Sunday 20th December 2015
Year C, The Forth Sunday of Advent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Luke 1.39-55

Although it is difficult to assess such things precisely, in the Medieval period, from the crowning of the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne on Christmas Day 800, to the outbreak of the Reformation in the first part of the 16th Century, England was the most Marian country in Latin Christendom; and as the implications of the doctrine of Transubstantiation worked their way through the Eucharistic liturgy, cutting the people off from the miraculous act performed by the Priest behind a rood screen, Marian devotion, following England via France, grew even stronger throughout Western Europe so that, at the point of the Reformation it was easy to caricature late Medieval Christianity as worshipping Mary instead of worshipping God. Meanwhile, in the Eastern Christian Church the veneration of Mary was unwaveringly strong from the Third Century when the idea of her as the Theotokos, or "God carrier" came into vogue.

And the irony of the English Medieval tradition is that there was no major country after the Reformation where Mary was more traduced than in England: her statues smashed, devotions to her abolished, her name written out of the liturgy, with one marked exception, although she was, of course, retained in the inviolable texts of the Creeds. And although this reversal of emphasis was theologically coherent, it did great damage because it took place in parallel with a de-mystification of the Eucharist, leaving mid-16th Century Anglicanism parched and pinched, deprived both of mystery and of sympathy.

This history of the birth of the Church of England at least in part explains our discomfort with Mary, the Mother of God, even today, not least because of our vagueness over the Credal doctrine of the "Communion of Saints". English attitudes have also been further complicated by The Roman Catholic Church's doctrinal position on Mary as being born without sin - the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception - and the consequentially logical doctrine of her Assumption into Heaven. In other words, if you believe that Mary never committed a sin and you believe that people without sin get to heaven, then the two doctrines logically fit together.

But I mentioned an exception to the general rule of Mary's disappearance from the Liturgy and that is her powerful presence in the Magnificat, the strongest ethical statement in the Gospels not uttered by Jesus himself. And I wonder whether the doctrinal disputes about Mary are something of an evasion or a displacement activity because the text of the Magnificat is so direct and clear that it makes me wonder how so many people who claim to take the Bible literally as the Word of God turn out to be socio-economically conservative. Although the grammar of the prayer can look a bit clumsy, what it is saying, in essence, is that in coming to earth as the Son of God, Jesus has altered the terms of trade between the powerful and the rich on the one hand and the weak and poor on the other; and this is not just in spiritual terms, although it is vital to recognise that the Good News of salvation is impartial, because the teaching of Jesus on socio economic justice as a critical part of establishing God's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven is foreshadowed in the Magnificat.

We might have thought for a time, between, say, 1914 and 1970 that, as a consequence of the two world wars of the late industrial age, that the state would take care of the poor and meek and leave us comfortable folk to get on with our own lives, simply paying as little tax as we could legally get away with. But the picture is complicated now by two major factors: the first is the steady decline, already under way and planned to go further, in the role of the state in caring for the poor and weak; and the second is that the horizon of our responsibility, since the beginning of the industrial Revolution in the late 18th Century, has expanded from the place where we live to the whole world. And so we find ourselves in a complex dynamic where in some situations we are individually and collectively poor and weak but in others we are powerful and rich: we are dwarfed by the power and wealth of global corporations but we are ourselves rich and powerful compared with the impoverished people in river deltas and on small islands threatened with inundation because of our easy comforts.

To think such things on the basis of Mary's prayer, derived from the Prayer of Hannah in the First Book of Samuel, is to take Mary out of the sentimental and the doctrinal mire we have often cast her into, for what she says stands alongside Jesus' Sermon on the Plain, also in Luke, a much more directly challenging set of statements than the more popular Sermon on The Mount in Matthew. Again, I suspect that, although the statements in Matthew are more beautifully couched, the widespread preference for them is because they are less direct than those in Luke, an oddity, really, when we think of how direct Matthew is in his writing and how generally more emollient Luke's style is.

And so, on this Sunday before Christmas, when we await the birth of the Son of God in the form of a vulnerable little baby, it is a good time for us to consider Mary's words in the Magnificat and recognise where we are weak and where we are strong, where we are poor and where we are rich; to consider where our individual and collective responsibility lies for the state of the world in which we live. And that means getting away from inherited nostrums and current slogans and looking at the evidence. There is nothing intrinsically virtuous about one political party or policy or another, what counts is what works in the precise circumstances in which we find ourselves; but as we are now, there is a great deal  that is not working for the poor, here or anywhere.

We might be tempted to view Mary's Prayer as merely aspirational but we must remember, above all else, that it was delivered within the context of her recent submission to the will of God in consenting to bear the Christ Child; social and economic justice is not separate from but intrinsic to her obedience.