Reverend Caitlin: Sermon on the Blessed Virgin Mary

August 16, 2017
August 16, 2017 Joe

In our service today, we have listened to a revolutionary piece of political writing, a piece of writing so explosive that, during British rule in India, it was prohibited from being sung in church. It was banned by the military Junta of Argentina in the 1970s and by the military dictatorship of Guatemala in the 1980s. People feared it would incite rebellion and could be a danger to the state.
I’m talking about the Magnificat, the Song of Mary.

To be completely honest, a dangerous revolutionary was hardly the way I perceived Mary growing up. In my search for biblical heroines, I was rather more focussed on stories with a bit more violence — Judith slaying Holofernes, Deborah leading her people into war. If I had to restrict myself to the (duller) new testament I turned to the intellectual Mary of Bethany and the subversive Mary Magdalen receiving the news of the resurrection before any of the male disciples. By contrast, the Virgin Mary stood as a submissive figure, demure, eyes downcast. And as I got older I worried that the focus on her came at the expense of all the other women mentioned in the Bible. I suspected it was precisely her submissiveness that was so attractive to the church — she appeared easily controllable in a way Deborah, Judith, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany could never be. And there was a reason I saw Mary in this way. In paintings of her she is often depicted as passive rather than active, demure rather than dangerous.

And there is therefore a jarring disjunction between my perception of Mary, unsurprisingly similar to the one seen in much of Western art, and the Mary whose words were so subversive that she had to be silenced by multiple repressive regimes. In 1933, just after the Nazis had seized power in Germany ending democracy, perpetuating terror and violence, it was Mary to whom the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer turned. He preached that her song is ‘at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings’. So perhaps the Guatemalan regime was right where I was wrong — Mary is a revolutionary.

So I think that there are two main things we need to learn about Mary — first, her yes to God is not simply a passive submission to his will but an active participation in his plan. Second, in the Magnificat we see a wild and powerful reordering of the world which remains provocative and vitally necessary today.

The Magnificat opens with the words ‘my soul doth magnify the Lord’. The word ‘magnify’ doesn’t initially seem to communicate very much, it simply means what a magnifying glass does – making things look bigger. Perhaps this isn’t such a bad place to start — when Mary sings the Magnificat, she wants to make God look bigger, to draw attention to his greatness. But when this word is used in the ancient languages, it means actually making something bigger, not just making it look bigger. At first, this seems to be impossible — we cannot make God bigger, we cannot make God more than God is. So why does Mary choose this word? Maybe it is that, when we truly praise someone, ‘we make them bigger in the sense of giving them more room: we step back, we put our preoccupations and goals and plans aside’.
But this doesn’t mean that Mary is simply a passive incubator for the plans and salvation of God. For Mary says too that ‘he that is mighty hath magnified me’. As she gives room to God, God makes her greater. We cannot see God and human as oppositional — the more God, the less Mary. When Mary gives room to God, God gives room to her: ‘her humanity blossoms into its fullest glory’. The history of God which Mary refers to in her song, ‘He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever’ is a history of God’s involvement with people, his connection to and relationship with human beings. Mary, who unites the divine and human in Jesus Christ, understands this very clearly — God is a God who is with us. We are at our most human when we align our will with his. And so it is unsurprising that as Mary accepts God’s will her response is not to fall passively silent but to begin to speak, and then to speak some more.

Mary represents the humblest people of Israel: the underclass, losers and victims. When she takes her baby to be presented at the Temple, the offering she makes is the offering of the poor — a pair of turtledoves. And as far as the world saw her, she was the mother of an illegitimate son (a fact that the Pharisees sarcastically remind Jesus of in John’s gospel). That would have been a tough thing to bear in first century Palestine. So it is this poor, disgraced woman, who by all the standards of decent society should have been silent, who tells us what God’s salvation looks like, what it means to love and cooperate with God. Scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful from their thrones, filling the hungry with good things.

Mary articulates very powerfully that there are no spare people — everyone has something to say and an active part to play. And God ’s choice of her as the means by which he will save the world, demonstrates unequivocally that she is right. The Magnificat is a song for all those who are left on the margins, of both society and the church. It should always stand as a powerful reminder that God speaks for and through those whom society has rejected. Mary represents ‘something of the anarchy of God’s love going round behind the rules and the conventions, looking for people who are forgotten’. If God works like this, we should be so much slower to define who is within and who is without.
And salvation is inherently communal — after all our own eternal happiness is dependent on the eternal happiness of those we love and those about whom we worry, theirs on the people they love. And so salvation spans outwards in a never-ending web of relationship and connection. Perhaps the reason Mary’s song is so politically dangerous is that it recognises this — Mary sings of her people, the reordering of her community in the image of God. Mary’s song should always be a revolutionary voice in our head, reminding us of those whom we would prefer to forget. But even more so it should be a revolutionary challenge to society, a reminder that salvation comes through Jesus Christ to a community, not to an individual. And that community must be one in which we exalt the humble and fill the hungry, listening to those modern day Marys who speak as the voice of the rejected.

At the back of the Cathedral there is a statue of Mary holding out her Son in front of her. Here her eyes are not downcast, her attitude is far from demure — instead her head is raised, stare direct, stance challenging. Her challenge is, perhaps, that of the Magnificat and it is one we could do with hearing each time we pass it, pausing for a short moment. Who should you remember whom you would rather forget? How can you bring into our community those who suffer on the margins? How can you help society to feed the hungry, exalt the lowly? So perhaps it is clear why all those repressive regimes sought to silence her. Mary sings a dangerous and challenging song down the generations, she is after all a revolutionary.

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