Sermon given at Sung Eucharist for The Blessed Virgin Mary on Sunday 15 August 2010
15 August 2010 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Last week I had some space in the diary that allowed me to spend a little time on the floor of the Abbey amongst the thronging visitors. I was loitering at one point in the south aisle of the Lady Chapel, smiling at people as they passed and soliciting overwhelmingly appreciative comments. One or two people stopped to ask me questions. One question was about the number of tombs and the space they took up in the chapel. It eventually became clear that this visitor, for whom English was not her first language, had assumed that the Lady Chapel was, in old times, the place where women worshipped whilst the men worshipped elsewhere. I can imagine a slight sense of indignation that the women gathered in so small a place, even though so beautiful, by comparison with the space allocated to the men. I was not at all clear at the end of our conversation whether she quite understood that the Lady Chapel was the chapel dedicated in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known as Our Lady.
The Church’s calendar has traditionally been full of opportunities for the faithful to contemplate the life of Mary and our Lady’s importance to the story of our salvation and to the Church. Some medieval feasts survived the 16th century Reformation. The short-lived second Prayer Book of Edward VI in 1552, the more Protestant of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s two attempts at post-Reformation liturgy, recognises 2nd February as the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, and 25th March, often known as Lady Day, as the feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, but no other. Queen Elizabeth I in 1561 added to the Church of England’s Prayer Book three more of the medieval feasts, 2nd July as the Visitation of the Virgin Mary, 8th September as the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary and 8th December as the feast of the Conception of the Virgin Mary. Those five feasts also feature in the Book of Common Prayer of 1662, published after the restoration of the monarchy following the eleven years of the Commonwealth, and still the official prayer book of the Church of England.
Some great medieval feasts of our Lady, however, were not recognised by the Church of England after the Reformation. One of the most important of these, on 15th August, had been known as the feast of our Lady in Harvest. The Common Worship prayer book published in the year 2000 corrects that omission and for the past ten years, the Church of England has kept this day, 15th August, as the principal feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That is what we celebrate today.
The Church commemorates saints generally not on the day of their human birth or of any great achievement in their life on earth, but on the day of their death, celebrated as their heavenly birthday. This day has served to mark the anniversary of the end of Mary’s life on earth, probably ever since the 6th century. The Orthodox Churches of eastern Christendom keep the feast as the Dormition, the falling asleep, of Our Lady. The western tradition, maintained by the Roman Catholic Church, keeps the feast as the Assumption of Our Lady, meaning the day when her body was taken up into heaven.
There has been a degree of controversy between Christians about this feast. No burial place has ever been discovered or claimed for Mary, but nevertheless to many Anglicans and Protestants the doctrine that her body was taken up into heaven at her death seems unnecessary because it is unscriptural. And yet, Roman Catholics are obliged to believe precisely that ‘the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.’ In the past five years dialogue between the Churches has aimed to resolve this difficulty. In 2005, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission published a report Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ. They said, ‘given the understanding we have reached concerning the place of Mary in the economy of hope and grace, we can affirm together the teaching that God has taken the Blessed Virgin Mary in the fullness of her person into his glory as consonant with Scripture and that it can, indeed, only be understood in the light of Scripture.’
Their statement as a whole reflects the Christian understanding, since the 5th century, that Mary as the Mother of God Incarnate is a model for all Christians. The Blessed Virgin Mary has the first place of honour within the Church, the Body of Christ. She is the first amongst the saints and the pioneer Christian. Where Mary goes, others can follow. The doctrine that, at the moment of her death, our Lady’s body and soul were taken up into the glory of heaven holds out to us the promise that, if we follow obediently in her footsteps and are faithful to Christ, our destiny too when we die is to be taken into the glory of heaven. But what is it to be faithful?
Today’s Gospel reading of the Magnificat recognises the extraordinary character of Mary and challenges us if we would honestly seek to follow in her footsteps. The Song of Mary in St Luke’s Gospel was uttered during the so-called visitation, the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth, when they were both expecting their children, Jesus and John the Baptist. Elizabeth said of Mary, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ In response Mary sang of that blessedness, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.’
The daily repetition at Evensong of the Magnificat, often set to beautiful and complex music, can blunt the edge of its meaning. In Mary’s song, the proud, the powerful and the rich all suffer some kind of downfall. Just as God has raised up the humble the ordinary Mary, so God raises up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things. Today’s great feast reminds us that the way of Christ is not the way of the world. If we would live with him for ever in the glory of heaven, we must follow his way, the way of humility, the way of self-sacrifice, not the way of the world.
The entrance to the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is no great wide door, like the Great West Door or the Great North Door here at the Abbey or in so many great churches, flung wide to welcome everyone in. At the church of the Nativity you can see the shape and size of the old entrance. But most of that has been blocked up. Most adults must stoop to go in.
Jesus said, ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ We must follow the way of the humble Virgin Mary, if we are to be exalted with Christ.