ’s crucifixion? We also can be sure that God never abandoned Mary. God guided and comforted her as she cared for Jesus and then watched him embark on a dangerous mission. Despite her fears, Mary remained faithful to the will of God, and for her faithfulness, she has been called blessed by generations for centuries.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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