Sermon for Advent 4 (Year C), 19 December 2021
Readings: Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, chapter 25; Luke 1.39-55
When I was 19, I was sent to support a couple of church groups as an additional leader for trips and to broaden my experience of different church traditions (as I was already exploring my vocation to ordained ministry) – one of these groups took me to the Walsingham Youth Pilgrimage. I’ll never forget this trip, because it was first real exposure to the high church, Anglo-Catholic veneration of Mary. It was supremely surreal for me, who was at the time a fairly middle-of-the-road charismatic. As the gathered crowd proclaimed, ‘Ave Maria! Hail Mary!’, I was quietly bemused. As a statue of our lady was processed around the tent, I started to panic. What was this? Mary isn’t God, so why are we worshipping her? I just didn’t get it.
Since then, I’ve been on a quiet quest in response to my question at the time: Who is Mary?
For me, she is a dichotomy: a gentle, caring mother and yet also a voice of strength, empowerment and liberation.
Her song, the Magnicat, is not just a joyful acceptance of God’s favour, but also a powerful manifesto: she proclaims that the mighty shall be cast down, the lowly lifted up, the hungry fed, and the rich sent away empty.
Through Mary, God reveals the divinity of the feminine. In the context of a world which dismisses the experiences of women, her role in bringing to birth the Christ ‘restores and reintegrates woman’s bodiliness into the very mystery of God.’ (Gebara and Bingemer, 1989) In a narrative that blames Eve for the fall, she redeems the moral ‘rank’ of women because her participation was necessary for our salvation. As theokotos, the God-bearer, she reflects the motherhood of God who birthed all things into being.
Mary loved Jesus before anyone else, felt him move in her womb and knew him first. And Mary was the first person that Jesus knew, the first he loved as the comfort of her voice resonated through her body while his cells grew.
Mary breastfed Jesus.
She woke through the night in response to his cries.
Mary taught Jesus how to speak.
She helped him discover the morals of society, teaching him right from wrong.
Mary dealt with Jesus’ childish moods, she comforted his tears and endured his toddler tantrums.
She kissed his scraped knees, cut his hair, made and mended his clothes.
And she sang him songs of justice, of protest, of peace.
God worked through Mary to shape our Messiah.
And in her Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich disclosed something profound and essential: Jesus desires us to love his mother.
To Mother Julian, Jesus asks, “Do you want to see her? […] Do you want to see how I love her, so that you can rejoice with me in my love for her, and hers for me? […] Can you see in her how greatly you are loved?”
So although I could say a lot more about what Mary means to me, and the answers I have uncovered in myself while asking ‘Who is Mary?’, I instead would like to invite you to ask yourselves ‘who is Mary to me, today? What do I love about her?’
I’ve selected some different images of Mary, each glimpsing a different aspect of our lady. As we listen to some music, you may like to look at these pictures. Some of them will feel familiar, others surprising, and some may even make you uncomfortable. I wonder, which image do you find most arresting? Which one gives you pause to think? Do any of them look like the Mary you know?
Let us pray.
(you may also like to search the internet for other images of Mary)
And as we draw our time of reflection to a close, I’d like to finish with a re-imagining of the Magnificat called ‘Expectation’, written by Clare McBeath.
My soul magnifies the Lord
and I dance with God who liberates me,
for she has remembered with love
the whispered song of her shadow.
Surely, from now on my story will be
handed down to all generations.
For the One who is Love
has cradled my life in her arms
and beautiful is her name.
Her tenderness enfolds our brokenness
through all generations.
Her voice clamours in shouts of justice,
wrenching free from the grip of the abuser.
She gathers the abused to her breast,
her milk nurturing those who seek her,
according to the promise given to
to Sarah and Hagar
and their children for ever.Clare McBeath
1 Ivone Gebara and Maria Bingemer, Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the Poor, 1989.
2 Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (chapter 25).
3Geoffrey Duncan (ed.), Shine on, Star of Bethlehem: A worship resource for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, 2004.