Today's sermon is not going to be about the church calendar. However, the fact that we are celebrating the Feast of St Mary the Virgin on a Sunday is something worth commenting on. We know that there are many saints with feast days designated throughout the year and we know that there is a cycle of seasons and Sundays designated for the year. So what happens when a saint's day coincides with another important day, like a Sunday? In that case, the calendar gives us a puzzle to work out. Many people find this unnecessarily confusing and a burden; I delight in solving the calendar's riddles every year!
Today's observance is not too complicated, as it happens. The Feast of St Mary the Virgin, in the Anglican Church of Canada, at least, is one of a short list of thirteen days which, should they fall on Sunday, take precedence over the normal Sunday observance in Ordinary Time. So today the readings change from the usual summer progression, the hymns reflect the special character and themes of the day, the vestments and hangings are blue instead of green, and there is cause—if one needed an excuse!—for a party mid-August! Just as Mary once made room for our Lord in her body, so the Lord's Day makes room for Mary.
In the history of the Church and its many saints, St Mary is undoubtedly the most popular of that blessed communion. As is the case with any popular figure, over time we begin to associate ideas, legends, stories, and more with them. Sometimes embellishments on the history, other times good mythology, and sometimes just strange or funny things that latch on and persist. In the case of St Mary, there are a multitude of institutions named for her. Schools, churches, hospitals, orphanages, universities, towns, monasteries, parks, and so on. These are lovely associations with St Mary.
Along with the associations with different places, Mary has acquired many names. Our Lady of _______ is the most common form. These are often associated with various appearances or events. Our Lady of Lourdes, our Lady of Walsingham, of Guadalupe, of Snows, of Perpetual Help, and so on. St Mary has long been known as Our Lady, Star of the Sea. This is, apparently, due to an error in transcribing the meaning of her name in Hebrew into Latin, but it stuck and there are now many tales of St Mary saving sailors and caring for those who work in and on the waters of the world.
There are also some unusual associations with St Mary. The most notable and recent of which is probably the claim of her face appearing in the toasting pattern on a piece of bread in the mid-1990s. News stories abounded over the claim that this was not simply human face-recognition in random patterns at work, but a true apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary. True or not, the toast sold in 2004 for $28,000 USD.
However one feels about the many historical accretions to the tradition of St Mary the Virgin, there are many aspects of her life and story which make her a wonderful icon of Christian life and someone that we would all do well to spend some time contemplating. Perhaps most obviously, Mary is an icon of motherhood. At the Annunciation she agrees to participate in God's plan and realizes that she will become a mother sooner than she may have anticipated. We see Mary at almost every pivotal moment in the story of Jesus's life: She is there at Epiphany, at the Presentation in the Temple, for so much of his ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing, at the Crucifixion, at the news of the Resurrection, at the Ascension, and with the other disciples on the Day of Pentecost. Through every trial, difficulty, joy, and sorrow, Mary remains a devoted and faithful mother caring for her son.
Mary also demonstrates humility before God. At the Annunciation, Mary recognizes a divine message and, though she has concerns about how it will happen and what it will mean for her life, she subjects herself to the will of God and agrees to take on the vocation God has offered to her. She will later call herself "the handmaid of the Lord", though a more accurate English translation might be "slave". This notion of a humble woman as mother has been used by many, including the Church, through history, as a tool to subjugate women. Using a twisted version of Mary's example, women have been told that this is their function: to receive orders from men and to be obedient wives and mothers. This is a perversion of the example set by St Mary; her humility before God is a trait to be emulated by all Christians, not only women. It is the humbling of one's own will before that of God which is a virtuous trait, not the subjugation of one group of people under another.
Mary also demonstrates wisdom before God. This is sometimes called "the fear of God" in scripture. At the Annunciation, when Mary realizes she is speaking with an angel and that this is a message from God, she proceeds with care and discernment. She asks questions, receives answers, and deliberates some time "pondering these things in her heart". Compare this to the visit that her relation, Zechariah, received some months earlier. When he was told by an angelic visitor that his wife would bear a son, he was so derisive that the angel sealed his lips such that he could not speak until the child was born. Mary, even in her youth, was a wise woman.
