Magnificat. Sermon for 14th August 2022
Oh Mary. Mary, Mary, Mary. How many words have been written about you? You’ve been put on a pedestal by some, vilified by others. Become a cypher for how one denomination derides the theology of another. And yet the Bible emphasises that you were ‘parthenou’ – translated as either a young woman or a virgin. Doesn’t that make all this talk of the Holy Spirit ‘overshadowing’ you sound creepy, as though you didn’t have any power?
And then these words of the Magnificat. A beautiful outpouring of poetry. But who really wrote them? Luke? Luke the scientist, the bloke who – ok, so he was concerned about those who were marginalised …. And he does put women front and centre in his gospel narrative. But still, isn’t it again at least a bit worrying that heas a man, as a man with status in the community, that he has put words into your mouth? Especially when your Magnificat echoes the Song of Hannah from back in the Old Testament, from the book of 1 Samuel. And that was written demonstrably later than the events described, and as a song of national thanksgiving, and then given back into the mouth of Hannah as she rejoices that her prayers have been answered and she has at last conceived and given birth to Samuel. Isn’t she being used for political gain? Isn’t she being overshadowed as well?
Is that all we women are? Merely wombs? Is the title ‘Theotokos’ – mother of Jesus – something to be accepted with joy?
Mary, I have struggled with you. But in that struggle I have begun to see an underlying, deeper truth. And through the years I have wrestled with you …. Wrestled as I too conceived and journeyed through two pregnancies. Suddenly finding that my body was no longer my own, and that others had opinions on who I was and what I suddenly would or would not be capable of. Feeling overshadowed by employers who thought I wouldn’t go back to work, or fellow parents who kept on asking when I would be. Knowing the privilege and wonder of new life inside me – feeling the flutterings way before my husband could. Those months of throwing up and yet not wanting people to know that my status had changed. Scared of losing control and of the need for support. And feeling my perspective on life, my priorities, everything in flux.
And Mary, why do I think you wouldn’t be able to write something like the Magnificat? Why do I dismiss you as a powerless young woman? After all, you had grown up in a priestly family. You had seen the miracle of Elizabeth conceiving long after her periods had stopped, seen the six month curve of her stomach even when the angel comes to visit you. You must have been so familiar with the Hebrew scriptures, of the stories of your ancestors and the promises of God to your people. Why do I assume that only a bloke could write something so prophetic, so challenging, so in keeping with the best of a leader?
Of course you high-tailed it to see Elizabeth. Support, and strength. Shared conversation and time to sit and wonder at the situation you both found yourselves in.
And you call yourself a ‘doulos’. A bondservant. It’s a pity the translations have it just as ‘servant’. ‘Doulos’ – that idea of being free to leave the master or mistress and yet choosing to remain a slave.
I was ordained a deacon before becoming a priest. A ‘doulos’ for God and the gospel. It’s what we all are as Christians – through our baptism we have been brought from death to life. Brought into God’s Kingdom of reconciliation. We recognise how much we are loved and cherished by our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. We have the freedom to live as we choose, and yet our response to God’s love is to modify our behaviour, to love our neighbour as ourself, even when it’s the harder way to live. We give up our rights to control our lives in order to experience the beauty of the Spirit working inside us to transform us more and more into the likeness of Christ.
In that context, being ‘overshadowed’ by the Spirit is something to be welcomed. Its not a power thing …. it’s releasing … life-giving. In the same way that we celebrate the elements in the Eucharist. The wafers and the wine ‘overshadowed by the Spirit’s life-giving presence’ become for us Christ’s body and blood. Well, actually it is power – life-giving power. Power to release us from our self-doubt, our self-loathing, the knowledge of just how screwed up we can be.
So Mary, thank you. You were an incredibly inspiring leader. I just wish your style of leadership had rubbed off on more of us here in the church.
I am going to take a leaf out of your book.
Let the Spirit of God overshadow me, if that leads to a confidence to speak truth to power.
Let the Spirit of God overshadow me, if that leads to a certainty that God’s mercy is on me, and the knowledge that I can choose through my actions to participate in bringing in a more just society.
Come on God. Bring it on.