Sunday 22 August 2021
12th After Trinity
Revd Nicholas Mercer
As this Sunday falls on the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary – “Mary Day”, I’ve deliberately opted for the readings which are used on this feast day rather than the eleventh after Trinity BCP Old Testament and Gospel. And since this Priory Church is dedicated to St Mary, along with St Cuthbert, I thought the choice even more appropriate!
How we view Mary probably depends largely on our own church background, – in other words either from the high church, Anglo Catholic position, seeing Mary as the elevated Mother of God, with divine attributes, and to whom we offer prayers and worship, through to the more Protestant understanding of a specially favoured but very human woman, who was chosen to be the bearer of the Christ Child. No doubt most of us are somewhere in between these two viewpoints – in other words typical Anglicans who love to compromise and find some middle ground.
What is less debatable is the timeless message of the song which Mary sang, or uttered – commonly known as the Magnificat, which we no doubt associate with Prayer Book Evensong. In St Luke’s nativity account, the Angel Gabriel had recently given Mary the startling news of the Annunciation – she was to be a mother in the most unusual circumstances, and to give birth to no ordinary child. She’d hurried off from Nazareth to the Judean hill country, to share the news with her cousin Elizabeth, who was already 6 months pregnant with the embryonic John the Baptist.
As soon as Mary tells her cousin her news, the unborn child leaps in Elizabeth’s womb – as if to salute the Christ whose forerunner he was later to be; and Elizabeth pronounces Mary blessed above all women, and calls her “the mother of my Lord”.
Here’s the setting for the famous words Mary then proclaimed. They’re revolutionary words which impact on the whole of life – social, political, economic and spiritual; conveying a radical manifesto which would make Karl Marx or Che Guevara look fairly tame.
Whilst the experience behind these words of Mary is unique – she alone was to carry the Christ child – the message of the Magnificat is addressed to every generation and tradition of the church. The canticle begins in the “me” form, the personal pronoun, “my soul praises, magnifies, the Lord”, – but it continues, “His mercy is on them that fear him” – emphasising God’s dealings of grace and goodness to all people. The initiative has been taken through Mary, – she’s the vehicle if you like for God’s saving activity – but just like the Jewish nation, chosen by God to reveal his greater work, so beyond Mary are all who find his universal grace.
In these words of the Magnificat we find 3 principles of God’s saving activity, – principles which Mary could declare to be the way God works in his world for those who have the eyes of faith, and the willing hearts to obey. We might call them the 3 “h’s” of God’s saving activity, and the required conditions, if you like, of our response.
Our first “h” is “Hallowing” or “Reverence” – “God shows his mercy to those that fear him”; this isn’t the same as being timid or fearful. It’s the fear which has to do with awe, a sense of God’s majesty and mystery. The Book of Proverbs speaks of the “fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom”.
Whilst we can sometimes err on the side of formality and thinking of God as being remote and distant, there’s equally the danger of becoming too “pally” and over familiar with the Almighty. The balance is somewhere in between – “Our Father who art in heaven” retains that balance; “Hallowed be thy name” reinforces it. God is holy; the Virgin Mary was a simple, devout and God-fearing maiden. We must follow her example if we hope to share her experience.
The second “h” is Humility. “He has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted the humble and meek”. Mary not only feared God, but she was also humble. She speaks in her song of “her low estate” and expresses amazement that God should have regarded her. It isn’t just that she belonged to a lowly social rank, but that she possessed a deep spiritual lowliness and meekness – just what God could use and exalt.
Pride is the greatest hindrance to spiritual progress. “Unless you humble yourselves like a little child, you’ll never be able to enter the Kingdom of heaven” were the words of Jesus to some of his more social ladder climbing disciples, those who expected preferential treatment. In one of the earliest hymns from the New Testament, – in Paul’s writing to the Church in Philippi – we hear of Christ humbling himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. A servant is never greater than his master……..
The third “h” is “Hunger”. “He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he has sent empty away”. Mary was hungry. Like Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon & Anna, who figure prominently in the infancy narratives, Mary was looking for the dawning of God’s kingdom – as promised by the prophets of old. This was an expectation of better times to come, a hunger for God to redeem his people and establish his rule. So she waited – eager, expectant, hungry. In due time God satisfied her hunger; for the Christ was born.
Hunger is still an indispensable condition of spiritual blessing and growth; complacent self satisfaction its greatest enemy. The rich, who’re pleased with themselves as they are and have no consciousness of need, God sends away empty. It’s the “poor in spirit” who acknowledge their spiritual bankruptcy apart from him, whom he enriches. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,” Jesus said, “they shall be filled”.
In our materially focussed, acquisitive society it can be hard to recognise our need to be enriched by God. Physical and spiritual hunger may not always be linked together, but where people live in harsher conditions, there’s a much more evident need to pray – if only for daily bread. By contrast, comfort and complacency seem happier neighbours; there’s no awareness of need, life can be negotiated without recourse to some higher authority.
Mary’s song reverberates across the centuries, unique at one level to the mother to be who sang it – and yet compelling our attention so we heed its wider message for every generation. If we want to inherit Mary’s blessings, we must display Mary’s qualities of hallowing or reverencing God, of deep-seated humility, and above all else, of spiritual hunger.