BLESSED VIRGIN MARY 6th SEPTEMBER
A Sermon preached by Fr James Heard on Sunday 6th September at St George's and St John the Baptist
In fact, Mary, in her instinctive motherly desire to comfort her son, doesn’t even embrace him; she appears to adopt a prayerful, reverent attitude as if she has a glimpse of the significance of this apparently everyday event. Perhaps Mary recalled when she brought Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, and the old man Simeon tells her that a ‘sword will pierce your own soul too’ (Luke 2.35).
This feast day we have a chance to reflect a little on the Blessed Virgin Mary. Devotion to her throughout the centuries has always been a helpful rebalance of a rather male dominated faith. This male dominance goes right back to the OT. In deliberate contrast with its neighbouring religions, Yahwism systematically excluded the female from its concept of deity. Yahweh is one God, a jealous God, and he’s definitely all man. Jeffery John, dean of St Albans, describes how this was deeply unsatisfying because time and again, the Israelites would slip away to worship a bit of the feminine on the side. For example, when the Israelite community were exiled to Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah had terrible difficulty keeping them away from Belith Shamay. This goddess’s big attraction was that you worshipped her by eating raisin cakes and having sex – how could any religious tradition compete with that! In reaction to this urge to worship foreign female deities, you find a stronger and stronger assertion that femaleness has no place in worship.
What’s interesting when we come to the NT, however, is the astonishing things written about Mary. Jeffery John describes how Mary is portrayed as fulfilling not only the themes and expectations of the Old Testament, but she also fulfils the Gentile myths and images from pagan religion - showing that the deepest religious longings of all nations have now been met, through the birth of a real saviour from a real Mother, Mary. If we remove Mary from Christian devotion then we rob our faith of the one sphere where the feminine has traditionally been brought in.
But what sort of feminine is it? Feminist theologians have been concerned about viewing Mary as a submissive figure, someone to be imposed upon, of a passive acceptance of whatever is declared God’s will, or of those with power. These are appropriate concerns. But looking at Mary’s response in Luke’s Gospel, it’s much more positive. The angel Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and that she will give birth to a holy child, who will be named the ‘Son of God’. Mary responds with a resounding ‘Yes!’ ‘I am the Lord’s servant. Be done to me according to your will. Let it be with me just as you say’ (Luke 1.38).
However, the life to which she was being called was not going to be easy. From the very beginning, Mary’s life with Jesus was marked by a bitter sweetness. Things weren’t going to be easy, she was going to have to endure much suffering, but she was made of sturdy stuff.
We get a glimpse of the relationship of the early Jesus and Mary through John Everett Millais’s painting, who depicts a non-idealised image of Jesus in the house of his parents (see notice sheet). It centers on the young Jesus whose hand had been injured, being cared for by his mother Mary. His wounded hand, blood dripping on to his foot, foreshadows his ultimate end on the cross, and so Mary’s sorrow at Jesus’s wound prefigures a much greater future sorrow.
There are plenty of other symbols in the painting. The carpenter's triangle on the wall, above Christ's head, symbolises the Holy Trinity. A young St John carefully brings a bowl of water to clean the wound, identifying him as the Baptist. The image is extended by the white dove perched on the ladder, symbol of the Holy Spirit, which descended from Heaven at the baptism of Christ (tate.org.uk).
Following in the pre-Raphaelite tradition, Millais painted the scene in meticulous detail and based the setting on a real carpenter's shop in Oxford Street. The sheep in the background, intended to represent the Christian flock, were drawn from two sheep's heads obtained from a local butcher. Joseph's head was a portrait of Millais's own father, but the body was based on a real carpenter, with his rough hands, sinewy arms and prominent veins. Mary has a wrinkled brow; feet in the painting are certainly not clean, there’s even dirt under the finger nails. All wonderfully realistic; realistic but shocking.
The painting challenged the view of what c.19 art should be and as a result was highly criticized. Charles Dickens despised it. Why paint in such a manner? The pre-Raphaelite brotherhood were influenced by the Tractarian, or Anglo-Catholic, movement within the Church of England, and many Tractarian priests worked in the slums. So while the painting was highly criticised in its time for such a realist depiction of the Holy Family – it was considered blasphemous to depict them as ordinary people – but this was the whole point of the painting.
Millais was attempting to depict them as real people, the sort of people that those stuck in the slums and experiencing the negative side of the Industrial Revolution could really empathise and connect with.
Such an emphasis in ministry also takes inspiration from Mary’s response to her calling, the Magnificat, a hymn of praise, rich in OT imagery and language, and stressing a God who is on the side of the poor. A God on the side of refugees fleeing violence; which is exactly what the holy family had to do very soon after Jesus’ birth. The mass movement of refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Iraq and elsewhere raises huge complex questions. What is the appropriate response for the EU, our government, for us as a Christian community? There are difficult decisions to make; we must pray for wisdom for our leaders as well as those charity organisations who are offering practical help. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has commented this week: ‘We need a holistic response to this crisis that meets immediate humanitarian need while tackling its underlying drivers.’
In conclusion, on this feast day Mary, we celebrate that from her ‘yes’ comes a birth which is also a birth-giving, an act of liberation and response that changes, renews and transforms. God continues to act in the world in and through the cooperation of those who are faithful. With Mary, God invites us into relationship with him bringing justice, renewal, hope, love and transformation.
 Babylon, The Great Mother, or the Mother of Abominations