Romans 16: 25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory for ever! Amen.
Luke 1:26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
Looking through my sermons from 10 years of ministry I was surprised to discover that I’d never preached before on the Virgin Mary! So this reflection on the mother of Jesus has felt like slightly new ground for me, from a preaching point of view, and has been very fruitful. I’ve also been assisted by Cathy, Ian and Richard Bainbridge, who agreed to share their responses to Mary and to her yes to God, for which I am most grateful. More from them very soon.
So we’ve come in our Advent journey to the fourth Sunday and Mary. There are different ways to mark our progress through Advent, Sunday by Sunday, I’m sure you’ve noticed this in church down the years.
One way through the colours of the candles (purple, purple, pink, purple) which we have seen as signifying – waiting, waiting, rejoicing, and waiting. And then the Christ light.
Another way we mark Advent is through the readings set for each Sunday. Roughly speaking, the Advent story begins with the patriarchs (first Sunday) continues with the prophets (second Sunday) follows onto John the Baptist (third Sunday) and comes today to Mary the mother of Jesus (fourth Sunday).
As with all things, you can tell a lot by a name.
So how do you refer to Mary the mother of Jesus? How do you feel about her example? What part, if any, does she play in your spirituality?
Some of us might have our favourite heroes or heroines from the bible, or from Church history. Devotion to Mary perhaps goes hand in hand with a closer relationship with the saints. I like the way monks and nuns take the name of a saint to be their example and inspiration. And of course, whole Orders do this – the Franciscans follow the particular example of St Francis, for instance; the Benedictines that of St Benedict; the Dominicans that of St Dominic (whom I confess I know little about).
As a denomination that has both Catholic and Protestant elements, the Church of England encompasses a broad range of practice concerning Mary. This undoubtedly includes how we refer to her. There is a preponderance of St Mary’s churches in the south – something about all the churches along the Thames route being dedicated to the mother of Christ – so there’s a lot of Saint Marys…
It was a surprise to me to discover a day in mid-August in the Lectionary, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was casually referred to at the college where I studied theology as the BVM.
She is also known as mother of God, Our Lady, Mother of the Church, the New Eve, Queen of Heaven, mediatrix, and even co-redemptrix with Christ the Redeemer.
Some of which might meet with a little resistance, I am guessing, in our largely, though not solely, Protestant congregation. I suppose I must have heard sermons about the Blessed Virgin down the years; the only one I remember was Richard’s last year. However, as a partly Convent educated child, I developed fewer theological hang ups about Mary than some. As an 11-year-old I learnt to say The Hail Mary at the end of each school day and still remember it.
It starts: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus’. And if it sounds strange, it’s no more than the very words of the angel who appeared to the young girl and surprised her in an event we refer to as the Annunciation, and which we reflect on today.
The prayer ends with these words: ‘Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen’, And I didn’t need to look that up. I’m sure other things I learnt when I was 11 went in one ear and out the other, but obviously not the Hail Mary. But should Christians be praying to Mary? Or even asking for her prayers (which is not quite the same)?
I like the novelist Catherine Fox on this, writing in the Church Times Diary in 2018, around the time her husband became the Bishop of Sheffield. A one-time Baptist, now Anglican, and decidedly Protestant, she writes about an experience of coming into a church and hearing two pieces of music, the second of which was named: ‘Hymn to the Virgin’.
“I was disconcerted to hear the organ playing The Lincolnshire Poacher as I arrived last Sunday morning. This soon resolved itself into a hymn to the Virgin. An earlier me would have had to fan herself with The Baptist Hymnal. Fortunately, I have a sister who has gone over to Rome, so I consulted her. She laid about my squeamishness briskly. “For goodness’ sake, it’s only what the angel said to Mary. You’d have no problem asking me to pray for you. You believe in the communion of the saints. Get over yourself.”
At which point I’m going to turn to Richard for his reflections on honouring Mary.
The Blessed Virgin Mary. Growing up in a context of staunchly protestant evangelicalism almost the first thing to be said about Mary was the worry about those who apparently ‘worshipped’ her. That was bad because if we worshipped Mary we would have that much less worship left for Jesus. Mmmm. There was a big flaw here. Worshipping her may be mistaken, but in the worry about not falling into that trap the idea of honouring Mary somehow got lost. So my understanding of Mary has had to shift. And, to be fair, mainstream thinking in the Church of England has moved a long way as well.
Another hurdle to face concerns gender roles. Mary as a model of submission and obedience and motherhood is not a very comfortable image in a time when women are demanding equality with men. Does the traditional image of Mary serve to reinforce a tendency to patriarchy?
The Orthodox churches honour Mary with the title ‘theotokos’ or God-bearer. Mary is the one who at the crucial moment said YES to God through God’s messenger, the angel Gabriel. Despite the terrifying appearance of the angel bursting in on her domestic life, Mary kept her nerve. Would she be willing to play her part in God’s plan? Her response was simple and clear. ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ At the heart of our faith is the Incarnation – God choosing to share our humanity. Jesus shows us what God is like and as Christians we are his followers. God did not simply zap humanity with his power. He chose a young woman in an obscure Palestinian town. Mary was called to play a vital part, a textbook example of the way God uses human beings to achieve his plans.
