Saint Mary The Virgin
The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)
In the name of God, the holy and eternal one, Amen.
The spring my family and I lived in Bordeaux, my son – who was just 4 – and I settled into a predictable pattern of half day kindergarten, followed by school pick up, the grocery store for a baguette, carton of milk and whatever else we needed, lunch and then a trip downtown. 4-year-olds, of course, thrive on routine, so we’d hit the preschooler highlights of downtown Bordeaux: a ride on the tram, look at the Grande Orgue in the Cathedral of St André, and then play in the giant fountain on the edge of the river, hopefully staying dry enough that we could make it back for school pick up at the end of the afternoon. After a few visits, I was able to stop explaining that, despite what Patrick might have led us to believe, Cathedral organs don’t generally offer instrument trials for preschoolers! But each time we walked around the Cathedral, past the organ and the pilgrim shrines, we’d stop a few moments by the chapel dedicated to Mary, painted in brilliant colours and with dozens, if not hundreds, of the titles for Mary adorning the walls. I don’t remember all of them, but you can probably imagine some. Mother of Christ, Mother of Mercy, Mother of Sorrows. Queen of Angels, Refuge of Migrants, Gate of heaven, Morning star, Star of the Sea, Health of the Sick, Refuge of sinners, Untier of Knots—it goes on and on, up and down the walls.
I grew up Anglican, and, until I was an adult, I think I knew all of three titles for Mary: St Mary, the Virgin Mary, and Mary the mother of Jesus. If I thought about Mary at all, I suppose my image of her was bound up in the pictures of a children’s Bible, or in stained glass, or Christmas hymns—the virgin mother, obedient, silent, meek, mild. She holds this place, I thought, as the paragon of a particular femininity, and yet—even if one wanted to—completely impossible to imitate.
I came to love Mary, though, as a seminarian. Formed as an undergraduate in feminist and queer theology, I had been challenged to read the scriptures and Christian tradition from the margins. I found little of that in my first term reading lists. In addition to praying Mary’s song, I started praying with Mary, paying attention to the way in which Scripture and tradition tell her story, and those of her compatriots—Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha, —whose gender identities set them apart from the norms of prophets, sages, teachers and leaders. Mary as prophet, Mary as yes-sayer to God, Mary, honestly, as a girl, opened space for me. The summer of my first year, an intern in hospital chaplaincy, I learnt to pray ‘Hail Mary, full of grace…’ with and for some of my patients. At first, it was in much in the way I learnt to pray with people of faiths completely different from my own, but the words soon became part of my lexicon of prayer, ones that I come back to, when I need them. In Mary’s story, Mary’s words, Mary’s song, Mary’s prayer, I found space to draw close to Mary’s son.
As a hospital chaplain, I’ve come across those whose faith includes Mary in a million ways—those who tell me they believe in God, in Jesus and in Mary, a sort of shorthand for a particular sort of Christianity. Those who know, like Mary, what it is to receive a child against all odds, when it seemed downright impossible. Those who join in Mary’s song in the sure hope that God will indeed fill the hungry with good things and send the rich empty away. Those who know, like Mary, the swords of anxiety and grief. Those who call her Myriam, mother of Isa, and who know her story not from the Christian Scriptures, but from the Quran.
I’ve come back to Mary, time and again, in prayer, in reflection, in hope. When we meet Mary in the Scriptures, her courage points relentlessly to God’s actions in Christ, proclaiming in word and deed that the child she bears brings hope and new life not only for him, and for her, but for all God’s people: the old order overturned, and a new dawn of justice and redemption inaugurated. No wonder we continue to sing her song—the hope she proclaims has become ours, too.
I am enough of a Protestant, and a feminist, to know that Mary is complicated. Many strains of Christian tradition—on both sides of the reformation—have painted Mary as so perfect that she no longer bears the humanity to which she bore her son. Other times, the tradition has played so heavily on Mary as a symbol—of the Church, of the new Eve, of whatever it is—that she no longer bears any resemblance to the young girl in Galilee. And Mary’s been an enduring point of division between Catholics and Protestants since the Reformation: “one consequence of our separation has been a tendency for Anglicans and Roman Catholics alike to exaggerate the importance of the Marian dogmas in themselves at the expense of the other truths more closely related to the foundation of the Christian faith,” write the authors of one of the early joint Anglican-Roman Catholic statements—and by ‘early,’ I mean about 40 years ago, nearly 500 years after we last had agreed statements. I know this is still true, as Roman Catholic and Orthodox patients, checking out if I’m going to be an OK chaplain, never quite never quite trust my affirmation that I do, in fact, believe in Mary, because they are confident that Protestants just don’t.
And yet for all the ways in which she is complicated, Mary is part of the story of Jesus. Her yes at the beginning allows God to be born into this beautiful and terrible world. Her response—magnifying God, and speaking of God’s redemption that overturns the order of sin and despair—speaks the truth of Christ’s coming and Christ’s purpose. In some sense, this is the task of all the saints, of all the baptised—to allow Christ to live so fully in us, that we cannot but magnify God, hold fast to God’s promises, and look with hope for redemption. And yet Mary does this in a particular way, without reservation.
It is little wonder, then, that Mary has held space in Christian devotional imagination for 2000 years, offering ways to pray, to praise, to imagine and relate to God, in all sorts of different ways. Not all of them have stuck, not all have made sense to all Christians in all times. Perhaps Mary is part of your faith already, an inspiration, a companion on the journey, a partner in prayer. I think of the workshops we did earlier this year on spiritual practices, and how many of those have, at least in some of their iterations, stood in relationship to Mary and the saints. Maybe you are looking forward to singing the Magnificat at evensong this fall, or you pray it aloud or silently, pleading, like Mary, for redemption, confessing, like Mary, God’s faithfulness. Maybe you pray the rosary, with or without the Hail Mary, or meditating on the mysteries. Maybe you have some sense that the saints—here on earth, or those who have departed this life—join their prayers with yours. Maybe art and icons give you a window to God—I’ve got a tiny traditional one of Mary that dwells on various shelves in my house, and I’ve been captivated in recent years by more contemporary takes, like Everett Patterson’s Jose y Maria, and Ben Wildflower’s woodcuts. Or maybe poetry breaks open your soul—this time last year, I was at an online retreat with Padraig O Tuama reading and reflecting on poems about Mary, Mother of Justice, and one of our members edited and published a collection on the annunciation that I return to again and again. Maybe you treasure your blessings in your heart like Mary did (Lk 2:51), in practices of gratitude or examen. Maybe pilgrimage has been your way of journeying in faith, touching holy ground. Maybe you are called to the work of casting down the mighty from their thrones, or of feeding the hungry with good things—I know well both the importance of activism in this congregation, and how the end of the month lunch aims to provide good food, and dignified meal, to our guests.
In the Anglican tradition, much of these sorts of spiritual practices fall into the realm of adiaphora—things that are not necessary to salvation—not harmful, maybe helpful. Maybe none of these resonate, none of them work for you. But perhaps some of them are already part of your practice, or may some call to you. Perhaps any one of these might help you create space in your life for God’s redemptive presence, help your soul magnify God, help you live into justice and hope. Perhaps, like Mary, they help you find your place in God’s salvation, and help you create space for God’s presence to grow within you.
 Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), Authority in the Church II, 1981. See also ARCIC’s document, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, 2004, whose reflections informed some of this sermon.