Easter 5 - Witnessing to our Stories

A sermon preached in the United Benefice by Fr Robert Thompson on 18 May 2014

Acts 7.55-end; 1 Peter 2.2-10; John 14.1-14

Many of you may have read Colm Toibin's novella The Testament of Mary, which was short
listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. In it Mary narrates her untold witness to the life of her son.

Although from very early in the post biblical period Mary comes to play an
emotionally powerful part in Christian devotion, in the biblical literature she is mostly
unseen and mute. The bulk of the material is in Luke who depicts Mary throughout his
nativity account as the personification of joy and openness in the spirit: one great human
Magnificat. Matthew also has her bringing Jesus to birth. John has her at Cana at the
wedding, and at the foot of cross, entrusted to the care of the disciple John. But Mark
hardly mentions her at all, and when he does, it is so that Jesus can distance himself from
his blood relatives: only those who do the will of God can be related to Mark's ethically
severe Jesus.

Last night I went to see Fiona Shaw play Mary in a solo show based on Toibin's novella at
the Barbican. Shaw is one of Ireland's finest actors. I have seen her a number of times
both in plays and monologues. She never fails to move an audience with performances
that are characterised by their passionate, humane, depth. I very much recommend a trip
to the Barbican if you can.

The staging of this production sets up a contrast between the mythical Mary of traditional
Christian devotion and the fictional, ‘historical’ Mary of Toibin's words. We come into the
theatre to see Shaw dressed in the familiar robes of many statues of Mary, encaged in a
glass box, and surrounded by votive candles of devotion. The audience are allowed to
walk freely on stage and around her, as if paying homage at a shrine. But the Mary of the
monologue is at odds with this iconic scene. Here she has become the tragic loner; the
darkly clad melancholic woman with a hawk on her arm; the bereaved mother who is still
haunted by the her son's precociousness, his misfit friends and the gut wrenching horror of
his violent end. His eternal absence, and his never coming back, are symbolised by the
chair that she insists is not used, which is his chair, his alone.

From this very brief and inadequate description, both of the novella and the production,
you can tell that both Toibin's narrative of what Mary witnessed in her son's life, and
Shaw's enactment of it may seem very far from the story that we as Christians remember
both of him and of her. The prime example of such difference is given in the divergence in
Toibin's text between Mary's interpretation of the meaning of her son's death and that of
his disciples. Toibin's Mary narrates how after the death of her son she and Mary of Cana
both share the same dream that her son has come back to life. This dream is transformed
by her son's followers into a belief in his physical resurrection. But she, not having her son,
his chair still being empty, knows this to be simply a dream. In the part of the novella with
which the production ends, Mary is visited by her son's disciples who have already
developed their own theology of his death and resurrection. They tell her that his death
was for the 'good of the world', and that he has appeared to them, and is now risen to be
with the Father. The narrative continues:

“ ‘His father,’ I said.
‘He was the Son of God,’ the man said, ‘and he was sent by his father to
redeem the world.’
‘By his death, he gave us life,’ the other said. ‘By his death, he redeemed the
I turned towards them then and whatever it was in the expression on my face,
the rage against them, the grief, the fear, they both looked up at me alarmed
and one of them began to move towards me to stop me saying what it was I
now wanted to say. I edged back from the and stood in the corner. I whispered
it at first and then I said it louder, and as he moved away from me and almost
cowered in the corner I whispered it again, slowly, carefully, giving it all my
breath, all my life, the little that is left in me.
‘I was there,’ I said. ‘I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses then I am
one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say
that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.’ ”(102)

'It was not worth it.' On reading Tobin's novella and experiencing Shaw's interpretation of it,
I was left feeling that this was very much a woman's story, a mother's testament, a female
gospel. It brought to mind for me images that the location of my childhood, and television,
made all too familiar: the contorted, compressed and constatenered faces, filled with the
raw and lacerating pain, of desolate mothers who had lost their children; lost them to the
vulture that was the bloodthirsty prey of the history and the geography of the island of
Ireland. Where and what and whose is resurrection when you have violently lost you own
son or daughter, and nothing and nobody is going to bring them back? Toibin's and Shaw's
Mary, it seems to me, is formed from this dust of Irish earth as much as she is of
Palestinian soil. She could be one of the near neighbours of my childhood whose son was
shot by the IRA. She could have been the mother of the nationalist and Catholic lawyer
from our nearest village who was killed in a car bomb by the UVF. But she could be many
women beyond Toibin's, Shaw's and my Ireland. She could be the mother of the sons and
daughters of those who have lost their lives in the political upheaval in the Ukraine; those
whose pictures you can see forming the tragic stage setting behind the statue of St.
Volodymyr on the junction of Holland Park and Holland Park Avenue. She could be the
mother of the girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria. She is the mother of any victim of
undeserved, bloody, and devastating violence anywhere. 'It was not worth it.' Indeed it was

When Shaw first brought Toibin's Mary to life on Broadway there were religious pickets.
There weren't any at the Barbican last night, thank God in Britain we are saved the North
American ‘culture wars.’ But many of us brought up with traditional versions of faith may
have many reservations about this depiction of Mary. What strikes me, however, as I
reflect on the reading and the experience, is that at the heart of Tobin's and Shaw's project
is allowing Mary to speak in words that are not those of her son's disciples. They give
voice to a story that may have remained unarticulated. Unarticulated because it was
subsumed into a dominant narrative of the birth of Christianity. Unarticulated because it
was not powerful enough to be expressed against the much more powerful story that
others were telling. So although in the end these are not Mary's words, this is not her story,
but Toibin's, it seems to me that there is at the heart of the novella and the production a
real resurrection that is enacted. That resurrection is the coming to life, the articulation of,
the expression of what may have been the raw experience of Mary. But more than this,
that articulation, becomes symbolic of the suppression of the voices of women throughout
Christian history. Just as in my sermon a few weeks ago I drew attention to how in his
depiction of the Servant Girl at Emmaus, the seventeenth century Spanish artist Diego
Velazquez brings to resurrection on his canvass a woman's untold story, so on the stage
last night there was a palpable sense that in Shaw's body the untold stories of many
women throughout history were being articulated; their marginalised lives were being
raised in our presence; we were witnesses to the resurrection and the life.

