This day 24 years ago is a day which I will never forget.
I was driving our Renault Espace car on the A6 motorway in France, just south of the city of Troyes. Andrew was in the back with his knee in a leg brace, having smashed his kneecap on holiday in Switzerland, and spent a week in hospital. So things were already not going well. Then suddenly all the warning lights on the car started to flash at once. I had no choice but to pull off at the next exit. The fan belt had snapped, and we weren’t going anywhere. To make matters worse, absolutely nothing was open, and all the hotels were full. Thanks however to the kindness of a wonderful French mechanic, we did eventually find somewhere for the night, and get back on the road just 24 hours later.
It was 15th August, which, in the Roman Catholic tradition, even in secular France, is widely celebrated as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary with a public holiday. In our Anglican tradition, we don’t recognise the Assumption of Mary as such, and we have no public holiday, of course, but 15th August, remains a special day, when we remember Mary the Mother of our Lord, and that is why our readings today focus in particular on Mary, and on her place in the Christian story.
So what is your view of Mary? Of the Blessed Virgin Mary? To whom of course the church here/at Whitegate is dedicated. And how would you assess her place and her importance in the Christian story?
At a fundamental level, there is the simple view of Mary as a young homemaker from Nazareth, who is called by God to be the mother of Jesus, the Messiah; who is the only person who is present both at his birth and at his death; who sees him arrive as her baby son, and watches him die a painful and humiliating death on the cross. This image portrays her as an example of faithful obedience to God’s will, and as someone whose life shows us that God’s plans often involve extraordinary events in the lives of ordinary people. The key verse which expresses this is perhaps Luke 1 verse 38 when Mary says to the angel who visits her:
I am the Lord’s Servant. May it be to me as you have said.
This simple view of Mary is based on what we learn about her from our reading of the Bible, and it probably fits quite well with your own view of her. It is a view widely shared by all Christian traditions.
I could have preached a sermon this morning something along these lines. It would have been uncontroversial and safe, but it would also have been very similar to many other sermons which you have heard about the Virgin Mary, and, more importantly perhaps, it would have ignored the enormous elephant in the room, that is that fact that the figure of Mary in Christianity is not quite as straightforward as this simple view would have us think.
So I am not going to play safe, and I am going to acknowledge the elephant in the room, in other words the complicated issues raised by the figure of Mary within the Christian church.
However, I am also going to tread carefully this morning, because Mary has (through no fault of her own, I have to say) often been a controversial figure, who has divided Christians, and down the centuries led to much persecution and suffering, and I don’t want to make matters worse.
Well, as I am sure that you are aware, there are other views of Mary, not derived from what we read in the Bible, which form an important part of some Christian traditions, in particular the Roman Catholic tradition. The observance of 15th August as the Feast of the Assumption is just one example.
In those traditions, there are in fact perhaps 4 main doctrines which I will mention briefly. There is the doctrine that Mary remained a virgin even after the birth of Jesus – that is of her perpetual virginity. It is also believed that she was so favoured by God’s grace that from birth she was free from original sin. That is know as the Immaculate Conception. There is then the view that she is a partner with Jesus in the work of salvation, including interceding in heaven on behalf of the faithful. It is this doctrine of course which is at the heart of that most popular of prayers to Mary – the Ave Maria, or the Hail Mary – with the words
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
And finally there is the doctrine that after death Mary’s body was assumed into heaven - the Assumption – which I have already mentioned.
So what are we to make of these doctrines? They clearly have no biblical origins. So where do they come from?
Well, for what it’s worth, my take on the situation is that they are all an attempt to make Mary a more important and influential figure within Christianity than she would normally be. And why try to do that? Well for two main reasons, I would suggest.
Firstly, the Christian story is dominated by powerful male figures, and, although there some significant women both in the gospels and the early church, there are no women of the stature of St Peter or St Paul for example. These additional doctrines about Mary turn her into a more prominent female figure, which God’s faithful people, and particularly other women, can relate to and connect with.
Secondly, we need to remember that down the ages there have been pagan religions with significant female figures, goddesses, whom people have worshipped. When converts flooded into the early Christian church, they brought with them the cultural influences of these other religions, including devotion to these female figures, and then gradually over time the church assimilated, and ‘Christianised’, if you like, these figures. One such figure was the Egyptian goddess, Isis, who was in some ways assimilated into Christianity in the person of the Virgin Mary. There are statues of Isis holding the Egyptian God Horus which have actually been physically altered and reused as icons of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus. The desire then to ‘Christianise’ female pagan deities may therefore in part account for the doctrines which give more importance to the figure of Mary.
