Matins: Mary 2

11 May 2008 at :00 am

Last week I began this series of four sermons about Mary by quoting the Roman Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:

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?

This week, I want to quote a four-line verse about Mary jotted down in the earlier part of the thirteenth century, about the time King Henry III first thought about building this church. To understand it, you need to know it contains a pun in medieval English. In the English of that time, a ‘rood’ was a cross. This is why even today we speak of a screen with a carved cross on it as a ‘rood screen’. ‘Rood’ can also mean ‘complexion’ or ‘face’, and ‘me reweth’ means ‘I pity’. The verse goes like this:

Now goth sonne under wod:
Me reweth [I pity], Marye, thy faire rode [face; cross].
Now goth sonne under Tre:
Me reweth, Marye, thy sone and thee.

Who wrote it? We have no idea. But it’s just the sort of response that could be expected from an ordinary Christian who saw the rood screen prominently placed in a church like this one. At one time there was a very prominent rood screen here, showing Jesus hanging on the cross, and Mary and John standing at the foot of the cross just as, in the Fourth Gospel, we are told that they did.

Last week I discussed the first mention of the ‘mother of Jesus’ in the Fourth Gospel, when, at the wedding at Cana in Galilee the wine had run out. We are told it was the ‘mother of Jesus’ who came to him and said ‘they have no wine’ and that Jesus replied,’ Woman what have I to do with you? My hour has not yet come.’ But then ‘the mother of Jesus (who is never named as Mary) told the servants to do whatever he told them, and they did, filling the water-pots to the brim. From those pots came wonderful wine. Like John the Baptist, Mary plays a prominent role in pointing to Jesus at the beginning of the Gospel.

Now we come to the end of the Gospel. The story of Jesus’ last night with his disciples as they shared the Passover meal together, his arrest, his trial before Pilate and his crucifixion, is all told in great detail. For the writer of the Fourth Gospel, this is the ‘hour’ that Jesus predicted and waited for, the ‘hour’ when, by his death the world judged itself. The ‘world’ showed itself to be guilty when one of its great rulers, the Roman Governor Pilate, had an innocent men tortured and cruelly put to death. ‘See the man’, says Pilate, and we do, but not as he sees him. We see Jesus more as Mary sees him. We see in Jesus the glory of God’s generosity, God in Jesus giving himself freely, for the good of humanity. Towards the end of the story, everything and everyone else drops away, and we are left with the picture of the soldiers absorbed in gambling while Jesus hangs on the cross. Nearby, we are told, three women were standing: his mother, his mother’s sister (Mary, the wife of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene (Jn 19:25). Could it be that the writer does not name the mother of Jesus because that would make her just another Mary? We don’t know.

This is the moment at which ‘When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved (neither of them are actually named) standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to his disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour (there again is ‘the hour’) the disciple took her into his own home.’ (Jn 19:26-7).

Like the story of the wedding in Cana of Galalilee it’s not clear how much this is meant to be an historical narrative, and how much it is symbolic. It clearly has a rich symbolic meaning. Just as in the earlier story, Jesus calls Mary ‘woman’. Is Mary once more to be seen as ‘everywoman’? Is she a new Eve? Is she in a new sense ‘the mother of all living’? The disciple Jesus loved is the one who bears faithful witness to Jesus by the writing of this Gospel. He is the one who was particularly close to Jesus at the Passover Supper. Is he the first member of a faithful church? Are we now to see the mother of Jesus as a mother to Jesus’ disciples, with a particular place of honour in the family of Jesus? That is how Christian tradition has developed the story.

But the writer of the verse I quoted at the beginning saw something different:

Now goth sonne under wod:
Me reweth, Marye, thy faire rode.
Now goth sonne under Tre:
Me reweth, Marye, thy sone and thee.

He (the writer was probably a man, quite possibly a monk) saw a mother bereaved of her son, and it broke his heart. He saw not the happy celebration at the beginning of a glorious ministry, as at the wedding in Cana, but the sunset of Mary’s joy and the brokenness of Jesus’ body. He saw the tree of life as the tree of death, and Mary, in her bereavement, left to struggle through the night. For him, Mary is every mother who has lost a child, especially those who stayed with their children as they have passed away, or have endured the agony of seeing their children tortured and killed.

Mary is the one with the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who for thirty years, every Thursday afternoon, gathered in the centre of Buenos Aires to walk around the square wearing white scarves, demanding to know the whereabouts of their missing children and grandchildren. About 30,000 of these young people, who disappeared in the 1970s, are still unaccounted for, and three of the mothers are themselves among the disappeared. Recently the mothers, now so much older, have accepted it is time to stop their marching because a democratic Argentinian government now supports the things their children died for. They say it is for them to defend the democratic reforms for which their children gave their lives.

Mary is the icon of the woman from Congo who recently told on the Today programme how she had been forced at gunpoint to strangle her own baby. Mary is the icon of the thousands on thousands of mothers and grandmothers in Africa who have seen their children die of AIDS. She is the icon of mothers in Burma at this moment struggling to protect their children from heat and disease. In Luke’s Gospel, we are told of the prediction that a sword will pierce Mary’s heart. Here we see what that means.

This was the image, the icon, that so captivated some unknown medieval writer that he gave us that tender verse. It was the image that so captivated the medieval imagination it was repeated in almost every medieval parish church up and down the land. The tenderness of Mary, mother of Jesus, is very much part of the Gospel.

But we cannot leave things there, especially at Pentecost. If we ask what happened next, we must turn to the stories of the resurrection in all four gospels. In the Fourth Gospel it is not the mother of Jesus, but Mary Magdalene, who is the first witness to the resurrection. But in the story of the early church, as told by Luke, Mary, the mother of Jesus, makes one final appearance. When Jesus departs from the disciples, he promises that not many days later they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5). His followers gather in an upper room, perhaps the room where six weeks before they shared the Passover supper. The difference is that this time the earthly family of Jesus is there with his chosen disciples, men and women together, waiting to share in the promised blessing:

When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. (Acts 2:13-14)

This is the last glimpse we have of Mary. For Luke, the Holy Spirit has been there throughout, preparing Mary to play her part in the Gospel story and enabling her to bring Jesus into the world. Now Mary plays her part in bringing the Church into the world. If we put the Fourth Gospel and Luke’s Gospel together, we can see how painful many of these experiences must have been for Mary, but how in the end how she must have experienced joy. As we see her waiting with the others in the upper room for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, we can see still more clearly why Mary, both in her joy and her sorrow, is such a wonderful role-model for every member, women and men, of the family of Jesus.

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