4 May 2008 at :00 am

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:

MAY is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season—

Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
Why fasten that upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?

Hopkins goes on to make the link between Mary’s motherhood and the beauty of the north Welsh countryside at this wonderful time of year, associating Mary’s joy at being the mother of Jesus with the joy of the countryside as new life blossoms on every side.

For Hopkins it was natural to make the link with Mary. He was a convert to Roman Catholicism from high church Anglicanism. Devotion to Mary is one of the marks of Catholicism and of high church Anglicanism. I was brought up in the kind of low church Anglicanism where Mary was conspicuous by her absence. The Book of Common Prayer has in its calendar five feasts of Mary ( the Purification; the Annunciation; the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth; the Nativity; the Conception – though nothing marking the end of Mary’s life). Only for two of these Marian feasts are there special prayers (collects) and these collects do not even mention Mary! This is because at the time of the Reformation, when the Prayer Book was compiled, devotion to Mary was seen as a mark of Roman Catholicism and the churches of the Reformation were in reaction against what they saw as the excessive Marian devotion of late medieval Catholicism.

It was possible to grow up as an Anglican, as I did, and hardly to notice the place of Mary in the Gospels and in Christian worship. I saw this very clearly when I became a member of ARCIC, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. Our task was to study those areas of doctrine which have been church-dividing, and to see what we could all, Roman Catholics and Anglicans, say together in areas where there have been differences of teaching, like the eucharist, ministry and authority, particularly the authority of the Pope.

One of the areas where there has been sharp division between Anglicans and Roman Catholics has been our teaching about Mary. In 1854, the Pope announced that from now on it was a matter of defined Catholic teaching that from the first moment of Mary’s conception she was preserved from all stain of original sin. In 1950, a similar announcement was made about the end of her life: that at the end of her life Mary was assumed (taken up) body and soul into heaven. These two dogmas – of the immaculate conception and bodily assumption of Mary - made it compulsory for Roman Catholics to accept the Church’s teaching on two matters which the Orthodox see rather differently. On these Marian doctrines, some Anglicans would accept what Rome teaches but many would not: Anglicans are free to make up their own mind. Our task as a Commission was to see what we could say together, Anglicans and Roman Catholics, about Mary. The results of that investigation were published two years ago in a joint agreed statement, called Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ.

We all agreed on that anything we said about Mary we said because it threw light on Christ and on the Church. Mary was one of the very first to accept Christ and to believe in him - because of her belief she is a role-model for us all. I want, through Mary’s month, to see what she has to teach us about being Christians, and to explore a little of why she has been so important to Christians down the years. One of the things I had to discover in the five years of study we did as we worked on the ARCIC Mary statement was the wonderful writing about Mary there is in Anglican tradition, especially the tradition of the seventeenth century. Another was how much there is to be learnt from Orthodox worship, especially from Orthodox icons. We have two wonderful icons in the nave of Westminster Abbey, one of which is of Jesus in the arms of his mother. I often find that when there is a need concerning a family in distress it is to Jesus in the arms of his mother that I naturally turn. It’s as though, with Jesus and Mary, I can be part of the Christian family which reaches out to give support and love to someone in distress.

This morning I want to look briefly at the role played by Mary at the beginning of the Fourth Gospel. The Fourth Gospel doesn’t have stories of the birth of Jesus like Mathew and Luke, stories in which Mary plays a prominent part. The Fourth Gospel begins with the word made flesh and quickly moves through the narrative of John the Baptist to the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. In this gospel, the first mention of the mother of Jesus comes at chapter 2, in the story of the wedding at Cana. And, strangely, she is never called by name, not here nor anywhere throughout the gospel. It is as though the writer of the gospel knew of Mary Magdalene, Mary the sister of Martha, and even Mary the wife of Cleopas, but for some reason he did not know, or did not choose to name, Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In the story (Jn 2:1-11), Jesus and his mother are invited to a wedding feast at Cana in Galilee. When the wine embarrassingly runs out, it is Jesus’s mother who brings the need to him. She says, ‘They have no wine’. Jesus then gives the strange answer, ‘Woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.’ This reply seems to be a refusal to do anything, but his mother refuses to be put off and she then says to the servants ‘Do whatever he tells you’. Right at the beginning of the gospel, she indicates that Jesus is to be trusted and obeyed. Jesus then tells the servants to fill six enormous stone jars with water. So they fill them up to the top. Then he tells them to take some of the water from the jars and give it to the person in charge of the wedding feast. This they do. The person in charge of the feast tastes it and is so surprised by the taste that he calls out to the bridegroom. ‘People usually serve the good wine first, and then when people have had something to drink they serve the poor wine, but you have kept the good wine until now.’ The writer comments that this was the first of the signs that Jesus did to show his glory, and his disciples (like his mother) believed in him.

It’s a very well-known story, and part of its interest is that we don’t know how much it’s about something that actually happened – the story isn’t told in any of the other gospels – and how much it is a symbolic narrative that tells us in a pictorial way some important things about Jesus. That view makes a lot of sense to me.

One of the things the story seems to be about is that the good wine is kept to the later part of the feast and is only served when the wine that was prepared for the feast has run out. This seems to be telling us that with the coming of Jesus God has done something new. He has given new wine to a people who had run out of wine. But the story is also telling us that Jesus is the one who brings the new wine. It is Jesus who knows what to do when the wine has run out and something has to be done. And the mother of Jesus also plays a key role in the story. She is the one who tells the servants to do whatever he tells them. We are not informed how she came to have such confidence in Jesus. She hardly appears again in the gospel before the very end and there once more she plays a key role, standing by Jesus, when almost everybody else has run away. Mary is presented as one of the very first people to have complete confidence and trust in Jesus. When she brings the need of the moment to him, and when she tells the servants to ‘Do what ever he tells you’, she is a role model for all Christians.

To us it sounds strange that Jesus should call her ‘woman’. It may be that this is just a polite way to speak to her, rather like calling her ‘madam’ or calling one’s father ‘sir’, as children used to do. But there may also be a suggestion that Mary is everywoman, the woman who reverses the failure of Eve. Eve was everywoman, the ‘mother of all living beings’. Mary is also everywoman, but in a different sense. She is the mother of those who keep God’s Word and share in the new life brought by Jesus. She is the one in whom the life of the church is perfectly summed up and shown to us. When Jesus says to her, ‘O woman what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.’ we get a hint of what is to come at the end of the gospel. In the Fourth Gospel, the ‘hour’ of Jesus, the time when his glory is manifested, is the time when he is crucified. That’s the time when he will have a special need of his mother, and a special place in the continuing life of the church to pass on to her. We shall look at this next week.

The point for us now is that, from the beginning, in the New Testament, Mary was integral to the gospel. If we do not in our faith have a place for Mary we miss out on the fullness of the gospel. In the story we have looked at this morning the role of Mary is very clear. It is the same as the role of John the Baptist - to point in faith to Jesus: ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ If May is Mary’s month, that is because at this time of year, in the northern hemisphere, the whole of nature is bursting with new life, and the one who brings new life is the whom Mary – through the Holy Spirit – brought into the world. Hopkins’ ‘May Magnificat’ ends,

This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
To remember - and exultation
In God who was her salvation.

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