Hail! Mary

Sunday 15th August 2010
The Blessed Virgin Mary (The Assumption of Our Blessed Lady into Heaven)
St John The Baptist, Clayton
Revelation 12
John 19:25-27

Although you could legitimately trace the offering of gifts to God as far back as Cain and Abel, the Harvest festival as we know it was a Victorian novelty. The celebration of the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, on the other hand, can be traced back to the celebration of her 'Dormition' in the 4th Century Eastern Church, which reached the Latin Church in the 7th century; and, to add a Diocesan note, the great Medieval cathedral of Chartres is named for the Assumption.

Strangely sad, then, and strange, that so many Anglicans still regard the celebration of the Assumption - and the Immaculate Conception - of Mary as alien, Roman Catholic dogmas. What Protestantism abandoned at the Reformation the Papacy simply confirmed in two dogmatic pronouncements. Only now, at the beginning of the 21st Century, have the Anglican and Roman Catholic positions on Mary been aligned, so that what the Pope affirmed in dogma Anglicans affirm on the basis of scripture, that Mary, being free from sin, is with her beloved Son in what we call 'heaven', acting as our intercessor.

And not a decade too soon. The sad story of our Marian England gone sour is one of the worst blots on the record of our national church and we should celebrate not simply because a terrible wrong has been righted but that a proper balance has been restored to our spiritual consciousness.

There is a great deal to be said for the kind of cool Anglicanism that we find in Cranmer's compilation of the Book of Common Prayer, in the theology of Richard Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity and in the elegant scholarship of the Authorised Version; but such coolness is always in danger of becoming cold. After the passion of the 17th Century Civil War the Church of England of the 18th and early 19th Century was too often precisely the Church depicted in Jane Austen, desiccated, self satisfied, Eurasian, devoid of empathy and passion.

We should be careful not to fall into gender stereotyping by saying that men are incapable of empathy and passion in the way that might have been said 200 years ago, but that still does not invalidate the point that we need to restore a spiritual balance in our Church.

Let me try to take our temperature and look at our own ecclesiological temperament. We are beginning to grow out of the imperialist (neo-Marcionite) vision of God the Father, a cross between a Victorian Lord Spiritual and The Lord Chancellor; and we are steadily moving away from the oddly split image of Jesus as a sentimental and a morally authoritarian figure; and these historical mind sets are being replaced by a Creator God and a fearlessly realistic, non judgmental Redeemer Jesus; and this is finally leaving some mental space for us to consider the place of the Sanctifier in the Trinitarian economy.

And that is where we find room for Mary, not the baroque Mary of blue and gold nor the sentimental Mary of the 19th Century Christmas carol writers but the Mary who is forever associated with the Holy Spirit by whom she conceived the Son of God and from whom she gained new strength in the upper room on the day of Pentecost.

Whereas Jesus is both God and human, Mary is the perfect example of the Spirit dwelling in humanity and she is, therefore, rightly an example for us to follow; but the doctrinal element is simply a way of expressing a deeper, emotional truth. For all that we say about the humanity, as opposed to the maleness, of Jesus, we need a much sharper and softer feminine presence among us. Julian of Norwich was fond of thinking of Jesus in female terms and there is a long tradition of thinking of the Holy Spirit in female terms but, still, we are human and need to worship God through a comprehensive set of human means. The cool male, the canon lawyer, the philosopher, the scientist on the one hand and the struggling, impoverished, denigrated peasant woman on the other both need the passionate force of Mary; and we, who are almost certainly neither, need her too in order to give us a fuller sense of the joy of being human and the promise of the divine.

In a way that we would not dream of doing so in the case of the human/divine Jesus, we feel able to go over the top with Mary; we feel that we may be indulgent, decorative, emotional and even a little sentimental; we behave, quite properly, quite differently with a mother than we do with male members of the family. We all know that there are things in our lives we have told mum but would not dare to tell dad. How often, when younger, did we say: "I've got to tell you but don't tell dad," and our mother would smile, and promise, but then tell dad in her own way in her own time; and she would pretend that she hadn’t told him and he would pretend that she hadn't told him; and our supposed or real infraction would be smoothed over and our inner longings would be absorbed into the family economy.

There is, as we know from the late Middle Ages, a danger of going too far and it was that excess which caused such a terrible Reformation reaction; but we have equally suffered from the danger of trying to establish relations with our God and Saviour without any emotion, on the basis of some bloodless pact with the almighty.

As the world changes with new perceptions of what it means to be male and female, in terms of role, fashion and even reproduction, never have women been more on a knife edge between possibility and degradation. We will need all the help we can get to thread our way through minefields of presence and purpose, provocation and pleasure, purity and practice of womanhood; and we should thank God that we can turn to Mary in our hour of need, restored to us after centuries of theological grandstanding and cynical neglect, so that we may again say: "Hail! Mary."