The Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin (tr)
18 August 2019
O God, who hast taken to thyself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of thy incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of thine eternal kingdom; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Good Catholics that we are, we have interrupted our journey with Jesus to Jerusalem so we might celebrate the feast of Our Lady. In the Episcopal Church this is Mary’s principal feast and we name it the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin. Our church has chosen this day from among Our Lady’s days for its correspondence with the traditional feast of the Assumption of the Virgin and because, unlike the Annunciation and Candlemas, it is not otherwise considered a feast of Our Lord. Last year I delved a bit into the non-canonical story of Mary’s Assumption and why, despite its not being included in any Biblical account, we reckon it to have enough authority and antiquity to take it seriously.
Today, however, I want to take a different tack and think about Mary as presented both by Luke and in Anglican tradition and understand how she fits in with what Jesus has been teaching us on the way to Jerusalem this summer. Jesus, as we know, has been travelling with his disciples and attracting a crowd. He has taught us about who our neighbours really are and what our relationship with them should be like. He has taught us how to pray, always with the Kingdom of God in mind, always aware that the Kingdom has already been given to us and that the task ahead of us is within our grasp. He has taught us lessons about our complicated relationship with our human labour and our possessions, that these things are important and real and that we have the power to choose to use them in the service of that unfolding Kingdom. Last week we learnt even more pointedly that how we use our labour and marshal our resources speaks volumes to the world about what we value, where our priorities are. Jesus told us that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” that what we do out in the world matters and is in plain view for all the world to see and that this has real world, life and death, consequences.
This, I think, is where Mary comes in. At Communion, we will hear the choir sing one of my absolutely favourite pieces of Renaissance music, Guillaume Du Fay’s setting of the Marian hymn, Ave maris stella. I find it hauntingly beautiful as the choir alternates between Gregorian chant and fauxbourdon. From the point of view of the imagery, what is most striking to me, and I think, most relevant, is the image with which the hymn begins: Maris stella, the Star of the Sea, shining in the night sky so that we might find our way. That motif, in fact, if you want to have a look after mass, is one of the most important visual images in our Lady Chapel and you will find that guiding star carved in wood atop the altarpiece and in the altar rail, and cast in silver in the hanging lamp.
Mary is our beacon, the star by which we navigate life. She helps us know where we are and where we are going. When we look to her, we know by where she keeps her treasure, where her heart is. But which Mary is it, to whom we look? It is easy to get caught up, as does this very hymn, with the usual medieval Marian tropes about her being the nurturing mother, gate of heaven, the one who redeems the sin of Eve. There is all that meek and mild business about Mary’s purity and sanctity and it is easy to leave it there, with Mary as the shining example of motherhood, femininity, acceptance, duty. Now this is all nice enough, and, on the surface, quite appealing and lovely, but it traps us in a view of Mary as more of an abstract idea than a flesh and blood woman. And when she comes alive for a moment, she is shown to be a figure without much agency, someone who accepts what other people do to and with her, existing always within her relationships with, let’s face it, men. Mary is, in fact, so much more powerful than that and that Mary is the Sea Star by whose light I wish to sail.
Anglicans have always known that Mary. She is the Mary of the Magnificat, the Mary of today’s gospel, and in many ways more importantly the Mary of Daily Evening Prayer, the Mary of so many settings of the Magnificat sung in churches and cathedrals day in and day out since 1549. Powerful Mary, Biblical Mary, has always been right there in the Book of Common Prayer, right at the centre of our common life, at the heart of our worship. The Catholic revival brought us back the other Mary and we can get lost in contemplation of her, safe in a pious world without real life consequences, but it is dangerous Mary, challenging Mary, politically astute Mary, who is our Maris stella.
Shortly after “Sumens illud ‘Ave’/ Gabrielis ore,” to quote the hymn, that is right after the Annunciation, Mary sets off to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, who is also pregnant and who will give birth to John the Baptist. When she arrives, Elizabeth exclaims, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,” further remarking that the babe in her womb leapt for joy. Mary, however, is not simply content with this lovely greeting, she makes her own declaration about what is happening to her, a declaration that sets these events within the context of the tectonic upheavals that the coming Kingdom of God will bring. She knows that something monumental is happening and that this involves the subversion of social norms and inversions of our understanding of who and what are important.
My soul doth magnify the Lord, * and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded * the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold from henceforth * all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath magnified me, * and holy is his Name.
Mary knows her position in society. She understands that, as a Jewish teenage girl living in a minor Roman province, she is an inconsequential person in the eyes of the powerful of her day. And yet, God chose her to bring into the world, in the flesh, the very son of God who’s birth inaugurates the new age. She knows her low estate and sees how God is doing something new in choosing her.
This new thing is not simply about spiritual matters, ideas, philosophy, but rather it is something new in the midst of life, something that will change life for ever:
And his mercy is on them that fear him * throughout all generations. He hath showed strength with his arm; * he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, * and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, * and the rich he hath sent empty away.
In the real world, this things wrought in Nazareth, will change the balance of power. Those who are proud and haughty will be brought low. The mighty and powerful will see their position crumble. And not only this, but those who are poor, on the margins, disregarded, inconsequential, just like Mary, will be lifted up. The hungry will be fed and the meaning of earthly riches will be subverted. Mary is preaching nothing less than revolution and framing it as fulfilment of prophesy, “as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.”
This young girl is willing to stand up to the whole Roman Empire and pronounce that the values of that kingdom, the kingdom that spans the whole known world and power over which the devil offered Jesus in the temptation, are nothing less than vanity. The values of that empire are, to put it in the language of Jesus’ parable, like treasure stored away in barns so that it might make merry. It is transitory and misplaced. Mary in the Magnificat speaks as clearly to us as it did to her own age.
Today many of us long to see God scatter “the proud in the imagination of their hearts [and ...] put down the mighty from their seat” to advance the works of justice, love, and peace. Mary reaches through time as our beacon and guiding star to show us her treasure lies with the humble and meek, with the hungry and homeless, with the dispossessed, with the refugee, the stranger and the immigrant. Her treasure, her labour, everything she is and everything she has is working to collaborate with God in achieving this new reality. And it stands for all of us to see, admire, and imitate.
The Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin is not about getting lost in all of Mary’s goodness and piety, divorced from the realities of life and the terrifying issues we face in a world full of greed and poverty, exploitation and degradation of the earth. Our feast challenges us to stand at the centre of the action. Yes, it allows us to spend some tine admiring Mary, but this Mary is a powerful and subversive woman and we give her her own due, acknowledge her authority and agency. With open hearts and minds we receive from her a message of hope and a call to action to challenge the powers that seem to have sway over the world and show them that the real power lies in the King unlike any king the world has ever known, whose treasure is not stored away in barns, and whose principal action is the defeat of death at the hands of Love.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
Feria, 16 August 2019
© 2019 Andrew Charles Blume