Such marginalisation and then resurrecting articulation of untold stories alerts us to what I
chose as the theme for my reflections on today's readings: 'the dangers of being a
Christian.' I chose those words because they have a double meaning. In our first reading
today we hear of the stoning of Stephen, whom we remember as the first Christian martyr
or 'witness.' His following of Christ meant that his life was physically endangered, and
violently lost. It's an experience that is shared by many Christians across history and in our
contemporary world. But there is also a danger in a certain type of Christian remembering
of Stephen's death and response to the contemporary persecution of Christians. It is that
our remembering becomes un-Christlike, sectarian and exclusive. When texts like today's
are remembered in this way being a Christian has been and still is a real danger to the
physical lives of others.

All of today’s texts are some of the most beautiful parts of scripture. And yet at the same
time some of the ways in which they have been interpreted in history make them truly
terrifying. With the first reading, the normally positive side of this text is held in those final
lines in which Stephen, at the point of death, just like Christ on the cross, utters words of
forgiveness towards those who stone him. And yet if we read the preceding part of the Acts
of the Apostles in which Stephen makes his great speech, we may well encounter what
could be described as a bigoted and fundamentalist tone towards others; a tone with which
many of us would quite rightly feel deeply uncomfortable.

The reading from First Peter is similarly morally ambivalent. Here there are these
wonderful images that the writer uses: Christ who is the rejected stone of the builders, has
become the corner stone; and then those spurring words addressed to an early Church,
full of Gentiles, encouraging them in their vocation: “you are a chosen race, a royal
priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people..” The moral problem, however, is that in
history these images have had a dark side. Even in today’s reading we are told that others
will stumble and fall because of their rejection of Christ the stone. The language of race,
priesthood nation and people has also been used to claim that others are no longer, never
have been, or are not God’s chosen ones, unlike us.

Today’s gospel presents us with a wonderful vision of life in God’s presence as being
characterised by a house of many rooms, or as the King James more colourfully has it,
‘many mansions’. There is also the articulation of the intimate relationship that exists
between Jesus and his Father, a relationship which Jesus invites his own disciples to
share. And yet that in/famous self declaration of Jesus that he is ‘the way, the truth, and
the life’ and that ‘no-one comes to Father except through him’ is a text that in imperialist
Christian interpretation throughout history has and is used as words of Jesus that indicate
others need to be Christians in exactly the same way as we are, and to bludgeon those
who foolishly refuse our faith. My own interpretation of these words, however, is to place
them firmly within that relationship of intimacy between Jesus and the Father into which he
invites us. Jesus is asking us to flow with him; to be in him; to live his life; to forgive as he
does; to heal as he does; to raise the dead to life as he does. This is the way, the truth and
the life. In this lies the fullness of resurrection.

So today as we hear again of the stoning of Stephen we should remember that his
religious martyrdom is an unjust and cruel death that resembles many, many others. We
should also remember that historically Christians have made others into martyrs with a
depressing regularity and in great numbers. And we should further remember that, beyond
religion, people have been and still are killed because of ethnicity, race, economic
ideology, social prejudice, gender and sexual orientation, among others.

There is an alternative way of remembering Stephen's story and interpreting today's texts.
That interpretation is centred on the person of Mary and on how it was in and through her
that God became a human person, like all of us, Christian or not. We should remember
that in Christ and through Mary, God shares in the fullness of human experience. We
should remember that as Christians we are called to honour and defend the lives of any
human person as one made in the image of the God, who in Jesus Christ takes on (all)
human flesh.

As, this Sunday, we also mark the end of Christian Aid Week, the story of Stephen reminds
us that, we are called to 'be martyrs', 'to bear witness', by speaking up "for those who have
no voice, for the justice of all who are dispossessed. Speak up, judge righteously, and
defend the cause of the oppressed and needy." (Proverbs 31:8–9) It is through supporting
the work of organisations such as Christian Aid that we too can become agents in the
resurrection of the real, living bodies and souls of others. It is through supporting their work
as a parish in the education of women in Afghanistan, without any desire to make them
religious clones of ourselves, that we too share in the life of the risen Christ, by raising up
those whose voice is rarely heard, whose stories are often untold.

Tobin's words and Shaw's performance of an alternative story of Mary is in the end also
not that from some of the ways in which the 'official' Christian tradition carries her memory
and presence too. A Mary who does not assent to a physical resurrection of her son has
much in common with the text of Mark's gospel, that in its original form ends with only fear
and rumours. Such a Mary resembles very closely those artistic depictions of Mary and
her son which we feel in our belly: the Pieta of the lifeless son draped over his mother's
supporting body; the Stabat Mater of the vigilant and devoted Mary at the foot of the cross;
Our Lady of Sorrows who is often depicted in iconography with seven spears piercing her
body. In this ‘alternative’ and yet very ‘traditional’ Mary we hear the voices of many women
whose stories are untold and unheard, and in the very telling they are raised up and
brought to life, share in resurrection life.

'It was not worth it.' Amen to that. Violence and martyrdom never are. So we with Tobin,
Shaw, Christian Aid and the God of all life, should devote ourselves to the physical raising
of others, which is the vocation we share by virtue of our baptism, into the life, death and
resurrection of Jesus Christ.