Tony Hodgson considers the bequest of Mary
After a year like no other in living memory, we have arrived at Advent in this year of our Lord 2020. A penitential season that derives its name from the Latin adventus meaning ‘coming.’ The coming of Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God. Traditionally, preachers during the Sundays before Christmas explored a defined quartet of topics. These were – death, judgement heaven and hell, the four last things. Yet, in more recent times, the church has changed focus. Instead we now personalise the Sundays of Advent by majoring upon biblical characters: for example, Isaiah, John the Baptist and, of course, Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Significantly, the teenage Mary had a much older relative, Elizabeth. We may conjecture that Mary was between thirteen and sixteen years old and that Elizabeth was in her mid-forties. Possibly they were cousins, or maybe Elizabeth was Mary’s aunt. Certainly, both women were about to become first-time mothers. And, for different reasons, their respective pregnancies were unexpected. Scripture informs us that news of both pregnancies was broken by a heavenly messenger.
According to St Luke’s Gospel, the Angel Gabriel appeared first to Elizabeth’s elderly husband, Zachariah, in the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple. When Zachariah, a priest, had returned home from the Temple dumbstruck, it was discovered that Elizabeth was pregnant. We are told that Elizabeth was past child bearing age. Nevertheless, Elizabeth and Zachariah were to become parents.
When Mary heard that Elizabeth too was expecting a baby she travelled to be with her older relative. The journey from Nazareth to Judea was long, perhaps sixty miles. Not to be undertaken lightly by a young expectant mother. And so, it was that God placed the care of Jesus, the Messiah, in the hands of an inexperienced teenager from an obscure provincial location. This explains Mary’s words in the Magnificat ‘God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.’
Jesus and John the Baptist
Mary’s journey may be interpreted as the natural response of a charitable young woman after learning that a dear relative might need some extra help. It is the kind of thing that family members do for one another. It may also have been that the ‘visitation’ took place to satisfy Mary’s curiosity that the Angel Gabriel’s prediction about Elizabeth was, in fact, true.
When Mary, in her first few weeks of pregnancy, entered Elizabeth’s house, Elizabeth’s unborn son leapt for joy in his mother’s womb. And so, John the Baptist greeted Jesus for the first time. The joy came at a time of great uncertainty, bewilderment and even dread for the two women central to the story.
Mary and Elizabeth became aware that they were in the presence of something utterly removed form everyday human experience and that something miraculous was taking place.
So, the two births are intertwined. Thirty years later these two babies were to meet again, their lives intertwined once more, under totally different circumstances on the banks of the Jordan. The adult Jesus and John the Baptist, during a twelve-month period, before John’s arrest and murder, were responsible for a spiritual awakening in Israel. But it all began back in the home of Elizabeth and Zachariah.
Sensing the significance of what was happening, Mary, though probably still reeling from the shock of recent events, began to praise God for what He had done for her and the people of Israel. This song of praise is called the Magnificat. Luke describes it as a spontaneous outpouring of joy at the wonder of God’s work.
Many might have expected that the incarnate son of God would be born into a seat of great wealth, power and prestige, perhaps the son of an Emperor or the offspring of a great and noble family. But no, when God decided to be born into the world as a baby boy, an unmarried teenage girl from a modest provincial background was chosen.
However, what Mary was able to give to Jesus was far more important for his growth and maturity than anything that wealth, power and prestige could afford. This was the unconditional love and emotional security that only an affectionate and devoted mother could provide.
The words of Mary’s song puncture the veil surrounding this world of time and space. It transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary by opening a window into the dimension of God’s eternity. Mary, through her song, explained how the God of Israel will personally walk on to the stage of human history and encounter humanity amid the ordinary, mundane and frequently difficult activities of daily life. As Sir John Betjeman described it ‘the maker of the stars and sea become a child on earth for me.’
Luke understood, as did the psalmists of the Old Testament, that poems and songs are far more powerful than ordinary prose. Words of poetry, especially when set to the right music, mystically unite us with the Divine being to whom we lift our voices in worship.
This fusion of poetry and music is a tremendous aid and motivation to worship, the Magnificat particularly exemplifies this impact.
But what is the significance of Mary for you and I today, us, the contemporary disciples of Jesus?
With the benefit of 2,000 years hindsight it is easy to overlook the miracle of what happened to those two women that day in the house of Zachariah. Historically speaking, the English Church has had an ‘on-off’ relationship with Mary.
In the sixteenth century, a late medieval culture of devotion to the Virgin Mary was sidelined and abandoned during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI; later reinstated during the monarchy of Mary Tudor and, then, as Dr David Starkey has shown, was radically reinvented during the rule of Elizabeth Tudor, the Virgin Queen.
In an age when the Divine right of Kings dictated the country’s government, Elizabeth I, arguably the greatest English monarch, exploited a residual tradition of Marion devotion and applied it to herself. In this sense Queen Elizabeth, who never really knew the love of her own mother, Anne Boleyn, enlisted the aid of the Virgin Mary in the hour of her need.
This inspired piece of royal propaganda galvanized popular support for her, at times, fragile but ultimately triumphant reign. Elizabeth Tudor proved herself not only the indisputable temporal head of state, but also, as supreme governor of the Church of England, Queen of the nation’s spiritual life, too. She appointed its bishops and regulated its doctrine and worship.
Though the Virgin Mary is the mother of our Lord and called the Queen of heaven, it can be argued that Elizabeth Tudor was the virgin Queen of the English and Mother of the Church of England. The persona of Elizabeth filled the vacuum left when a protestant version of Christianity chose to side-line the previously central role given to the mother of our Lord.
During the seventeenth, eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries there was not an explicit devotion to the Virgin Mary in the Church of England, but her implicit influence was, nevertheless, profound.
This implicit influence can be seen in the enduring use of the Magnificat in Anglican worship.
The fact that the verbs of the Magnificat are in the past tense remind us that God’s relationship with Mary is both a continuation and renewal of his earlier covenantal promises made to Noah, Abraham, Moses, the Judges, Kings and prophets of the Old Testament. Mary is part of God’s history of salvation and the Magnificat explains God’s mysterious relationship with Mary of Nazareth. It is the creed of the Virgin Mary.
However, for almost five hundred years now the raison d’ etre of the Virgin Mary has been ingrained into our national religious consciousness every time the Magnificat is recited or sung at the daily service of evensong.
It is the song of God’s limitless love and unconditional forgiveness for Israel, for Mary and for us too. It is the story of salvation.
The powerful presence of Mary
In conclusion, the message is simple. Despite the protestant Reformation, the powerful presence of Mary has never been truly absent from the Church of England. She may not have always been clearly visible. Certainly not in the same way Mary dominated medieval Christian life. But like any loving mother, her example and influence has been passed down through the generations.
Fr Tony Hodgson delivered a version of this article as a sermon preached in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent (20 December 2015).