Reflection – Iestyn Henson
Something about Mary
This then is the final part of our series looking at the women who are listed in the genealogy list of Matthew’s Gospel: Mary the mother of Jesus. When Phil asked me whether I was happy to take this on, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, there is so much material to draw on, so much that has been said, sermons and analysis alike – I’d have no problem finding material to share with you. On the other hand, there is so much material to draw on, so much that has been said, sermons and analysis alike – where on earth do I start?
I mulled this over during a 9-mile run the second weekend of November – it was the day Biden secured the White House, so one I’ll remember well. I thought that my ‘3 point sermon’ could look at aspects of Mary – starting with the Biblical accounts, then comparing that with what little we know, and a little more we can assume about her historically, and then finally talking about the traditions of the church which grew from these two things. But as I ran, first up towards Ynysybwl, and then back down to Ponty, before heading home via the Taff Trail, I realised that it would make more sense to reverse the order, and so that’s what we’ll do.
We’ll begin by drawing a link to the service we shared on All Saints Sunday at the start of November and look at the traditions of the church which elevate Mary to not only sainthood, but the ‘Queen of Heaven’. We’ll then take a look at how or why that special status links to history, before finally asking how or whether that history in turn is backed up by Biblical accounts.
I want to make it very clear right at the outset – a spoiler if you like – that my own conclusion is that Mary is indeed a very special individual in the Jesus story. As we have shared over the last month, Matthew mentioned these women for very good reason; likewise, Luke’s focus on Mary is important, and we’ll touch on that too. I will also conclude that the ‘special’ is not about special-different, but special-one-of-us. We’re going to introduce Mary with the Advent material from Luke Chapter One:
Reading: Luke 1: 26-56. read by Jan
Mary the Mother of God, blessed from start, more blessed still when hearing that she is to bear a son, and the most blessed of all, when it comes to the Church’s understanding of her sainthood. And so, that’s where we start – the Saint above all saints, venerated by both Catholic and Orthodox traditions like none other. Mary – this Mary – is the one who is closest to God, whose intercessions are the most powerful, whose appearances to the faithful are most documented across the ages. And I think that it’s this Mary through whom Christianity has acknowledged the feminine in the divine – yes, to the point that Mary is faithfully and piously worshipped throughout Catholic and Orthodox Christendom. Indeed, for the sake of accuracy and cross-cultural reference this morning, we must note too that Mary is the most revered of all women in Islam (and is in fact mentioned more often in the Quran than in the Bible – but we’ll come to that later). Mary’s credentials as Saint, as a Holy person, blessed by God and venerated by God’s people, is second to none; in truth, none of the other saints come even close.
As well as ‘Saint, Mary has been given the title of ‘Queen of Heaven’; in many images, icons or statues, you will see not only the halo of the saint, but quite distinctly, a crown of gold. For those of us in the protestant traditions, this may seem somewhat odd, but it may be traced all the way back to the First Council of Ephesus in the year 431. Still, that was 400 years after her life, and was primarily, it seems, recognition of having been the ‘mother of the King of Israel’ and thus, herself, royal. Interestingly, formal Catholic doctrine on this was only pronounced in the middle of the 20th Century, so for hundreds of years, it was an informal designation, not a formal one.
How then did this ‘special status’ – this particularly prominent manifestation of sainthood come about? Surely there must be history – or historical tradition at least – which is on a par with that of Saint Peter, the first Bishop of Rome, and St Paul, apostle to the Gentiles?
Well, no, not really. There are some very ancient prayer texts which make mention of Mary, and there were churches dedicated to her from the 4th century, give or take. But, the Bible apart, biographical references to Mary did not start appearing until the 7th or 8th Centuries. Other traditions of Mary’s history appear to have grown from conjecture. For example, John’s Gospel records that Mary went to live with ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’; from the assumption that this was John the Gospel writer himself, and from early records which say that John then went to Ephesus, the tradition arose that Mary too must have gone to Ephesus. Back in the early 19th Century, a German nun had a vision of a house in Ephesus, one which was duly found. The house has been a place of pilgrimage and a shrine to Mary ever since. But there is no ‘proof’ – not a shred of ancient or modern day evidence, that this is where Mary lived with John in New Testament times. Indeed, since scholars are now much less convinced that John was the author of the Gospel, let alone the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ – for now, the whole tradition can remain only that: tradition.
So if Mary’s prominence was not historical, it’s almost certain that we can trace it to theology, and particularly the theologies around the nativity and the incarnation of Jesus. The major Catholic doctrinal teaching about Mary certainly focuses on these things: the immaculate conception – that is Mary conceived without sin; the mother of God; the virgin birth; and perpetual virginity – that is that Mary remained a virgin her whole life. The other doctrines relate to Mary’s death, and her assumption – her body was taken to heaven whole at the point of death.
You’ll have to forgive me for my bluntness now, but it’s easy to see that these doctrines are largely to do with the body, about sex, and about the notions that things of the flesh are considered inherently sinful. St Augustine was one of the first to articulate them in the 4th Century, but these ideas have been around a very long time! In simple terms, Jesus could not possibly be the consequence of anything sinful, so Mary must have been without sin, and a virgin too. Prophesies and translations may be adapted to suit – Isaiah’s young girl becomes a virgin in Matthew’s Gospel quote – and other Biblical evidence, such as the mention of Jesus’s wider family, can be explained away as reference to a non-nuclear family. The flesh however, must be rejected; from birth to death, Mary is and must be without sin.