Just as important as humility and wisdom in Christian life are the stories we have of Mary's real and present struggle in her relationship with God. In the midst of her life as a devoted mother and humble servant of God, we receive stories of Mary's struggles: She is confused by Simeon's response when she and Joseph present the infant Jesus in the Temple according to tradition; she is worried and surprised when she and Joseph find Jesus teaching in the temple and he is dismissive of their concern; there is a moment of tension at the wedding at Cana when Mary encourages her son to assist the host; Mary worries for her son when surrounded by a crowd in Mark's telling of the gospel. (Mark 3.20-35) She does not always understand why these events are happening, nor what purpose they might serve and she is not shy about asking questions or pushing when she feels that something is not in the best interest of those she loves. Her humility and wisdom do not always come easily and we can all take comfort in Mary's example of struggling with the work and places to which God calls us.
Finally, we might spend some time contemplating Mary's sacramental participation. We come to the altar to seek a particular intimacy with God. A relationship so close that we share body and blood with one another in communion. If the sharing of body and blood is one of the most intimate moments we can share with God on this side of the veil, then Mary's "Yes" at the Annunciation made her a participant in the first communion. Her willingness to give herself over so completely to God's sacramental call is a virtue all Christians would do well to contemplate.
In the Gospel stories it is often the case that the most important and visible prophets are women. Mary stands alongside Elizabeth, Anna, Mary Magdalene and others in this role. It is in her conversation with her cousin, Elizabeth, that Mary sings the Magnificat, the cancticle so long associated with the evening prayers of Christians:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me bblessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembraance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. - Luke 1.46-55 (Revised English Bible)
When Mary's cousin asks her how it can be that the Lord is present in Mary's womb, this song is the response. Mary's first words are the glorification of God; her very soul glorifies the God who has done this. Her next words are an acknowledgement of the blessings of God, including this pregnancy. Even though her unmarried, pregnant state has caused her worry, at least one difficult conversation with Joseph, receipt of suspicion from those who know a bit and do not believe her story, and all of this along with the trials of a normal pregnancy in the first century. With all of this, her souls till glorifies God and rejoices in the many blessings received.
Mary goes on to speak of God's mercy which resides first with those who are humble before the Lord and how God has begun a new thing here and now. God's kingdom has come and is growing rapidly in the world. In this new kingdom, those who seek power and riches and renown will be disappointed. These things count for very little in the Kingdom of God. Rather, it is the humble, the meek, the silenced, the forgotten, the oppressed, and the hungry from whom God has blessing upon endless blessing. This is the new kingdom in which Mary knows she is living and it is a blessing worthy of praise to the God who made it so. Mary's song ends with an acknowledgement that God is also faithful and that her child, the coming Lord, the coming kingdom are all a part of God's fulfilment of the promise made to Abraham so many generations past. This is the moment for which humanity has waited so long. Mary's song is such a beautiful statement of God's saving work and a model of Christian life that it has been prayed, said, and sung by Christians around the world day upon day for nearly as long as Christians have been praying, speaking and singing.
The prayer of the Magnificat and the scriptural record and tradition around St Mary are all very good, but we must also remember that we stand with Mary in our own Christian lives. Anglicans believe that we are "compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12.1) in the people of the saints and our ancestors in the faith. When we go about the ordinary tasks of our days, we do so side by side with Mary, a mother in Nazareth. When we gather as the Church to worship, we do so with Mary who traveled with the disciples. When we pray to Christ, we do so with Mary encouraging her son to assist the host at Cana. When we work to assist the houseless and refugees, we do so with Mary, fleeing with her family into Egypt to escape Herod's persecution. When we stand in solidarity with those who suffer, we do so with Mary at the foot of the Cross gazing upon her son's body. When we pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit to support and enable us in all these works, we do so with Mary in the upper room upon the Day of Pentecost.
Whatever your fondness—or lack thereof—for the Church's tradition of saints and their examples and stories, Mary is an important figure in our lives. She is present throughout the Gospel stories and remains present in Christian buildings, art, music, prayers, and lives across the world. No matter how or where you encounter her, Mary always has something important and profound to share with you about her son, our Lord. I hope that you will make the time to hear it.
Let us pray: Almighty God, from your Son's fullness Mary has been given grace upon grace, so that today we recall her in the light of your glory. May we come to you as she did, poor and lowly, so that, like her, we may one day be transformed into the image of Jesus, who is Lord for ever and ever.
First preached at Holy Trinity, Winnipeg.