Scattered, put down, and sent away
Holy Mary, Mother of God. Theotokos, the God-bearer. Ever-virgin, immaculate ark of the New Covenant. Queen of Heaven. The second Eve, the mystic rose. Stella Maris, star of the sea. Our Lady: Our Lady of sorrows, Our Lady of victories.
Just a few titles that Christians over the centuries have given to the mother of Our Lord. They bear witness to the devotion and piety of countless worshippers: so many prayers offered to her and through her, so many miracles attributed to her intervention, so many representations of her humility and purity - in art and sculpture and music. Which of them, I wonder might you be most comfortable with – which of them would you find most helpful on your spiritual journey? The church’s tradition about Mary is rich and complex and sometimes rather strange and so we need to reflect on it a little if it is to help us on our Christian pilgrimage.
Catholic doctrine and tradition contains a number of characteristic pictures of Mary, drawn from slightly different viewpoints. Perhaps most important of all is her sanctity, her holiness, emphasized by the Roman Catholic church in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. For many, the iconic view of Mary as the epitome of virtue is very powerful indeed. In the Catholic church it is expressed in one of her titles, Mary ever virgin. It contributed to the medieval concept of Mary as the perfect woman - chaste, pure, humble and constant – an ideal which perhaps did something to elevate the otherwise lowly status of women at that time. It also got thoroughly mixed up with the idea of chivalry and courtly love – knights in shining armour and all that! Then there is the emphasis on Mary’s closeness and intimacy with Our Lord, that biological mother-child bond which is as strong physically and emotionally as any relationship gets. And from this closeness to Jesus comes the idea of Mary forming a bridge, a channel of communication, with the Godhead – ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners….’ It is also bound up with the tradition of what the Western church calls the Assumption, and the Orthodox calls the ‘falling asleep’, of the Blessed Virgin. This is the doctrine that Mary was taken up– ‘assumed’ - body and soul into heaven, to remain close to her beloved son for ever. And finally, and perhaps most profoundly, there is the picture of Our Lady of sorrows, weeping at the foot of the cross, sharing hammer blow by hammer blow in Jesus’s Passion, and thereby sharing in the work of redemption.
The church rightly emphasises Mary’s holiness, her moral example and her unique relationship with Our Lord. But some of the medieval ideas about her just don’t seem terribly relevant any more. And I wonder if like me you feel that there is still something missing, something of Mary which might speak even more powerfully to us today, early in the twenty first century?
Happily there is another image of Mary that I haven’t yet mentioned, and which I hope will help. It is the picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Our Lord’s first and most devoted disciple, the picture of her therefore as ‘Mother of the Church’, and as potentially our closest and most valued companion on the Way. And if we do look upon Mary as our most important fellow-traveller, then we should perhaps be interested in what she said about the Kingdom of Heaven and how to get there. And by a miracle of Providence there has come down to us a record of exactly what she said, and it’s called the Song of Mary, or the Magnificat. It is a wonderful proclamation of the gospel, expressed in just a few verses.
‘He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts’. Mary sings about the new order in her son’s Kingdom, in which men and women will no longer be governed by their own self-will and destructive self interest, but by the law of love. And as always in bringing in his Kingdom, Our Lord has to begin with us. We, like Mary have to put ourselves under His rule, like her we have to say ‘yes’ to God’s will for us, and allow ourselves to be overshadowed by the power of the Most High. Only then will the dictator of this world be overthrown and its people be healed and set free.
‘He has put down the mighty from their seat, and has exalted the humble and meek’. In the Kingdom of Heaven there is no room for the human conventions of position, status or privilege. Mary, the poor peasant girl from Palestine, has herself become Theotokos, the God-bearer. If the citizens of the Kingdom are to grow and flourish nothing must be allowed to hold them back, certainly not any distinctions of creed or class or colour. And as always in bringing in his Kingdom, Our Lord has to begin with us. Unless Christian society reflects God’s new order, what hope for the world?
‘He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty’. Mary rejoices in God’s bias to the poor, his concern to overturn injustice and oppression. In her weakness and vulnerability as a woman, Mary places herself alongside countless women, and their children, who throughout human history have been the first and the worst victims of famine, war, oppression and natural calamities. She rejoices that in her Son, God has sent a champion to take the part of all in our world who are neglected and underprivileged, all who are powerless, despised and excluded.
The church invites us to join every day of our lives, if we want to, in saying or singing the Magnificat as part of the daily office. Maybe we shouldn’t worry too much about Mary’s many titles, or about the richness and complexity of the traditions about her. Perhaps we should just sing with her the song of Mary. Let us rejoice in her inspiration and companionship, as we strive to make real in our lives the Kingdom of her Son’s love.