Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Bringing down the powerful,
lifting up the lowly and filling
the hungry with good things

The Virgin Mary with the Crown of Thorns in a window in a church in Bansha, Co Tipperary … without the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, there would have been no birth of Christ, and then no Good Friday and no Crucifixion, no Easter and no Resurrection (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Tuesday 8 September 2020,

The Birth of Blessed Virgin Mary


11 a.m.: The Eucharist, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

Readings: Isaiah 61: 10-11; Psalm 45: 10-17; Luke 1: 46-55.

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

Today is the Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is one of her few festivals that is provided for in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland. The others are the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March) and the Feast of the Visitation (31 May), but not the Dormition or the Assumption, the commemoration of her death (15 August).

During my ‘road trip’ around the southern half of Ireland over the last two weeks, I was surprised how many parish churches or former in the Church of Ireland along that route are dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Along that route there are, or were, churches named Saint Mary’s in Killarney, Co Kerry; Mallow and Youghal, Co Cork; Julianstown, Co Meath; Bunclody, Enniscorthy, New Ross and Old Ross, Co Wexford; Clonmel, Nenagh, Thurles and Tipperary in Co Tipperary; Kilmeadan and Dungarvan, Co Waterford; Shinrone, Co Offaly; Carlow, Dublin and Kilkenny.

And then we were back in Co Limerick, back to Saint Mary’s Cathedral, and Saint Mary’s here is Askeaton.

Had we gone off our planned routes, there would have been countless more churches throughout the Church of Ireland dedicated to Saint Mary or the Blessed Virgin Mary.

If anyone thinks we give little attention to her in the Church of Ireland, they would have learned a different lesson from us on this ‘road trip.’

The full liturgical provisions in the Book of Common Prayer, which we are using this morning, presume this festival will be celebrated with the Eucharist today [8 September] in cathedrals and parish churches throughout the Church of Ireland.

This feast day is being marked as the Patronal Festival in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, with a meeting of the chapter this morning.

Of course, the Gospels do not record the Virgin Mary’s birth. The earliest known account of her birth is found in a text from the late second century, in which her parents are named as Saint Anne and Saint Joachim.

Traditionally, the Church commemorates saints on the date of their death. The Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist are among the few whose birth dates are commemorated.

The reason for this is found in the singular mission each had in salvation history, but traditionally also because they were also seen as being holy in their birth – Saint John was believed to be sanctified in the womb of his mother, Saint Elizabeth, before his birth (see Luke 1: 15).

In the same way, we respect that Christ first came to dwell among us in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

This morning’s Gospel reading includes the words of the canticle Magnificat:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed


When people ask me about our differences, what we believe in, I sometimes hear people declare, without waiting to hear what I have to say, ‘But you don’t believe in the Virgin Mary.’

‘Well, yes we do,’ I reply. ‘How else do you think we believe Christ was born.’

I like to point out that the canticle Magnificat, which is part of our Gospel reading this morning, is traditionally associated with Evensong, sung every evening in cathedrals and many churches in the Anglican Communion across the world.

Differences of opinion about the Virgin Mary were not divisive arguments at the Reformation in the 16th century.

Martin Luther emphasised that the Virgin Mary was a recipient of God’s love and favour, accepted the Marian decrees of the ecumenical councils and the dogmas of the Church, and held to the belief that the Virgin Mary was a perpetual virgin and the Theotókos, the Mother of God.

Luther accepted the view of the Immaculate Conception that was popular then, over three centuries before Pope Pius IX, and he believed in the Virgin Mary’s life-long sinlessness. Although he pointed out that the Bible says nothing about her Assumption, he believed that the Virgin Mary and the saints live on after death.

Luther approved keeping Marian paintings and statues in churches, said ‘Mary prays for the Church,’ and advocated the use of a portion of the ‘Hail Mary.’

In ecumenical dialogue, the Church of Ireland has pointed out that in recognising the role of Mary in the incarnation, we are following the Council of Ephesus (431), which used the term Theotókos (‘God-bearer’) to affirm the oneness of Christ’s person by identifying Mary as the Mother of God the Word incarnate. The Church of Ireland also stated that ‘in receiving the Council of Ephesus and the definition of Chalcedon, Anglicans and Roman Catholics together confess Mary as Theotókos.’

It acknowledged that the full significance of her role as the Theotókos or God-bearer ‘has sometimes been lacking in the consciousness of some Anglicans.’

Sometimes in the Church of Ireland, however, we fall back on culturally defensive rather than theological ways of thinking and responding to what our neighbours say about the Virgin Mary and how they portray her.

But the Anglican tradition of singing Magnificat at Evensong, and the names of our cathedrals and many churches remind me of a message that she proclaims in our Gospel reading that challenges the rise of far-right racism and populism in the world today:

‘He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.’

Saint Andrew of Crete writes: ‘This day is for us the beginning of all holy days. It is the door to kindness and truth.’

Indeed, without the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, there would have been no birth of Christ, and then no Good Friday, no Crucifixion, no Easter, no Resurrection.

And there are only 108 days to Christmas.

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

Saint Anne with her young daughter, the Virgin Mary, holding the Christ Child, in a fresco by the icon writer Alexandra Kaouki of Rethymnon in Crete

Luke 1: 46-55 (NRSVA):

46 And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
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.’

The words of the canticle Magnificat carved on the wooden screen at the west end of the monastic church in Mount Melleray Abbey, Cappoquin, Co Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Liturgical Colour: White

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
who looked upon the lowliness of the Blessed Virgin Mary
and chose her to be the mother of your only Son:
Grant that we who are redeemed by his blood
may share with her in the glory of your eternal kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given:
and his name is called the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 7)

Preface:

You chose the Blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son
and so exalted the humble and meek;
your angel hailed her as most highly favoured,
and with all generations we call her blessed:

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Almighty and everlasting God,
who stooped to raise fallen humanity
through the child-bearing of blessed Mary:
Grant that we who have seen your glory
revealed in our human nature,
and your love made perfect in our weakness,
may daily be renewed in your image,
and conformed to the pattern of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Blessing:

Christ the Son of God, born of Mary,
fill you with his grace
to trust his promises and obey his will

A traditional Greek icon of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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