Sunday, 23 December 2012

Plaster statue Mary, or Magnificat Mary?

The Visitation, by James B. Janknegt

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Sunday 23 December 2012, the Fourth Sunday of Advent

11 a.m., Sung Cathedral Eucharist

Micah 5: 2-5a, Psalm 80: 1-8; Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1: 39-55.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

This has been a very short Advent. Once again, I got caught, thinking there are four weeks in Advent, but this year it’s not so. Yes, there are four Sundays in Advent, but there’s just over three weeks. Now that Christmas Day is just around the corner, I’ve been caught again – I have been late in sending a number of Christmas cards, and now I realise they’re probably not going to arrive in the post until well into the New Year.

I kept on ignoring all the advertising from An Post telling me that Christmas begins when I’ve sent the first card. But it sounds so ridiculous ... as though Easter begins when I buy my first Crème Egg.

We have so hyped up the weeks before Christmas that we’ve forgotten to take account of Advent, a time of waiting, a time of preparation, a time of anticipation.

Over these past four Sundays, that time of waiting, preparation and anticipation, we have been preparing ourselves in this cathedral, with the liturgy and the music, with carol services and quiet days, with the Christmas Market and Santa’s grotto in the crypt, with the Advent Wreath and the Crib.

The four candles in a ring around the white candle on the Advent wreath – three purple and one pink candle – have reminded us, week-after-week, of those who prepared us in the past for the Coming of the Christ Child: first the Patriarchs, including Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; then the prophets of the Old Testament; last Sunday, it was John the Baptist; and this morning, the fourth and final candle reminds us of the Virgin Mary.

I find it difficult to accept the Virgin Mary of the plaster cast statues, in her demure blue and white, a strawberry blonde but sanctimonious and pious, with her eyes cast up to heaven.

Last Tuesday, we had a reception here in the crypt for board members, workers and volunteers from the Mendicity Institute. As I brought some of them around the cathedral on tour, it was surprising how many of them raised that old chestnut I so often find being raised by Roman Catholic neighbours, friends and family members.

They are surprised that we have a Lady Chapel. They are surprised that there are icons there telling the stories of key events in the life of the Virgin Mary. They are surprised that there is a statue of Mary at the arch into the Lady Chapel.

I’m sure many of us are familiar with these surprises.

And then I like to say things such as, “Well you know, we pray or sing the canticle Magnificat here in this cathedral every day, at Choral Evensong or at Evening Prayer.” There is surprise that Magnificat is one of the traditional evening canticles for Anglicans.

To paraphrase the surprise, the startled surprise, it’s expressed in words like: “I didn’t think you believe in Mary.”

But the Mary I believe in is not the Mary of those ugly statues that became popular in post-Famine Ireland, almost like some fertility symbol.

The Mary I see as a role model for belief and discipleship is the Mary who sets off in a hurry and a flurry to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the Mary with a gob on her who speaks out of turn when she comes out with those wonderful words we hear in our Gospel reading this morning, the Mary who sings the Canticle Magnificat this morning.

What a contrasting pair these two cousins, Mary and Elizabeth, are!

How much they speak to so many of the dilemmas we have in Irish society today!

Elizabeth is the older woman. She has been married for years. Because of social and family pressures, she had started to become embarrassed that after all those years of marriage she has not become pregnant.

In those days, even in many places to this day, this was an embarrassing social stigma. She had no son to inherit her husband’s lands, his family position, the place of Zechariah as a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem.

She reminds us too of Sarah, who is so embarrassed at the thought of becoming pregnant in her old age that she laughs in the face of the three visitors, she laughs in the face of the living Triune God.

Today, a woman who became pregnant at her stage of life might not laugh. She might quake with fear. She might ask for amniocentesis or an amniotic fluid test.

And yet Elizabeth takes control of her situation. She turns a predicament into an opportunity, a crisis of a pregnancy so late in life into a blessing for us all.

She is so filled with joy when her cousin Mary arrives that as soon as she hears the knock on the door, as soon as she hears the sound of Mary on her doorstep, her joy is infectious, so infectious that even the child in her womb – the child who would grow up to be John the Baptist – leaps with joy in her womb.

Elizabeth’s action is radical. Life is tough enough for her. Her husband has been struck dumb. A dumb priest was unlikely to be able to continue to earn a liturgical living in the Temple in Jerusalem. How was she now going to provide for her child when he was born?

But Elizabeth’s action is even more radical than that.

How many women of her age, and her respectable background, would have been so quick to rush out and welcome her much younger, single and pregnant cousin?

How many women would have been worried: “What if she stays here and has the child here? Would we ever live with the shame?”

How many women might have suggested instead that Mary goes off and finds a home where they can find someone else to take care of her child when he is born?

Instead, Elizabeth welcomes Mary with open arms. Elizabeth’s joyful greeting, “Blessed are you among women ...,” echoes the greeting of the Archangel Gabriel (see Luke 1: 28), “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

It’s almost as if she is saying: “It doesn’t matter what others think of you. It doesn’t matter how other people are going to judge you. I love you.”

Which is precisely what God is saying in the Incarnation, in the precious gift of the Christmas: “It doesn’t matter what others think of you. It doesn’t matter how other people are going to judge you. I love you.”

Mary for her part is such a wonderful, feisty person.

Her she is, what might be described in the red-top tabloid newspapers today as “a gymslip Mum.”

But instead of hiding herself away from her family, from her cousins, from the woman in her family who is married to a priest, she rushes off to her immediately, to share her good news with her.

And she challenges so many of our prejudices and our values and our presumptions today. Not just about gymslip mums and unexpected or unplanned pregnancies, but about what the silent and the marginalised have to say about our values in society today.

And Mary declares:

51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

It is almost like this is the programme or the agenda we can expect when the Christ Child is born.

The Visitation, by James B. Janknegt

What are you expecting when the Christ Child is born this Christmas, when Christ comes among us?

A plaster-cast Mary and a plastic baby-doll Jesus?

What did Mary and Elizabeth expect?

Would they have been so filled with joy if they knew what was going to happen to their sons?

Would Elizabeth have been so filled with joy if she knew that her son was going to end up not just with the lifestyle of John the Baptist, but tend up with having his head chopped off for challenging the kings and rulers and courtiers of the day?

Would Mary have been so filled with joy if she knew that her son was going to end up on the Cross, that the child she now held so tenderly in her womb she would one day cradle as a corpse at the foot of the Cross?

At the execution of their sons, they must have wondered, Mary and Elizabeth: Is that what all this joy and pain were for?

But we know the answer to that question, if they ever asked it, is “No!”

For in the Incarnation, in the joy of Christmas, God comes among us, and God says, in words that I might use to paraphrase our reading from the Prophet Micah this morning and the promise in our Psalm, again and again every Christmas: “It doesn’t matter what others think of you. It doesn’t matter how other people are going to judge you. I love you.”

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


God our redeemer,
who prepared the blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son:
Grant that, as she looked for his coming as our saviour,
so we may be ready to greet him
when he comes again as our judge;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer

Heavenly Father,
you have given us a pledge of eternal redemption.
Grant that we may always eagerly celebrate
the saving mystery of the incarnation of your Son.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain,
whose day draws near,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Cathedral Eucharist on Sunday 23 December 2012.

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