Yesterday, in some parts of the Christian Church, was a major festival in the Church’s calendar. It’s what’s called the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and celebrates the belief that her body, as well as her soul, was taken to heaven after she’d died. Or possibly even before, it’s not clear. Either way, it’s a very old tradition, going right back to the early years of Christianity, even though there’s nothing about it in Scripture. And even those Christians, like us, who don’t necessarily subscribe to that doctrine, do still consider 15 August one of the Festivals of Saint Mary.
And even though we Protestants don’t really think about Mary much, the fact that she’s such an important figure in so much of Christianity means she’s probably worth thinking about from time to time.
So what do we actually know about her from the Bible, as opposed to tradition? She first appears in our Bibles when Gabriel comes to her to ask her if she will bear Jesus, and, of course, as we all know, she said she would, and Joseph agreed to marry her despite her being pregnant with a baby he knew he wasn’t responsible for. I do rather love Luke’s stories about Mary – how one of the things the angel had said to her was that her relation, Elisabeth, was pregnant after all those years. And, as we heard in our reading, Mary rushes off to visit her. Was this to reassure herself that the angel was telling the truth? Or to congratulate Elisabeth? Or just to get away for a bit of space, do you suppose? We aren’t told. But Elisabeth recognises Mary as the mother-to-be of the promised Saviour, and Mary’s response is that great song that we now call the “Magnificat”. Or if it wasn’t exactly that – that may well be Luke putting down what she ought to have said, like Shakespeare giving Henry V that great speech before Agincourt – it was probably words to that effect! I think she was very, very relieved to find the angel had been speaking the truth, and probably did explode in an outpouring of praise and joy!
And later, in Bethlehem, when the shepherds come to visit her, we are told that she “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”
The next time we see Mary is when Jesus is twelve and gets separated from them in the Temple. I spent a lot of time with that story when Emily was a teenager – how Mary and Joseph say to Jesus, “But why did you stay behind? Didn’t you realise we’d be worried about you?” and Jesus goes, “Oh, you don’t understand!” – typical teenager!
We don’t see Joseph again after this – tradition has it that he was a lot older than Mary, and, of course, he had a very physical job. It wasn’t just a carpenter as we know it – the Greek word is “technion”, which is the same root as our “technician”; if it had to do with houses, Joseph did it, from designing them, to building them, to making the furniture that went in them! And tradition has it that sometime between Jesus’ 12th birthday, and when we next see him, Joseph has died.
But we see a lot more of Mary. She is there at the wedding at Cana, and indeed, it’s she who goes to Jesus when they’ve run out of wine. And Jesus says, at first, “Um, no – my time has not yet come!” but Mary knew. And she told the servants to “Do whatever he tells you”, and, sure enough, the water is turned into wine.
There’s a glimpse of her at one point when Jesus is teaching, and he’s told his mother and brother are outside waiting for him, but he refuses to be diverted from what he’s doing. And, of course, it could have been that it was just random people who said they were his relations to try to get closer to him.
We see Mary, of course, weeping at the Cross – something no mother should ever have to do. And Jesus commending her into the care of the “beloved disciple” John. And, finally, we see her in the Upper Room in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came.
That’s really all we know about her from the Bible, but other early traditions and writings, including some of what’s called the apocryphal gospels – they’re the ones that didn’t make the cut into the New Testament as we know it – tell us a bit more. They tell us that her mother was called Anne and her father was called Joachim, and that she was only about 16 when Gabriel came to her. One source has it that Anne couldn’t have babies, and when Mary finally arrived, she was given to be reared in the Temple, like Samuel. And traditional sources also tell us that she went to live in Ephesus, probably with John, and died somewhere between 3 and 15 years after the Crucifixion, surrounded by all the apostles. And that her body was taken up to heaven, which is where we came in!
Well, so far, so good, but how did they get from there to the veneration of her, not to say worship in some cases, that we see today? This may be something you find difficult to understand – I certainly do – and that’s okay. We aren’t required to do more than honour her as the Mother of our dear Lord; we mention her when we say the Creed, of course, and there are lots of churches dedicated to her. My parents’ church in Clapham – some of you have been there – is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, as are loads of other churches around the world.
But we do not think of her as quasi-divine in some way. We do believe that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by ordinary human means, but that this was something that happened in time, not in eternity! She became the Mother of God – she was not the Mother of God before Jesus was born.
It’s been fascinating, reading up on all the various Marian theologies to prepare this sermon. I don’t propose to go into them now – I don’t understand some of them at all, and anyway, it would take too long. It would appear, though, that while veneration of Mary is very ancient indeed, the theological study of her is comparatively recent. Actually, theology isn’t quite the right word, given that that is the study of God - I think the technical term is “Mariology”. And when it spins over into giving Mary that worship that properly belongs to God alone, it becomes “Mariolatry”.
I wonder, though, just how it happened that veneration of Mary became such a thing among Roman Catholic Christians. Orthodox Christianity also venerate her, but make it quite clear that she is not divine – the distinction, sometimes, among Catholics gets a bit blurred. One theory I have heard put forward is that she gives a female aspect to Christianity, which may or may not be lacking from the Trinity. Well, if that is so, how come Protestant women have managed without for so many generations? (I added something here which I only thought of the night before I preached about goddess-worship, and maybe it carried over - people were used to worshipping a Mother goddess).
We Protestants, of course, do have a choice – there is a tradition of venerating Mary in some parts of the Protestant Church, but it is far from compulsory. We honour her as the Mother of our dear Lord – and we honour her, too, for her bravery in saying “Yes” to God like that. After all, had Joseph repudiated her for carrying someone else’s child, she could have ended up on the streets!
As for the Assumption – well, who knows? Some Catholics think she was still alive when that happened, but the official position is unclear. The Orthodox call it the Dormition, or falling-asleep, and celebrate her death, but they, too, believe her body was carried up to heaven. But I am amused to learn that in Italy, the day is called “Ferragosto”, and is far older than Christianity – it was originally a festival of the goddess Diana, and became a public holiday during the reign of the Emperor Augustus! We Christians do like to take a pagan festival and turn it into something else, don’t we?! (And goddess-worship, perhaps!)
But what, then, can we learn from Mary? We don’t tend to think of her very much, at least, I don’t. But there is that incredible bravery that said “Yes” to God – and remember, she didn’t know the end of the story, not at that stage! There are times I wonder what she must think of it all! But she was totally submitted to God in a way that very few people can claim to be.
And, of course, there is what she said to the servants at that wedding in Cana - “Do whatever He tells you”. And that’s not a bad motto to live by, either: Do whatever Jesus tells you. Amen.
Alsace Trip, 29 March
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