Today is the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At least, in some parts of the Church it is. If you’re Catholic, it is the Feast of the Assumption, and a public holiday in many countries. If you’re Orthodox, it is the Dormition, only many branches of the Orthodox Church observe their Festivals according to the old calendar, so that won’t be until the 28th of this month. But for us Protestants, it is simply a day to celebrate Mary the Mother of God.
We tend not to think very much about her, do we? Possibly in a reaction to what we see as Catholic worship of her, we tend to ignore her most of the year, except possibly for a mention on the Annunciation, on the 25th March, and then this festival, deep in August when many people are away.
As so often happens, the festival long pre-dates Christianity. It has taken over what used to be a day celebrated to the goddess Diana, who, if you remember your Roman mythology, was the goddess of the hunt, and of the Moon, and, incidentally, was celebrated as a virgin goddess.
Hmmm, that’s interesting. We celebrate the Virgin Mary on a feast-day originally dedicated to a pagan virgin goddess. It makes sense, really, when you come to think about it, given that Christianity took over many other pagan festivals. But perhaps it helps to explain why some versions of Christianity do venerate Mary so much. If you were Jewish, you were quite used to thinking of God as Father and Creator, but if you came from a background which worshipped a virgin goddess, Mary obviously provided what you found you were missing. And again, if you were used to worshipping a mother figure, as so many people were, you found something in Mary that perhaps you missed in the Christian depiction of God. Don’t forget, in the olden days you had to convert to Christianity when your ruler did, or the head of your tribe, or whatever, and if the worship you were used to was suddenly no longer provided, you had to make what you could of what you did have!
And then, of course, the Catholic Church being nothing if not practical, formalised a great deal of what was happening, and thought, about Mary into doctrine.... and so it went on. Chicken and egg type of situation, drawing on tradition and practice more than on Scripture. And so, of course, when the Protestants went back to the Bible, discarding most, although not all, traditional theology, Mary rather fell back into the background.
The thing about Mary, though, is that she provides a model for us to copy. In our Bibles, we first meet her as a young girl in Nazareth who says “Yes” to the enormous, impossible task God set for her, to be the mother of the Messiah. Tradition tells us that she was the daughter of Joachim and Anne, and quite possibly had been reared in the Temple, like Samuel, only if she was living in Nazareth when she was 16, I’m not quite sure how that could have been. Unless, of course, as Matthew implies, she was living in Bethlehem, which isn’t that far from Jerusalem. In either event, she was not dedicated to the Temple as a permanent virgin or anything; she was betrothed to Joseph, a local craftsman, who we are told was much older.
I do rather love Luke’s stories about Mary – how one of the things the angel had said to her was that her relation, Elisabeth, was pregnant after all those years. And, as we heard in our reading, Mary rushes off to visit her. Was this to reassure herself that the angel was telling the truth? Or to congratulate Elisabeth? Or just to get away for a bit of space, do you suppose? We aren’t told. But Elisabeth recognises Mary as the mother-to-be of the promised Saviour, and Mary’s response is that great song that we now call the “Magnificat”. Or if it wasn’t exactly that – that may well be Luke putting down what she ought to have said, like Shakespeare giving Henry V that great speech before Agincourt – it was probably words to that effect! I think she was very, very relieved to find the angel had been speaking the truth, and probably did explode in an outpouring of praise and joy!
And later, in Bethlehem, when the shepherds come to visit her, we are told that she “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”
The next time we see Mary is when Jesus is twelve and gets separated from them in the Temple. I spent a lot of time with that story when Emily was a teenager – how Mary and Joseph say to Jesus, “But why did you stay behind? Didn’t you realise we’d be worried about you?” and Jesus goes, “Oh, you don’t understand!” – typical teenager!
We don’t see Joseph again after this – as I said, tradition has it that he was a lot older than Mary, and, of course, he had a very physical job. It wasn’t just a carpenter as we know it – the Greek word is “technion”, which is the same root as our “technician”; if it had to do with houses, Joseph did it, from designing them, to building them, to making the furniture that went in them! And tradition has it that sometime between Jesus’ 12th birthday, and when we next see him at the start of his ministry, Joseph has died.
But we see a lot more of Mary. She is there at the wedding at Cana, and indeed, it’s she who goes to Jesus when they’ve run out of wine. And Jesus says, at first, “Um, no – my time has not yet come!” but Mary knew. And she told the servants to “Do whatever he tells you”, and, sure enough, the water is turned into wine.
There’s a glimpse of her at one point when Jesus is teaching, and he’s told his mother and brother are outside waiting for him, but he refuses to be diverted from what he’s doing. And, of course, it could have been that it was just random people who said they were his relations to try to get closer to him.
We see Mary, of course, weeping at the Cross – something no mother should ever have to do. And Jesus commending her into the care of the “beloved disciple” John. And, finally, we see her in the Upper Room in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came.
Tradition then has it that she moved to Ephesus with John, where she died sometime between three and fifteen years later, and that her body was taken into heaven – or perhaps she didn’t die, but was taken bodily into Heaven first, which is what Catholics believe. In either event, this is what the Catholic Church celebrates today; the Orthodox believe she died, and her body was taken into heaven, which they celebrate as the Dormition.
Well, we Protestants don’t necessarily see her as the Queen of Heaven, or anything like that, but she does make a terrific role model, doesn’t she? She says “Yes” to God; she tells the servants at the wedding to “Do whatever Jesus tells you”. She does what no mother should ever have to do, and watches her Son die one of the most cruel deaths imaginable. And she stays with the disciples afterwards, and is in the Upper Room when the Holy Spirit comes. She stayed with Jesus, all the time. She believed in him, apparently not just because he was the son of her body, although that too, but because He was raised from death, and she remained, one imagines, a faithful disciple until she died.
I’ve been thinking about that a bit this week, as it is the start of Ramadan when, as you know, observant Muslims don’t eat or drink anything during daylight hours. That must be incredibly difficult – I should hate to have to do it. Yet they do it every year, for four whole weeks, as a discipline to help them stay close to God. I find it always says things to me about my own self-discipline and how I need to help myself stay close to God. Nadine was reminding us just last week how easy it is to slip away from one’s first love for God.
But Mary stayed close to her Son, and through Him to His heavenly Father. Mary’s “Yes” to God enabled God to be incarnate, to come to earth as God the Son. Our own “Yes” to God is unlikely to do anything quite so earth-shattering, but on the other hand, who knows where it will lead? We don’t observe Ramadan, and when we do observe a season of fasting, such as in Lent or Advent, we tend not to allow it to impinge on us very much. But we do need to do whatever it takes to stay, like Mary, close to God, and to say “Yes” to whatever we are asked to do. Amen.
Oberstdorf as Austria, 22 May
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