“My whole being shall exult in God.”
A German medieval poem describes to us the wonder of Jesus’ mother:
That God saw the girl’s beauty,
Like an eagle,
Fixing its eye on the sun…
For in the hidden mystery of God,
Her mind was filled with light,
And there emerged from the Virgin
A bright flower,
(Hildegard of Bingen)
Mary was both the mother of Jesus and his first disciple. She shared who we are, our human nature, with God, allowing her mind to be “filled with light.” She nursed the presence of God deep within us, the “hidden mystery of God”, so that God might emerge in our midst as a “bright flower”. Mary remained with Jesus to the end of his life on the Cross. And Mary received the joy of her Risen Lord at the Ascension. No-one else knew Jesus as long or as intimately as Mary, and so she has been accorded great honour over Christian history. But, Mary has also proved to be a stumbling block and a figure of division for others who worry that great honour falls into worship of her. What are we to do on special days such as today set aside to remember Mary? How are we to understand Mary’s meaning and presence for us?
We are called in the Church of England to “re-receive” the gift of Mary in our Christian lives. The call comes from our Bishops in 2005, several of whom stood on a five-year long ecumenical commission on the meaning of Mary (ARCIC Seattle Statement). The key call for all traditions was to see Mary as a pattern of grace and hope in Christ. A Pattern of grace and hope in Christ. For Mary should never be understood alone: she remains intimately connected, as mother and disciple, to the meaning of Jesus. Our “re-reception” of Mary, then, means the following: that we look to how Mary’s unique relationship to Jesus heralds a still-continuing adoption of those who turn to Christ into God’s family. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Galatians 4. 4) The particular, specific identity of Mary reveals something important, something that demands our attention and honour. But what is the gift we need to ‘re-receive’? What does Mary reveal to us?
When I was ten years-old I had a lovely Danish primary school teacher called Mrs Daegannar. She would read to us stories she had written for her own son, called “Peter and the Magic Flying Glass.” The “magic flying glass” was his attempted pronunciation of “magnifying glass”, a wonderful contraption that miraculously not only brought closer images and pictures, but brought them to life. Peter would go on marvellous adventures over the Alps, amidst the Vikings, or over the perilous seas because of his magic magnifying glass. In the stories, there was a real sense that anything that allowed us to get a bigger picture, to see more clearly, just like the magic magnifying glass, was wonderful, exciting, valuable, not in itself but because of where it took us.
Mary is our Christian magnifying glass. When she sings in today’s Gospel, “My soul magnifies the Lord” she shows to us what it means to have our “whole being…exult in God.” Mary knows that God does a wonderful thing when the angel Gabriel announces to her that she will bear God’s Son, Jesus. God will never again be seen as distant, remote in the heavens, impossible to see or touch. No, in Jesus, God will live amidst us, as one of us, one with us. Mary willingly shares for us our own flesh with God, our own nature, our joys, fears, and hopes. Does this make Mary any better than us? No, it makes Mary our mother too. Mary gives birth to the body of Christ, now seen as us, the Church. Mary co-operates with God, she is obedient, and as a result we are born. We are adopted into God’s family because of Mary’s choice to freely work with God on our behalf. And if we follow Mary’s example of saying ‘yes’ to God and ‘magnifying’ God’s presence, how much more of Christ will be born! For as St. Teresa of Avila says, “Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.”
When we re-receive what Mary has to show us, we can find personal and social transformation because of Jesus, her Son. Mary magnifies, makes closer and clearer to us, what Jesus works in time and space. Her song in today’s Gospel, which we pray in the Church of England every time we say evening prayer, shows us into what we are being adopted. Jesus calls us whoever we are and whatever we’ve done. Mary is no-one in the eyes of the world. As a teenage Jewish woman, she was barred from full participation in worship because she was a woman. But Jesus comes through Mary to show us that our human bodies, our human selves, our human stories are restored and accepted into the very heart of God’s being. So Mary sings of how Jesus can personally transform us: God has “looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant” and so “from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Mary is the mother of our experience of salvation in Jesus. Have you felt that salvation in the ground of your being? Does your whole being exult in God?
But, if we are now the Body of Christ, then our personal transformation transforms in turn the world. Mary’s song describes an inversion of intolerance and oppression, a turning upside-down of the world. “He has scattered the proud….He has brought down the powerful…and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things.” As we look around our world, that turning upside down may seem a long-way away, if not a downright fantasy. Greed, war, violence, oppression seem to abound, even in this country. Mary felt a “sword pierce her own heart” as she watched her Son die on the Cross. But what Mary’s experience shows us is that, slowly and inexorably over time God continues to be born and resurrected, and that there continually emerges “from the Virgin/A bright flower/Wonderfully” as our opening poem puts it. Or, as St. Teresa prays:
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.