Mary was a remarkable human being. She is sometimes considered the first disciple of Christ. She was the one who cared for him in his infancy. She was there at the wedding of Cana of Galilee where Jesus turned the water into wine. At the end of his earthly life she was a witness at the horrific scene of the crucifixion. How terrible that must have been for her. The words of the aged Simeon when Jesus was presented in the Temple as a baby must have been ringing in Mary’s ears: ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
Mary features in so much of Christian art. In Western art often with a delicacy and tenderness. She is also often seen in Russian Icons, more stylised and remote. Icons are seen as windows onto heaven and in Orthodox Churches the faithful often kiss the icon. It is a form of giving honour, of tuning into the divine.
This icon, the Virgin of Vladimir is one of Russia’s oldest and most precious treasures. It is even credited with saving Moscow from Tartar invasions no less than three times. Look at the way Mary is depicted. She tenderly holds baby Jesus with her right arm while her left arm points to him as the saviour. It’s a beautiful and deeply spiritual image.
So I have no difficulty in honouring Mary, for her part in the story of the incarnation, for her obedience and for her courageous and faithful discipleship. I honour her for her closeness to Jesus, for the tenderness and love which so much of the art conveys. The words known as the ‘Hail Mary’ ends with the words, pray for us simmers now and at the hour of our death.’ I am very comfortable with the idea of Mary praying for me. All this is part of honouring – not worshipping the mother of Jesus.
By Richard Bainbridge
In Morning Prayer each Monday and Wednesday, we have prayed the words of the Benedictus – ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who has come to his people and set them free’. It’s the hymn that Zechariah sings after the birth of his miracle son, John, who will become the Baptiser.
If you remember he too has an Annunciation, and he asked a question of his angel, representing God, but it didn’t go down well. After the angel’s announcement of a son to be born to him and his wife in old age, he asks “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years”. Which sound like a reasonable query. But it’s read as a failure to trust. The angel says: ‘but now, because you didn’t believe my words, you will become mute unable to speak…’. It’s not till the moment of his son’s naming that he receives back his own voice and breaks out in praise.
By contrast, Mary’s response, which is also a question, seems to be of a different order. She asks, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ It’s also a reasonable question, but in her case, it elicits further information rather than judgment. After which she says simply, ‘let it be to me according to your word’. It’s reminiscent of Jesus’s ‘your will, not mine, be done’. It might sum up the whole of our Christian lives.
So Mary symbolises our yes to God. In fact she’s an archetype of receptiveness to the divine. I agree with Richard: in our Protestant desire to avoid misplaced worship, we have neglected the unique place Mary has in our faith – her willingness brought about our salvation through Christ – that is a theological truth I am very happy to sign up to. How are you saying yes to God at this time?
Saying yes can prove very costly, as Mary found out at the foot of the cross. Years before that sorrow, she faced misunderstanding, gossip, hardship, uncertainty, puzzlement and frustration as she fulfilled the role of first mother, then bereaved mother, then devoted disciple of the Saviour of the world.
Maybe there are people whose own yes to God greatly impacted the world and have inspired you personally. Ian is going to share some reflections along these lines….then we’re going to end with a song.
Saying Yes to God
‘The ending’s the same, the world will not change,
The answer is clear, obliteration’.
(By the band Slipknot, Wherein Lies Continue, All Hope is Gone).
I use this quote as a contrast to most of what I am about to say. Much as I love Slipknot (a nine strong band mostly from IOWA), they don’t share an overly positive outlook on life as I am sure you have picked up.
My initial thought about saying yes to God was to remember the missionary Hudson Taylor who went to China, who I heard about when I was 10 or 11, who said yes to God in his 20s to go to China in the 19th Century.
As it is now, it was not an easy thing to say yes to as China was not receptive to having Christianity preached and promoted in China.
I also thought about Doreen & Neville Lawrence whose faith kept them pursuing their fight to bring those responsible for the death of their son Stephen in 1993 to justice. They continued to say Yes to God, despite living their life in the glare of public opinion and all the issues that came with that.
I continue to be impressed and humbled by all three of them who persevered and persevere despite the battles that came and come their way. It encourages me to try to say yes more often than I say no, which let’s face it is the easy way out, and also realise that it is not just about big ticket issues, it is also important to not lose sight of seemingly small things which are equally vital.
By Ian Maynard.
Today if you’re hearing God’s call, maybe you need to ask for the courage to say yes, especially if you know that it will prove a hard path.
We’re going to end by watching Cathy sing her composition Mary’s Song, the haunting last line of which says: “you didn’t know that it would be this way when you said ‘yes’”. We don’t know what saying our yes to God will ultimately mean, but we do know that when ordinary people say yes to God, what is birthed is joy, justice and peace; three things which our world is badly in need of it right now.
May we be given grace to say yes to God today and in the coming year. Amen.
Cathy sings (video).