Sermon: Revd. Ian Spencer

 

A sermon preached by the Revd. Ian Spencer

Readings: Genesis 3:8-15 Luke 1:26-38

"Good morning ! You're beautiful with God's beauty, Beautiful inside and out ! God be with you."

This is how "The Message" translation of the Bible records the greeting of the Angel to Mary in that part of Luke's gospel which usually starts "greetings, you who are highly favoured". I like this translation because it softens the more formal greeting. I'm certain God loved Mary, that she really did share God's beauty inside and out, and that far from being simply an obedient servant to a great king, Mary was held in great fondness by God.

The Church since the earliest times has honoured Mary greatly, seeing something of God's beauty reflected within her, indeed more than that, God's beauty made manifest, made real on earth, through her. It has been and continues to be a source of mystery and joy that God should not only take the form of a human, starting as it were from scratch - as a tiny vulnerable child. But that the child should be born to poverty stricken parents, refugees, and in particular a young peasant girl whose only connection to anything of any importance was at best tenuous - being betrothed to a distant relation of King David' family.

In earthly terms Mary had nothing going for her, nothing to offer. In heavenly terms she was held in such high regard that it would be through her that the world and all its people would come to know the love of God for themselves, as her child Jesus, the Word made flesh, dwelt amongst us. Mary, the young peasant girl from a tiny tribe of no political, strategic or economic significance was to become the means by which the world order would be changed forever. No wonder the Church so greatly honoured her - including this Priory church in Malvern.

I'm indebted to Peter Young for his work on identifying those places and spaces within this building that continue to honour Mary. The more Peter looked, the more he found, and it became clear that Mary doesn't appear in one or two windows, and the occasional statue - like the Christian faith itself this building is infused with her presence.

Above my head in the South Quire, the middle window has Mary beside the cross being upheld by St John as she sags under the emotional weight of watching her son die. Behind me is the magnificent scene of the nativity on the Rearados, in front of me on the floor are tiles that consist of the letter M with a crown above it - the original tiles being made by the Benedictine Monks in honour of Mary - Queen of Heaven. These remind us of their ancient prayer "Salve Regina" - Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy. Above our heads in the North Transept is the window dedicated entirely to Mary - the wonderful Magnificat window given to us by King Henry VII and dated around 1501. This features 11 scenes from Mary's song, the Magnificat, the scenes known as the Joys of Mary they also reminds us of the Monks use of the Rosary in worship - meditating on the Joyful Mysteries.

Of course there was also a Lady Chapel, a very large one over 50 feet long, which says very powerfully how important Mary was to the worshiping community of this place, as does it's destruction during the dissolution. Tantalisingly though, the doorway which led to that space can still be seen in St Annes Chapel - a fitting connection between mother and daughter.

The list is almost endless with Mary appearing in the West window, the great East Window, in the Kempe window, and of course above the Porch entrance. Mary to our left, Mary to our right, Mary above us, Mary below us, Mary at our going out and our coming in. Although Mary is often hardly present at all in our liturgy, worship, prayers and God-talk, she is ever present in the very fabric of this ancient and holy space.

So in recognition of that fact - if you take a look at the picture on the right, you now have Mary before you as well !

The original was painted by Caravaggio in 1605 for use on an altar dedicated St Anne in St Peters basilica, Rome. It wasn't there very long because it was deemed to be rather too outrageous. St Anne is featured on the right, the woman in the middle is tenderly supporting her little red-haired son of about 4 years old, these figures being Mary and Jesus.

(The picture can be seen on this web site.)

Just a cursory glimpse tells us something of why the painting was deemed too shocking - the figures are all stripped of their usual majestic raiment's, St Anne is rather wizened and dull, Mary is wearing a red dress, hitched up for work, and with rather too much bosom showing for good taste. Jesus, rather than being a tiny nude baby is a much bigger nude 4 year old - with red hair.

Where is the Saviour of the world and the Queen of heaven in this picture ? I guess the ancient religious authorities in Jerusalem had a similar problem with the real Mary and son. What could be more outrageous than the Christ being born to a simple peasant girl in the back streets of a no-where town.

There are many interesting theological layers to this painting which we've no time for this evening, but in terms of Mary's role I think there are three significant ones. It's important to notice the action at the bottom of the painting - Mary is crushing the serpents head with her foot, and on top of her foot is the Christ-child`s. Here we have echoes that go right back to our Genesis reading - the serpent representing all that is evil, Eve's children being struck on the heel by the serpent, the children killing the serpent in reply. Here we see Mary protecting the infant Jesus, her foot in direct contact with the serpent, the young Jesus's foot on top of hers.

It reminded me of how young children are sometimes taught how to dance - placing their feet on top of their mothers while being whisked around the ballroom. Is Mary teaching her son something of the reason why he was born, does this point toward that day when Jesus will crush the serpents head from the cross, defeating it's power for ever ?

Interestingly, in St Anne's chapel here at the Priory we have a statue by Mr Robert Pancheri of St Anne teaching Mary to read; as Anne taught Mary, so Mary teaches Jesus, and Jesus goes on to be called teacher by his contemporaries and even now instructs us in the love of God through his Spirit.

Here too we see Mary tenderly steadying her son - her hands lightly held against his body. Mary was there with Jesus at the key moments of his life - at the temple when, as a twelve year old, he sat listening to the teachers at the inauguration of his public ministry, through his first miraculous sign at the wedding in Cana, and of course, at the foot of the Cross.

But the perhaps the greatest thing Mary has to teach us through this painting, is something of the outrageous love of God for humankind. As already mentioned, the painting was removed from St Peter's because it was deemed to scandalous to be seen in such a holy place - but that's what makes good art great isn't it ? It refuses to be ignored or labelled "nice". It engages the body, mind and emotions and insists on a response.

God's love is like that. It isn't a nice love, a soft, comfortable, containable love that we can pick up or put down whenever we feel like it. It's an outrageous love that insists on being heard, it tears kings from their thrones and installs peasants and beggars in their place, it fills the hungry with such bounty that they're brimful, and the rich are sent away empty, it gives to everyone who asks, it turns the other cheek, it walks the extra mile, it loves neighbour as self, it loves its enemies, it feeds the world by offering its very self in bread and wine ------ it enables the humblest of girls to become the greatest of Queens.

The response of the Church to Mary has been very mixed over the years - sometimes it seemed as if Mary was in danger of eclipsing Christ himself, at other times she has been all but ignored, deemed of little or no consequence to the gospel. For the first five hundred years of its history Mary played an important part in the worship and work of this place, and as we have heard, she remains an integral part of the fabric of this place - both in its stonework and windows, and also in the millions of prayers and supplications offered to her by our Christian forefathers.

As we continue to worship Jesus Christ in this place, it's my prayer that we should encounter him here afresh every day, that we might hear and engage with the echoes of those prayers and supplications, and that Mary, full of grace, blessed of all women, may help guide us to her son - that we might know Him the better, and so be changed into his likeness, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Ian Spencer


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