Reading(s): Luke 1:46-55. This sermon was given by Victoria at All Saints.
Today we celebrate Mary, the mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, her bodily taking up to heaven, the assumption. Not a celebration we particularly take notice of in the Anglican Church and especially not if you are of the evangelical persuasion. But I wonder why not? Not to celebrate the life of someone so influential in the life of all humanity, in the life of the church……..I wonder perhaps if it is because she is a woman?
Mary, the mother of Jesus whom we celebrate today, helps us to root our faith- firmly in the real world. Her song, the Magnificat- which was our Gospel reading and which we sing or recite every day at evening prayer - is a rallying cry for the transformation of the world. A young woman, whose whole place in society is already marginal because of her gender and made even more vulnerable by unexpected pregnancy, sings with absolute confidence of a God who confounds expectation. Mary names the demons of her own day, and of ours: poverty, power imbalance, injustice, hunger- and speaks of God’s utter commitment to their destruction. So Mary’s song is not a wistful ‘if only the Kingdom were like this’. It’s a profound and radical call to put our faith into action, to build the Kingdom.
A great deal of nonsense has attached itself to the figure of Mary over the centuries. She sums up the ambivalence of a Church which took six centuries to declare officially that women had souls, and many more to decide that women had a place within the ordinate of the church – though it is still legal to not accept the ordination of women and to discriminate against having a women leader in your church…..it is not legal to say you don’t want a man, but it is legal still to say you don’t want a woman. And whilst we’re here:
We all know about women gaining the right after much hardship and even death to vote in 1918, but did you know women couldn’t open a bank account on their own until 1975 and until then could not get a mortgage in their own name without a male guarantor! Women could not buy a drink in a pub until 1982 without the legal possibility of being refused service. And don’t get me started on equal pay, as it is still incumbent on the woman to prove that she is as good as her male colleague in any dispute over pay – the man doesn’t have to prove anything!
The Bible itself has been used to limit women, to try and prove we are lesser worth – because of course only men were disciples! – this is such shallow reading of the texts and context, but one which has been used for centuries. St Paul (despite the one verse in Timothy) had many women leading his churches (Phoebe, Priscilla, Apphia, Nympha, Lydia, Thekla, Tabitha to name but a few) – there are frescos of women at the altar celebrating the eucharist from the first century. Women were the last to leave the foot of the cross, the first to encounter the risen Christ. It was the woman at the well that became the first evangelist, a woman who changed Jesus' mind about his Mission being to all people not just the Jews. And of course, it was a woman who bore the Christ child against all the odds…
So that brings us back to today and the traditional celebration of the assumption – we as Anglicans do not believe in the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven, it is not biblical and not part of our doctrine. However, it was (and still is in many denominations) a huge debate in the church. It took a further six centuries after acknowledging that women do in fact have souls, to begin to take seriously the theological implications of Jesus' humanity (was he Divine, or Human, or a bit of both?). That debate lies at the heart of the confusion about what exactly it is that we celebrate today. Afterall if Elijah the prophet can be taken away into heaven at the end of his ministry, why not Mary at the end of hers? However, Mary is an ordinary human being like the rest of us, her human death is not a matter for shame, to be explained away by theology - by assumption.
The very point of Mary is that she is indeed human; for if Mary isn’t human then nor is Jesus, and if Jesus is not human then we are not saved. But Mary’s existence as a human physical woman has been problematic too. Mary’s virginity and her motherhood have been used down the centuries to limit options for women: there’s still a kind of silence about those who are neither of those things, as if they didn’t or shouldn’t exist
So not all the demons are dead yet. We still live in a world where senior politicians can belittle women who choose to dress a certain way- let’s not forget that Mary wore a headscarf. We still live in a culture which thinks it can tell women what to eat and how to look, how to behave. We still live in a world where #MeToo needed to happen. The radical vision of the Magnificat is not a song for women. It’s a song by a woman, which has become the song of every Christian who shares that vision of a better world- where the hungry are fed and the powerless enabled, where wealth and influence are equally distributed, and nobody is made more perfectly in the image of God than anyone else. Mary’s song is not a fantasy or a fairytale. The demons of anger and ogres of greed are as much of a threat now as they ever were.
Mary’s story, Mary’s song, is ours too: an ordinary human being, called into relationship with God, called to work with God to bring about the Kingdom on earth. It won’t just happen. Mary’s song echoes down the generations, and outside all time:
We should not be afraid of celebrating Mary. We should liberate her from the confines of the nativity play and recognise her as a fellow human being but one who was chosen by God to give birth to God. She is the God Bearer, the Mother of God and without her our story would be very different. We can learn a great deal from Mary’s openness to the will of God – Mary’s yes to God helps us in our own yes to God and I have no doubt that if each of us as Christians and as a Church opened ourselves to do God’s will, regardless of the potential for pain then we would truly be the body of Christ here on earth;
Finally: as we open ourselves to the will of God and recognise what he has done for us and therefore what we can do for all those who find themselves on the margins of polite society we can make the joy of the magificat our joy: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”