Now, before we go on to consider some New Testament references, I want us to just to pause a second and recall the reflections of the past month, the stories of the other women in the genealogy of Jesus, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. None of those women were squeaky clean were they? None of them conform to the idea that God can and will only work in and through those who are on the right side of society or religious norms. For none of them was sex and the flesh an issue – let alone sex which wrapped up prostitution, treachery, murder and seduction.
The Church’s treatment of Mary was to put her on a pedestal. The Church’s treatment of the other four was to ignore the evidence of their less-than-perfect stories despite their place also in the story of Jesus’s ancestry.
I’d like to suggest however that Mary is much closer to the other women than this dichotomy would suggest. My thinking isn’t new, it’s not particularly radical either, but I think it’s a very necessary and especially ‘Good News’ interpretation of the Mary we get from the Jesus story.
Leaving aside the nativity narratives, Mary is mentioned – how many times? It’s no more than half a dozen. Compare this with the Quran, in which Mary is not only mentioned 70 times, but is the only woman named at all!
We might be tempted to argue that this relative lack of reference in the New Testament indicates that Mary was not, on balance, considered to be one of the main characters, outside the nativity narrative. Certainly, Joseph the Carpenter, is not mentioned again – not even to report that he has died, an assumption which has been held by the church. I’m minded to think though that Mary’s relative ‘airbrushing’ from the story is typical of the treatment of many women in the New Testament story – a team of Jesus’s disciples who were more prominent in actuality, but who sometimes struggle to emerge from the page, because of the patriarchal world.
The stories and references to Mary that we do have however suggest that she was very much a central part of the Good News. To begin with, the song that she sings, and which we have already heard this morning, foreshadows Jesus’s own manifesto, whether you take that from Luke’s account of his early preaching in the Synagogue, or Matthew’s collection of the Beatitudes. Mary’s Good News is not for Royalty – God brings down rulers from their thrones; it’s not for the high and mighty either – the proud are scattered; it’s Good News for the poor and the hungry – the rich and well fed get sent away. Blessed are the poor; blessed are the meek; blessed are the hungry. ‘I have come to preach good news to the poor, set the prisoners free, give sight to the blind…’ says Jesus. Mary is right there alongside Jesus; as Jesus preaches, you can hear Mam say ‘Da iawn ‘machgen, that’s my boy’.
Mary though is also right there alongside us. In the versions of the Jesus story we have inherited, we see her at weddings, when not everything goes to plan (John 2). We see her when there’s a family issue to talk about and Jesus has to point out that God has no favourites (Matthew 12). We see her at the execution of her son, at death (John 19). But we also see her in new life, culminating with the birth of the church (Acts 1).
And now, in advent, we are seeing her during pregnancy and into childbirth. An unmarried teenage mother, almost certainly ostracised, out and about on the road, when custom would have her confined, giving birth in the most desperate and unhealthy situations, fearful for the life of her young child, to the point that eventually they become refugees. Mary’s life, as given to us in the Christian scriptures, encompasses all the hardships, all the difficulties, all the messiness, all the pain and grief, all the scandal; you name it, and Mary is there. Oh yes, she has far more in common with the other women of the genealogy than we could ever have imagined.
You see, it’s not Mary’s difference which makes her special, it’s not her uniqueness in the story or the claims of tradition that she is a woman wholly different to any other who has lived. Mary was blessed, of that there is no doubt; nor is there any doubt that this blessing does indeed make Mary special indeed. But the Biblical evidence, from nativity to Pentecost, is that Mary has no monopoly on blessing, but rather illustrates an affirmation of God’s blessing on us all.
Mary is special not because she is different; she is special because for God, we are all special, we are all loved, and we are all blessed. Now, and always. Amen
A Prayer of Intercession – by Mary Robins read by Sonia
As we come before you on this second Sunday in Advent we think of the young mother- to- be, Mary, who, over two thousand years ago, was awaiting, perhaps impatiently, the birth of her son. At the same time, the world in which she lived was waiting for the Saviour who would deliver them from their oppressors.
Advent is a time of waiting, and just as Mary was waiting then, so we are waiting now. Like Mary, we are also living in troubled and uncertain times, overshadowed by the threat from a deadly virus, yet, there is much to be thankful for.
In recent days we have heard of the successful development of several vaccines, which gives us the hope that in the near future a more normal way of life will be restored. We give thanks for the skill, dedication and unrelenting determination of the research staff, from many countries, who achieved this breakthrough in such a short time.
Daily, on our television screens we see graphs and figures which illustrate the serious impact that this virus is having on our country. Sometimes these statistics take on a more stark reality, because we know of friends and neighbours who are included in them.
So, we pray for all those who are in hospital, or in care homes, and also for the medical staff who care for them.
We pray for those who have lost loved ones at this time. Grant that they may feel your comforting arms around them and that they may find consolation in your presence.
We pray for your church throughout the world and for our own churches here in Pontypridd. We acknowledge, and are grateful for, all the work that has been done in these past months, to keep us together, and to maintain a presence in the community.
We hope and pray that in the near future we may once again be able to meet, and to share fellowship as we once did.
We pray for peace in our world; that conflicts may cease, so that what is now broken may be healed. In the words of the old hymn “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me”.
As we journey with Mary through the remaining days of Advent, in addition to peace, we also seek the hope and love that is so symbolic of Christmas. As once again we wait for Christ’s coming let us rethink what it means for us, and for all mankind.
In the words of a well-known Christmas hymn:
Love shall be our token
Love be yours and love be mine
Love to God and all men
Love for plea and gift and sign
May we receive your blessing as we continue this journey together Amen