+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
A quick note on today’s liturgy. While the hymn -board says that today is the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, you will have probably realized that the propers we are using are not those appointed and the vestments are not green but white and [if you were at the 10 o’clock service] the hymns are all Marian in theme. That is because today, the 15th of August is the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and while all but a few feasts which occur on a Sunday are to be transferred to the Monday after there is one of those rubrics buried in the Book of Common Prayer of which I’ve availed myself today: “When desired, however, the Collect, Preface, and one or more of the Lessons appointed for the Feast may be substituted for those of the Sunday,” as long as it is in one of these long “green seasons” after Epiphany and Trinity Sunday. Because we only have the opportunity once every seven years to observe this, the feast of the greatest of Saints, on a Sunday, and (selfishly) because I have a particular devotion to our Lady, I’ve opted for us to observe the feast today. That out of the way, on with the sermon proper.
My dad once told me that when he was a teenager he was particularly affected by the then new Beatles song Let it Be. One day, inspired by the song, he said to my grandmother, “Mom, don’t you think everything would be better if we just let it be?” To which she responded, “what do you think this house would look like if I just let it be?”
Yet those words “let it be”, despite their apparent passivity, are the words by which God’s will is accomplished in this old world. It is by these words, which in the context of our Lady’s utterance of the same are anything but passive, that men and women are brought into the active work of God’s plan of salvation. They are words that to utter imply that their speaker must realize his or her own fallibility and imperfection and God’s own infallibity and perfection. They are words by which the Christian places his or her trust in God’s overwhelming providence rather than human ingenuity. They are, in short, the words by which the world is saved.
And it is one particular utterance of these words by which the seminal and singular event of all human history came to be. St. Luke tells us that an angel appeared to Mary and said “behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name ‘Jesus’. He shall be great, and be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God, shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” Our Lady responded by saying fiat. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to word.”
It is only after Our Lady’s full, active submission to her Father’s will rather than her own that she is emboldened to sing the greatest hymn of praise ever sung, which was our Gospel reading for today: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.”
It is through Our Lady’s submission that Our Lord was given the chance to live a life of submission himself, a life and death given wholly not to his own will, but that of the Father. This the writer of Hebrews knew well when he wrote that Jesus had said “See, I have come to do your will,” And then explains “[Christ] abolishes the first [covenant] in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
So must we all respond to the call of God. Just so must we—like Mary and like her Son—say fiat to God. So must we pray “thy will be done” and mean it. So must we put aside our pride and pettiness that we, like Mary, may say “he that is mighty hath magnified me; and holy is his name.” It is only through humble submission, by saying fiat, “let it be, O God”, that we come to greatness and to glory. We cannot magnify ourselves, we can only fool ourselves into thinking we have done. God, however, has promised to “exalt the humble and meek.”
It is a great sadness to me that as products of the Reformation, even we “the most Catholic of Protestants,” seem uncomfortable with talking much about our Lord’s Mother, except when we trot her out around Christmastime every year. Perhaps it is a latent Catholophobia, or perhaps it is a latent misogyny, or maybe it’s just because we see her example and know that we cannot live up to it.
I am not here suggesting that we must all adopt every Marian dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. In case you’re wondering there are four big ones: that Mary is the Mother of God, that she remained a Virgin, that she was assumed bodily into heaven at the end of her life, and that she was conceived (though naturally of her parents Joaquin and Anna) without the stain of original sin. For what it’s worth, the first of these (that Mary is rightly called “the Mother of God”) is universally accepted by Christians as it was defined by the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus in A.D. 431 and confirmed at Chalcedon in A.D. 451. (As an aside, before my friend and great theological rival, whom I’ll not name, moved away I would have relished the opportunity to have an argument at coffee hour about Nestorianism’s status within Christendom based on what I just claimed.) Both the Perpetual Virginity and Assumption of Mary were generally believed by the Fathers of the Church, I personally accept both claims, but as they cannot be proved by Scripture alone, they are not enjoined on the faithful and I may be in the minority of Anglicans in believing them. The Immaculate Conception of Mary (not to be confused with the Virgin Birth of Jesus, which should not be controversial as it is plainly taught in Scripture and the Creeds) is a tough one, it may solve some theological problems while creating others, and I don’t know what I think about it.
Anyway, I’m not saying any of you have to buy any of these dogmas (except the first one, of course). And I’m not saying any of you need to start praying to the Virgin Mary; I do, every day when the church bell rings the Angelus at noon and six, but that’s a matter for personal piety. I am suggesting, though, that it is worth considering the role our lady played in salvation history, honoring her faithfulness, and emulating her fiat,her willingness to say “yes” to God not counting the cost.
From time to time one is asked what one’s favorite verse or passage of scripture is. I used to vacillate between different ones, but for the past several years (perhaps the last decade) I have steadily kept the same verse in my mind and heart. It is from St. John’s passion:
When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
What began with Mary’s “yes” found its consummation for the Virgin and for the beloved disciple, John, in Christ’s gift of a community of love and fellowship and prayer. Our Lady, type of the Church, and we the church’s daughters and sons, have been given to each other that we might love that which is lovable, find beauty in that which is beautiful, and find a home with each other, the household of God, in this world and the next. There can be no greater gift than this, and it begins with the love of a mother for her son.
In that vein, I close this morning with a prayer which means a great deal to me. Some of you know that I have a particular devotion to Our Lady under a particular title. I am, as it happens, a priest associate of the Holy House of Our Lady of Walsingham, a shrine dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Norfolk, England where she is said to have appeared in the eleventh century, and to which I’ve made pilgrimage and celebrated the Eucharist- one of the most meaningful moments of my life. This is a prayer to which I’ve returned over and over, presented here in a slightly de-anglified version for our American congregation; I pray it may be even a fraction as lovely and meaningful to you as it has been to me though the years. Let us pray.
O Mary, recall the solemn moment when Jesus, your divine son, dying on the cross, confided us to your maternal care. You are our mother, we desire ever to remain your devout children. Let us therefore feel the effects of your powerful intercession with Jesus Christ. Make your name again glorious in those places once renowned throughout the world by your visits, favours, and many miracles.
Pray, O holy mother of God, for the conversion of this land, restoration of the sick, consolation for the afflicted, repentance of sinners, peace to the departed.
O blessed Mary, mother of God, our Lady of Walsingham, intercede for us. Amen.