Sermon given at Evening Service on Sunday 17th August 2014
17 August 2014 at 18:00 pm
The Reverend Tony Kyriakides, Chaplain
Last Friday, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It's a feast that commemorates the death of Mary and the belief that her body has been taken up into heaven, that when her earthly life was ended, Mary's body did not decay in the earth but was reunited with her soul in heaven.
Such has been a popular Christian belief since the early centuries and, from the seventh century has been celebrated each year on 15thAugust: thus last Friday. In 1950, Pope Pius XII regularised what was, until that time, an unauthorized teaching and made the Assumption an official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.
The rationale or theology behind this commemoration is the belief that in carrying Jesus, the incarnate God, within her womb, Mary's body could not, would not be allowed to experience decay. Since God united himself to her human flesh, Mary is the first to be delivered into a state of immortality, into eternal life. The privilege that is given to Mary is a token and first fulfilment of God's promise, God's intention for you and for me.
This ancient veneration of Mary has gone further and pronounced on the matter of Mary's conception, declaring it to be immaculate. That Mary's conception in her mother's womb was free from original sin. And again, what many had believed down the centuries received the official blessing of the Church in 1854, when Pope Pius IX issued his papal bull, Ineffabilis Deus. Since then, on 8th December each year, the Church has celebrated the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
As far as the Anglican Church is concerned, the report 'Mary: Faith and Hope in Christ', produced by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, concluded that the teaching about Mary, her Assumption and her Immaculate Conception, while in accord with Scriptures and the ancient common traditions, are not prescriptive: in other words, Christians do not have to hold to this teaching as a matter of faith.
That said, I think both the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception rightly emphasise the special place the Church accords the Virgin Mary. She is special which makes it all the more surprising that in Western European culture she has been represented by a black image: the black Madonna.
In 1538, not far from this Abbey, there was a great bonfire in Chelsea. Many statues were burned following Thomas Cromwell's ruling that people should
not repose their trust and affiance in any other works devised by men's phantasies beside Scripture; as in wandering to pilgrimages, offering of money, candles or tapers to images or relics.
Three of the images on that bonfire were statues of Mary taken from the shrines of Walsingham, Ipswich and Willesden. The statues of Mary from Walsingham and Willesden were black: black Madonnas. Fast forward nearly five hundred years and Black Virgins are still found all over Europe especially in southwest France.
So what constitutes a black Madonna or Virgin? Tentatively, it could be said that a black Madonna is an image of the Virgin Mary coloured black or dark brown in a place where the local population is white, but that's not the whole story for, strange as it may seem, there are some images that are called 'black Virgins' that are painted in the flesh tones of the local white inhabitants. Our Lady of Orcival, in the French diocese of Clermont, is one such example. It cannot be the case, as some would hold, that black Madonnas have discoloured over the years as a result of candle smoke or dirt. It is as though the word 'black' has some metaphorical meaning that is not determined by the colour of the statue itself. So could there be some spiritual significance to the colour or label 'black'?
Yet, in Western European culture, black has often been associated with what is reviled or despised: 'black magic', 'black arts', 'black-listed', blackleg. People with dark skin pigmentation, who are described as 'black', have been denigrated. Even that word, denigrate, to make someone appear bad, comes from the Latin, nigrum, meaning black. The fact that most sacred figures are commonly given a fair complexion just provides further evidence that white is desirable and black is not.
Given that cultural stereotyping, is it not curious that the Virgin and Child can be portrayed as black? Could there be some deeper more profound Christian meaning to this? I offer three observations.
First, a constant theme in the New Testament is God's preference for the poor and the marginalised: those whom society holds to be of little or no account. In the middle ages, it was believed that the rich could enter heaven only by means of charitable works towards the poor, while the prayers of the poor were solicited because they were thought to assist on the path to salvation. Take the words of the Magnificat, Mary's song, in which she proclaims that God has 'cast down the mighty from their seats and has exalted the humble and meek'.
If 'black' represents all that a society denigrates and despises, then might it be most appropriate for Mary, as the black Madonna, to epitomise what human culture mistakenly scorns and spurns?
Second, the role of the black Madonna, at times, has been to call Christians to account, to acknowledge sin, address the 'blackness' within and repent. Our Lady of Rocamadour, in France, was once a centre of pilgrimage for the penitent. Ecclesiastical courts in Germany would send miscreants to Rocamadour in chains, and when the prisoner had made penance their chains would be removed and their freedom restored.
Third: in the Apocrypha section of the Bible, the Song of Songs offers a collection of love poetry and for Christians it has become common to attribute to Mary the words of the Song that are said by or about the Beloved. In one particular passage, the Beloved says 'I am black but beautiful' or 'I am black and beautiful': the Hebrew text will yield either translation. The Hebrew word that is used here for 'black' is shechorah and that Hebrew word is related to another word: the word for dawn. That word should serve as a reminder that darkness precedes light, and in the context of the black Virgin might do well to remind us that her blackness is the darkness that comes before the daylight of Christ her son.
Meister Eckhart, a 13th century mystic wrote: 'All the names we give to God come from an understanding of ourselves.' To give Mary, the God-bearer, the name 'Black Madonna' is to honour blackness, and all people of colour, and to redress an excessive whiteness of soul and culture.