Readings Galatians 4.4-7, Luke 1.46-55
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
We have reached the end of day three of the nationwide PODS epidemic. I refer to post-Olympic droop syndrome, a condition which renders thousands incapable of leading a normal life without frequent medal bulletins and pictures of people weeping in tracksuits. The media are administering daily doses to help bring us down gently: on Monday, reviews of the (slightly underwhelming?) closing ceremony; Tuesday, pictures of overseas teams boarding trains and planes; today, pictures of the same teams arriving at the other end; and analysis of this huge event on each day and from various angles.
One article that took my eye was about the trials of the Olympic parent, a theme already exploited by corporate sponsors Procter and Gamble. You may have seen their adverts: ‘To us they’re Olympic athletes but to their mums they’ll always be kids’. This (no doubt unfairly) makes athletic mums sound like real pains to live with. Do you know this experience? Here you are, a reasonably grown up person. You manage to pay bills, keep the kitchen tidy, not run out of clean underwear too often, and you do it all by yourself, but there’s someone in your family – it might even be your mum – who, whenever you talk to them, can make you feel nine years old again.
Of course, we don’t manage things all by ourselves. God, for some reason, has willed a world to exist in which we can’t. And God doesn’t, either. I guess God could have set things up in such a way that there’d be no need for Mary as a mother to Jesus, but God conceived things otherwise. Mary was an essential means by which the word was made flesh (as John’s gospel says, John 1.14) , and God in Christ found his way into the world, not dropping, James-Bond-like, from heaven, but ‘born of a woman’ (as St Paul puts it, Galatians 4.4), conceived, carried, delivered, fed, nurtured – and let go.
The significance of Mary is there in the gospels – in Luke above all – but they have far too little information on her for popular Christian piety, so in the early generations of the church we find writers busily filling the vacuum by supplying all sorts of biographical bits and bobs, like names for Mary’s parents, to fill out the picture. There is one thing, though, that we don’t find. Generally, if a town or city could do so, it was keen to claim to be the location where some great saint had died or was buried (Rome and St Peter, Durham and St Bede,St Albans and, well, St Alban) but nowhere laid claim to Mary. By the fifth century stories had appeared that Mary had been miraculously preserved from death, at least in the usual sense. The Eastern church spoke of the ‘falling asleep’ – the ‘koimesis’ (Greek) or ‘dormition’ (Latin) – of the Virgin, which is how today’s feast is described in the Anglican 1928 Prayer Book, while other stories spoke of Mary’s body being carried to heaven by angels.
When all this came to official notice, the Pope condemned it. Devotion to these traditions about Mary was so popular, however, that by the 9th century, August 15th, the eastern feast of the Dormition, had been adopted in the West under the title of the feast of the Assumption, the bodily taking up of Mary into heaven. Theologians continued to resist making it into a doctrine, but pressure was building up. Eventually, an 8-million strong petition arrived at the Vatican in 1940 (striking, in the light of other events that year). A decade later, Pope Pius XII at last declared the bodily Assumption of Mary into heaven to be an article of faith. Thus the church responded to this devotion to Mary in the way that Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans, predicts that it will respond to same-sex marriage: first, ignore it; then condemn it; next, make grudging concessions; finally, say it was what you thought all along.
You may see the feast of the Assumption as marking a theoretically observable historical event. You may prefer to see it as expressing some truths of faith. But what truths? Carl Jung the psychoanalyst said it brought the feminine into God and offset the stern, male polarity of Father and Son. For my money, I see it as a moment especially to contemplate the verse in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which forms the gospel reading, that God lifts up the lowly. The ‘lowly’ include those who are oppressed, and they can also be any of us who have a small hand in a great enterprise. Today is the feast of the exaltation of collaboration.
We have seen that none of us manages anything significant all by ourselves, and less privatised cultures confess this openly. You may know the Yoruba saying about it taking a village to raise a child, while the Zulus say, ‘Umuntu ungumuntu ngabuntu’: a person becomes a person because of people. Think of John Donne’s ‘No man is an island’. Think of the lists recited by medal winners of people they owed it all to; or, in one case, the piteous catalogue of all the people the athlete felt he had let down.
Acknowledging this mutual dependence is one of the necessities of life. But today celebrates this necessity as a virtue, a thing to be exalted and magnified. Catherine of Sienna said that God told her, ‘I could well have made human beings in such a way that they each had everything, but I preferred to give different gifts to different people, so they would all need each other.’ And God could have brought about a kind of salvation untouched by human hand, but God preferred to do it in a way that needed a handmaid. And God does still. Therein lies my dignity, your glory, that God waits upon us for so much that he wills to have done in the world, and longs for each one of us to say, with Mary, ‘I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1.38)
The doctrine of the Assumption See Rosemary Radford Ruether, ‘Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ in A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, edited by Alan Richardson and John Bowden, SCM Press, 1983.