A sermon given at Choral Evensong by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, on the 14th August 2022, celebrating Mary, Mother of our Lord.
In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
We sometimes think of her as demure. “Hail Mary Full of Grace”, our Choir sang as the Introit to this Choral Evensong devoted to her memory. We sometimes think of her as quiet, gentle, clothed in blue, possibly with a halo. Gazing at her new born child in the swaddling bands in that manger, or later in the story …holding his crucified body in her arms. We sometimes think of her as passive. But I’m not so sure about that.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, speaking at the Lambeth Conference, said this:
“The Church is a place of revolution without violence, called to set the world the right way up,” And he described Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, as “a statement of revolution not comfort …the statement of a revolutionary.”
We sing Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, each Sunday evening at Choral Evensong. Different settings by different composers, each shining light on a different interpretation of Mary’s words to her cousin Elizabeth, spoken soon after she found out that she was pregnant. Mary visited Elizabeth who was herself six months pregnant to share her news with her. Have we thought of that as we have sung, listened to, the Magnificat, as Mary speaks of her soul magnifying the Lord… have we thought of Mary as the speaker of the statement of a revolutionary?
We first meet Mary in the gospel accounts in the story of the Annunciation, the meeting of the Angel Gabriel with Mary as told in the Gospel of Luke, as we heard in our second reading this evening. Gabriel encounters Mary and asks her a question. Will you help to set the world the right way up, might be one way of phrasing the question, using Justin Welby’s words. Mary engages robustly with the angel. She is frightened,… we know that because Gabriel tells her not to be afraid. And she wrestles with what she is being asked to do … she ponders, gives weight to, Gabriel’s request. Mary shows great courage in this encounter, courage in the face of her quite reasonable fear.
This story has been portrayed in art over the centuries and I wonder if something of Mary’s radical nature can be found in the text and, perhaps, in artists’ portrayal of this story. My favourite painting of the meeting of Gabriel with Mary is found in the National Gallery in London. The artist is Fra Filippo Lippi.
A number of years ago, we went on a holiday to England and I returned with a treasure, as one often does on holiday. This treasure was a book. We visited the National Gallery in London and there this book caught my eye. The book is called Painting the Word. Its subtitle is Christian Pictures and their Meanings. And the book is written by a priest and Biblical Scholar, The Dean of Christ Church Oxford, John Drury. The book opens exploring paintings about gazing – in a chapter entitled “Kind regards”, John Drury spends time with paintings that have subjects regarding, gazing at, something of meaning and then he follows the story of Christ’s Nativity, Baptism, ministry, Passion and Resurrection – all through paintings, paintings from one particular gallery in one particular city, the National Gallery in London.
John Drury devotes part of his chapter on the Annunciation to the painting that I love with that title by Fra Filippo Lippi which was painted in the middle of the 15th century. Fra Filippo Lippi’s Annunciation explores Mary’s question to Gabriel “How can this be?” The painter has the audacity, really, to illustrate his idea of the answer to Mary’s question “How can this be?” How can it be that Mary, a virgin, can conceive and bear in her womb a son? How can it be that Mary, a young woman, can help to set the world the right way up? We know well Gabriel’s answer to her question:
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you …For nothing is impossible with God.”(Luke 1:35,37)
Fra Filippo Lippi shows us in his painting how he thinks this miracle takes place. The painting is in two parts. On the left we find Gabriel in an enclosed garden, outside the house, kneeling in conversation with Mary who is seated on the right side in a courtyard. They speak across a low wall, placed on the wall is a vase of lilies, lilies for Mary. At the back of the painting are the bottom steps of a staircase leading upwards. The staircase leads to God. John Drury explains: “From the middle of a cloud, [at the top of a staircase], representing the overshadowing in the text, God’s hand reaches down in blessing, dispatching the dove which drops steeply down the staircase to the level of Mary’s womb …”
“The dove is closer to Mary’s body than is customary in Annunciation pictures – it was usually put in the air above her head – and there is a new intimacy. [The dove hovers close to Mary’s body]. But there is still a gap. What happens there? The answer will resolve Mary’s great question ‘How?’
Careful inspection [of the painting] reveals a spray of golden particles issuing from the dove’s beak. At their centre, one little jet of them carries forward horizontally and meets – contact at last! – an answering spray [of golden particles] from Mary’s womb issuing through a tiny slit in her [dress]”.
Fra Filippo Lippo illustrates the answer to Mary’s question “How?” in his painting. Visually, he shows how the incarnation is done. God’s Spirit, pictured as a dove sends God’s question to Mary in golden particles of light. Mary’s reply, more golden particles of light, is pictured by the painter as emitting from her womb. Mary’s “Let it be with me according to your word,” meets God’s request. God is made incarnate in the world through this encounter. God asks a young girl, “will you?” and she replies “yes.” It is a two-way conversation. The painting suggests that Mary’s role in the incarnation is of the same significance as the role of God. Mary’s courage that day met with God’s longing to set the world the right way up. And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. After all, Jesus’ mother was full of grace and truth.
Mary spoke of God’s longing for the healing of creation in the words of the Magnificat, those words of ‘revolution not comfort’. As she speaks these words, Mary identifies herself with the lowly, foreshadowing the raising up of the lowly and the fulfillment of God’s promises in her son Jesus. She speaks of God’s redeeming work, not to happen in the future but as having already been fulfilled.
And his mercy is on them that fear him: throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm:
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.
Her faith is such that she believes God’s ‘turning the world the right way up’ to already being acted out. And acted out in a new way. As one scholar put it, ‘The overthrow of the powerful has not come about through the mounting up of the weak in rebellion but through the weakness of a child. [The Magnificat] describes the dramatic reversal that is the signature of God’s acts. … And more than predictions of what is to come, the Magnificat praises God for the goodness of God’s nature and redemption…”
Mary. A young girl of extraordinary courage, deep faith in God. A young girl whose life surely steeped in the scriptures, for the Magnificat owes much to Hannah’s song, lives out that faith in her response to God. A young girl who helped set the world the right way up. May we pray that she be with us, in the words of the beautiful aria that Jess sang:
Turn then, our advocate,
your eyes of mercy towards us.
And after this our exile
show to us the blessed fruit of your womb,
Merciful, holy, sweet virgin Mary.
 John Drury Painting the Word p49.
 Ibid., p52.
 R Alan Culpepper The Gospel of Luke in NIB p55.