Sermons from St Faith's   

Mary and Elizabeth

Revd Sue Lucas, 20th December, 2015

Some of you might know Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting of The Annunciation; it is well-known, and very beautiful.  It is a painting which, in some ways, perfectly captures the pre-Raphaelite School’s attempt to use pure colour, giving it a luminous quality, the young Virgin Mary bowing her head meekly to the angel’s message and to the will of God; and the model for the Virgin Mary was Christina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel’s sister and well-known in her own right as a poet and thinker, who wrote the words that became the carol ‘in the bleak mid-winter.’

It’s a beautiful painting, but it is not at all the Mary we meet, tramping over the Judaean hills, to greet her cousin Elizabeth in today’s Gospel; for the Mary of the Gospel does God’s will, utterly and completely, yes; but she does it as a tough and straight-talking prophet – indeed, the Hebrew form of her name is Miriam, the same as the sister of Moses; and, just as Moses carried the words of God from Mount Sinai, so the prophet Mary carries within her the Word of God made flesh, the incarnate Son.  And of course, in this we see the scriptural basis for the priestly and episcopal ministry of women; what does a priest do? Bears the Word of God, in the flesh of bread and wine, to the people of God – so, in the Roman Catholic Franciscan convent in San Francisco, there is an icon of Mary robed and vested as a priest; and a Bishop, in a sense, is the Shepherd and Mother Priest of the Diocese; the priesthood and episcopacy of women is actually scriptural, and just about as ‘traditional’ as one can get!

And Mary and Elizabeth, like a long line of biblical women before them, like Sarah, like Miriam, like Rahab, like Judah’s unnamed widow, like Miriam, like Hannah – are smart, tough cookies; they have to be tough because their circumstances, and in particular, their pregnancies, put them beyond the pale as far as respectable society is concerned; these are not pillars of the community and members of the Mothers’ Union; Elizabeth’s barrenness for so many years was a scandal, because God’s covenant promises in the Hebrew scriptures are of land, flourishing, and – descendants; children were a sign of God’s favour, so not to have them, particularly for the wife of a priest, would have been well dodgy.  Mary is poor, single, teenage and pregnant; and whilst in our own society, poor, single teenage Mums have to be, and often are, just about as resourceful as possible in order to do the best for their children, we all know what the so-called ‘great and good’ say about them.

Today’s gospel insists that God’s covenant promises quite simply do not work in that way; it is not about respectability and doing the right thing.  And the prophet Mary, like her namesake, raises her voice in a great prophetic song, so familiar to us as the Magnificat; God is God, and holy; God cannot be manipulated, or annexed in the service of the rich and the powerful; and God is a God of justice and mercy, a God whose new reality is here already, here in the child in her womb, in which the mighty are put down from their seat, the proud scattered, the humble and meek exalted, the hungry fed with good things; in fact, it is a reversal of everything that our own consumer-focused society claims is good.  Sung beautifully in the grandest of cathedrals, its radical message is utterly inescapable.  And this song of the prophet Mary is the blueprint, if you like, for the ministry of her son, particularly as it unfolds in Luke’s Gospel; the shepherds, those outside the pale of respectable society come to the manger; the boy Jesus put straight the great and the good in the Temple; the 5000 are fed, the widow’s son is raised.

And it’s the blueprint for us as well, as the body of Christ, the priestly and prophetic people of God.  For, in the midst of a society oppressed by pleasure, wealth and care, we are called to be something different; to live God’s new reality of justice, mercy, and inclusive love; we enact that reality in every Eucharist, in broken bread and wine outpoured, that is the word made flesh; and then are sent out to live it in our lives; to live that radical equality, that strange justice, that odd mercy of which Mary sings; to live the reality to which we have given our lives:

That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in bread and wine.

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