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Advent 4

Advent 4

Sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent by The Reverend Canon Charles Royden

Mary the Mother of Jesus

Thomas Becket was born in 1118, his parents were immigrants from France, his father was a merchant, so he was from a relatively ordinary middle class family and educated at a grammar school. Yet he rose to become Chancellor and he became enormously wealth, he travelled in luxury with his entourage, including his pet wolf, across the kingdom which stretched across France to the Pyrenees. He subsequently became the Archbishop of Canterbury and he was murdered in his Cathedral in 1170 by four knights who came to arrest him as a traitor believing it was the wish of the king. Becket’s tomb became a shrine, he became a saint two years later and Canterbury became one of the main places for pilgrimage across Europe for 400 years until Henry 8 had his bones scattered in the reformation.

However his relatively humble origins were a problem, we don’t want our saints to be ordinary folks we want them to be special. We struggle with ordinariness and so we embellish their lives. So it was that tradition embellished the stories about Thomas and it became said that his mother was a Saracen Princess. Later tradition even enhanced his name from Thomas Becket to Thomas a Becket (perhaps they wanted him to sound like Thomas a Kempis) and many churches are still called that today.

The same kind of embellishment to which we have subjected Becket is also true of Mary the Mother of Jesus. It has been difficult for the church to understand how a poor peasant girl like Mary could become the Mother of God. Later church traditions jettisoned the image of the ordinary poor peasant girl and made her into something much more special. The Egyptian goddess Isis and other important female goddesses had virgin births, so Christians went one better with Mary. She not only had the virgin birth of Jesus she was also born immaculate herself, without sin. For many Christians Mary has become, sinless and denied even a proper death she was assumed into heaven.

So what was the real Mary like ? Well we can find out much from the words of the Magnificat which was the song of Mary. This is the song she sang when she went to visit Elizabeth the woman who would give birth to John the Baptist

Mary’s Song of Praise
And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,  and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him  from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,  and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things,  and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
You may notice that the Magnificat is the most any woman gets to say in the whole of the New Testament. Women were not then and never were given equality in the church. Their voices were not heard, they had no power or authority. Mary recognises this prejudice when she says that her
‘soul magnifies the Lord,  and her spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. 

Mary knows that she is lowly and her reason for rejoicing is that God has acknowledge this lowly state and he has chosen to honour it. From Mary we understand that God deliberately chose to abide with the poor, the humble and the lowly. She talks about lowliness, that is about her real social position, she is poor, she is at the bottom of the pile. She had nothing apart from God. She was a poor girl in occupied territory who was part of a people who were heavily taxed by Rome, the local government and the Jewish religious system, she was one of the exploited.

She was a young girl
She was an unmarried
She is poor
She was very ordinary

Mary does not want to magnify herself in any way, she knows how ordinary she is. It defeats the whole reasoning behind the Magnificat if we start pretending that Mary was somehow special in being sinless or different.
Mary was the wife of the carpenter, the poor working man’s wife who had nevertheless been chosen to become the perfect vessel for God’s grace and the one who would exercise so much influence over Jesus.

We often speak of the greatest achievement of Mary being that she was one who said ‘yes’ to God. I have lost count of how many times I have read about this as the quality of Mary and how our response is to say ‘Yes’ like her. I read something from a biblical commentator who asked how many other Janes or Sophies said ‘no’ before God found Mary who said ‘yes.’
But God didn’t ask Jane or Samantha or anybody else first. You see he didn’t even ask Mary. We need to remember that when the Angel came to Mary he didn’t ask her if she wanted to be the mother of God’s baby, it is called the Annunciation for a reason, she is told ! God chose her.

Why did God choose her ? Because God was working with the lowly. It is true that Mary goes along with what is going on so she does affirm what God is doing. But listen to the Magnificat and it is not about Mary somehow being acquiescent to what is going on. Mary has understood that God is choosing a different way of doing things. God has chosen her because she is poor, because she is weak, because she is exploited. Mary is God’s voice saying ’No’ these things are not acceptable.

Mary is often portrayed in art as passive, but actually that is to do her a great disservice. Mary is not in the words of the carol Once in Royal David’s city a ‘mother mild’
The Magnificat shows her to be an angry woman with a mind to change things. This was the home into which Jesus was born and raised, with a woman who taught him that God was the great turner of tables.

The scandal of the church is that for centuries the voice of women was silenced and in many churches still is! Women are judged not to allowed to have a voice, not to speak, not to lead, to have no power.

Mary was not singing on behalf of the poor, she was the poor who needed liberation. Think of it as a battle cry, a call to arms. Mary is part of God’s rebellion and we too are called to be a part of those who work for a just and equal society.

In the Magnificat we understand that God is not an observer of humanity, God has chosen sides and he is on the side of the weak.
God chooses humble birth
God chooses homelessness
God chooses to be persecuted
God chooses to be refugee.

I don’t want to offend anybody who has different views about Mary and I know that many Christians do believe her to be sinless, but I don’t want to worship her. I believe in an ordinary Mary a full human being, a woman, or more accurately a girl and I think that this makes her even more to be admired and honoured. Her humble origins put her in touch with the poor and outcasts with whom Jesus spent his ministry. If Mary had lived today she would have been the sort of person who needed the food bank and her song challenges the need for people to be poor, she speaks of this not being God’s way, God want a reversal.

Mary is subversive and her song calls for a radical agenda for social change. Mary's song is a statement of what she believes about God. Like the song of Hannah on which it is modelled, it celebrates the character of God as the great turner of tables. He is the God of the poor and the oppressed, under his hand the meek inherit the earth.

So the next time you hear newspapers criticising clergy or bishops for shouting out about social injustice. When Christians tell of the tragedy of the need in our society for food banks, about the lack of availability of affordable housing and the homeless crisis. Remember they are not doing anything unique, or different special, it all started withy Mary.