The Remarkable Blessed Virgin Mary

A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Exactly four weeks ago, we celebrated the feast day of the greatest saint you’ve never heard of… Saint Macrina. A woman from what is now Turkey, she dominated fourth century theology and helped form the Nicene Creed and, yet, no one has ever heard of her.

Well, today we are celebrating another female saint, and this time you have most definitely heard of her. She gave birth to the Son of God and her name, of course, is Mary.

Mary is someone we all know lots about. Or do we? That’s an interesting question, because she has been subjected to two thousand years of piety and her story has been overlaid and overlaid with tradition and counter-tradition and her origins and nature may have been obscured as a result. One might even say, “Mary, the greatest saint you thought you knew”.

So, yes, today is the Feast Day (well, yesterday, technically) of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Episcopal Church. Mary actually has a couple of feast days, to celebrate various parts of her life. So, for instance, March 25th is the Feast of the Annunciation, where the Angel Gabriel visited a no doubt terrified Mary. But today is her ‘general’ feast day. 

Now, if you were, or are, Roman Catholic or, at least, if you were in a Roman Catholic church today, you would be celebrating a slightly more specific feast known as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Without getting hugely detailed, this feast celebrates the doctrine that the Virgin Mary, having fulfilled her earthly role, was taken up into heaven. A bit like the story of Jesus Ascension, or Elijah in the Old Testament.

As a witty priest friend of mine in England once remarked, the doctrine of the Assumption is, frankly, a bit of an assumption. There is barely any biblical justification for it. For me, one of the problems that I have with it is the way in which it colludes with the notion – long-held and widespread – that the world and the human realm are for the most part debased and dirty; the equating, if you like, of things earthly as inherently wicked. You often hear Christians saying ‘be in the world, but not of the world’.

So, if you hold a very high view of the life and work of the Virgin Mary, and hold a very low view of the sanctity of earthly things, you may well arrive at the conclusion that someone as committed to her calling as Mary couldn’t possibly just, well, die, but would need instead be extracted into heaven as if transported by some giant vacuum cleaner.

But for me, what makes Mary’s example to us so compelling is that she was an ordinary human being – of the world – who did something extraordinary, and that she is an example to us – everyday human beings as we are – that we also, ordinary as we are, can do extraordinary things when we say ‘yes’ to God.

Kelly and I made a trip to the Holy Land in 2012. This you probably know, because I seem to mention this is pretty much every sermon I preach, but the fact is that it is such an extraordinary experience that really makes the Bible come alive. Incidentally, I would love to take a group from here at St. Stephen’s out there some time. Would you be interested?

Anyway, the reason I mention it yet again is because the first place we stayed when we arrived was Nazareth. It is a largely Palestinian town within the State of Israel. It is mostly Muslim, but there are also a number of Christian communities. We stayed at the Sisters of Nazareth convent, which is built on several thousand year-old ruins that have recently been excavated and in fact likely to be the houses of the Nazareth of Jesus’ time – a small, dusty hamlet of little general significance. So, we were likely staying right above where Jesus grew up. A few hundred yards away from the present-day convent is the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation. It is built on the well-reserved remains of a cave-dwelling which has long been reputed to have been the house in which the angel Gabriel visited Mary.

Nazareth with the domed Basilica of the Annunication at the center

Nazareth with the domed Basilica of the Annunication at the center

The churches in Britain, collectively, get together in the run up to each Christmas and get some advertising executives to give them some pro bono time to come up with a catchy and apparently relevant ad campaign to draw people into church in droves for the feast of Christ’s nativity.

A few years ago, probably around 10 years ago, in fact, the advertising slogan was meant to be ‘The Truth is In Here’. When I first heard about it, I thought that it sounded quite good. A bit cheesy perhaps, but definitely a welcome break from all those pictures of lowly shepherds or jolly Victorians. In the event, that particular ad idea didn’t make it to final production because of one or two legal difficulties with 20th Century Fox and a little show they ran called ‘The X Files’.

The ad execs had had more success the previous year with their campaign. In fact it stirred up quite a heated debate. It was a purple poster with three rather funky-looking wise men in lime-green and a big yellow caption that read ‘Bad Hair Day?! You’re a virgin, you’ve just given birth and now three kings have shown up. [Find out the happy ending at a church near you.]’

We hear, and have heard, the Christmas story so often that it is a seamless part of our culture and folklore as much as it is about our spiritual and theological life and it is probably a truism to say that its ubiquity and pervasiveness has inured us to the point where we are so acclimatized to it that we take it almost without question.

After all, it’s just the everyday story of a poor teenage girl who gets pregnant with the Son of God in some sort of weird hermaphroditic process that defies biology, after a meeting with a man with wings, who gives birth and has a visit from a group of Zoroastrian magicians with somewhat strange gifts of limited utility. What could be more normal than that?

Time and again, perhaps even almost universally, we are presented with images of the Virgin Mary in literature and art as cool, calm, collected and compliant. Perhaps. But I think not. And I think that this does the Virgin Mary a disservice. I strongly suspect that Mary, far from being the cool, calm and collected person we are so used to seeing, agreeing with this chain of events without hesitation was, in fact, not just bewildered but actually terrified. Downright scared. My point is this: anyone who’s cool, calm and collected can say ‘yes, so be it’. And perhaps if you’re utterly petrified, you might say ‘yes’ out of a sense of coercion. But it takes real guts to say it and really mean it when you’re terrified out of your mind. 

We know that Mary didn’t only say ‘yes’ but that she really meant it, really came on board with the vision of bearing God’s son, because her heart was so moved that she composed a poem. We know it as ‘The Song of Mary’, the Magnificat, and we heard it in our Gospel reading just now [and we sang a versified version of it as our opening hymn].

In that poem, in which she draws from a passage from the Hebrew Scriptures she would have known, called the Song of Hannah, she paints the most wonderful vision of what the Kingdom of God will look like. In this respect, it is firmly in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Amos and Micah and firmly sets out her future Son’s teaching: that the Kingdom of Heaven is not just some distant hope, but also a present reality, if we care to embrace it.

As I have said in a number of sermons: sure, the destination is important, but the journey is just as important. The Kingdom of Heaven is not only a future paradise, but is right here, right now. Or to put it another way, not only should we believe in life after death, but we should believe in life before death, too.

Which is why it’s important that Mary wasn’t this beatific oil painting depiction of piety, but an ordinary young woman from a nowhere dusty hamlet, demonstrating her terrified human emotions in the face of the angel’s request, because it highlights the importance of what it means to be God’s servant and yet also to experience human emotion. 

And Mary conceives, and bears a son, and calls him Jesus. Son of God. And although the very point of this birth was that God wanted to get into the mess of this world we live in, we all too readily overlook Christ’s humanity in preference for his divinity. For me, the fact that Jesus is as fully human as he is fully divine, is a source of great gladness, because it reinforces that in becoming one of us, God cares about things earthly and is alongside us not only in the messy and nasty bits of human existence but also in the lovely, kind and wonderful bits too. The reason why we are asked, repeatedly, throughout the Bible and in Christian tradition, to come to the help of those in need is not because it buys us a ticket to heaven or gets us into God’s good books but because God has created a wonderful, beautiful world with the capacity in each one of us for human tenderness, kindness, altruism and joy and God wants everyone in the world to enjoy that. 

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