So there we have it. That is the elephant in the room. There is a view of the Virgin Mary, which adds to and elaborates on the image of the Virgin Mary as we know her from the biblical account. I have to say that personally find quite difficult accept this view, but I also realise that this view is a significant part of the faith of millions of our Christian brothers and sisters. How should I react? What should I do or say? Especially when I know how divisive and damaging this has been over the centuries.
Well, let me suggest a way through this. A way which I have found helpful. It is a two-pronged approach.
Firstly, I go back to Acts 2:21 Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. My brothers and sisters from other church traditions who do not always believe exactly what I believe, or who believe things which I find hard to accept, are followers of Jesus just like me. They like me call on the name of Lord. We all share one church, one faith, one Lord as we sing in that well-known hymn. For me, although I cannot entirely agree with what my Christian brothers and sisters believe about the Virgin Mary, it is not a deal-breaker.
And secondly, I always look at other church traditions, and see whether there are things which I can learn from them. Different ways of doing things, different ways of thinking, which might help me in my walk with God. This is true in terms of the different approaches to the Virgin Mary I might come across in different church traditions.
Let me give you two examples.
I myself first came across another view of Mary on a family holiday in Portugal when I was 12. I was brought up in the Methodist church, and so I had at that time very little idea of the importance of Mary beyond the stories in the Bible. During that holiday, however, I found myself really drawn to the story of Our Lady of Fatima, who appeared to three Portuguese shepherd children in 1917, leading to the growth of the Portuguese town of Fatima as a place of pilgrimage. I was fascinated. And here is the wooden statue of Our Lady of Fatima, which I bought at the time, aged 12, and have treasured ever since.
What was it then that fascinated me about Our Lady of Fatima? I was sceptical, and I remain sceptical, about what those children actually saw, and whether or not they really saw a vision of the Virgin Mary, but I was introduced, through this story, for the first time, to the idea of visions and miracles as part of my faith, to the possibility of a supernatural element within Christianity.
And I think that is what continues to be the appeal of this aspect of the Christian faith for many people: a sense of the transcendent, a sense that our relationship with God is more than our rational brains can grasp and understand, a sense that it defies analysis and logic. For me, this is not incompatible with a belief in the authority of the Bible. The Bible itself after all is full of visions and miracles and supernatural events, not least, of course, the resurrection itself.
My next close encounter with a different view of the Virgin Mary, came when I was at university, where I got to know an Irish Roman Catholic priest, called rather inevitably Father Pat, who worked at Westminster Cathedral, the Roman Catholic cathedral in central London, just down the road from Westminster Abbey. On one of my visits to the cathedral, I remember coming across a small group of mostly elderly ladies praying in a side chapel one evening. They were reciting the rosary, traditionally the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Gloria, and of course a number of Hail Marys. These ladies then were asking Mary to intercede on their behalf. They believed that she had a special relationship with God, as the Mother of Jesus, and that she would therefore be able to help them to communicate more directly with God himself.
Again, I was fascinated. I was unsure, and I remain unsure, about this view of Mary, about her role as an intermediary between God and his people. In 1 Timothy 2 verse 5 St Paul writes For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, and this is a view I share. I was however fascinated at two levels. I was fascinated on the one hand by the prayerful quiet dedication of that small group of ladies, and on the other hand by the way in which they used their rosary beads to help them focus on what the prayers they were saying.
When I applied to be considered for ordination, I had to attend what is called a BAP a Bishop’s Advisory Panel, and as part of the assessment process you have to give a talk. I decided to give my talk on using the rosary beads in private prayer. This was a risky choice, because, as I have just explained, the rosary beads are so closely associated with certain beliefs about the Virgin Mary, but the talk went down well. It is in fact possible to use rosary beads as a means of focusing on any sequence of prayers, and I am happy to point you in the right direction if you are interested in exploring this idea further.
Where does all that leave us?
As I said earlier, I do not believe that the difference between what I believe about the Virgin Mary, and what someone else from a different tradition might believe, is a deal-breaker. We are both share the same faith and the same Lord. I would also argue that there is always something which we can learn from Christians from other traditions which will help us to grow in our faith and our relationship with God. And most of all I believe that we should welcome and listen to Christians from other traditions, not with suspicion and distrust, but graciously and with love. And so, in this spirit of openness and graciousness towards all our Christian brothers and sisters, even though we don’t always agree with them, I have asked Andrew to play the Ave Maria, as set to the music of Franz Schubert, during our time of reflection. But first a prayer.
Let us pray
On the day before you died
you prayed that your disciples might be one just as you are one with the Father.
Forgive our unfaithfulness.
Give us the honesty to acknowledge and reject our mistrust of each other and our intolerance.
Make us one in heart and mind, that, bound together in love,
we may bear witness to your grace in the world
According to your will and to the glory of your name.