Tuesday 22 December 2020

Was Mary ‘meek & mild’? – a reflection on Luke 1:46-55

Elizabeth greets Mary

The readings from St Luke’s Gospel set for this week as we approach Christmas are all about St Mary. Today’s reading, which we’ve just heard, is her great hymn of praise to God which we know as the Magnificat.

Mary, pregnant with Jesus, has travelled to a hill town to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is 6 months pregnant with John the Baptist. ‘When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb … For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord”’.

And Mary responds with the Magnificat.

Most of us, I suppose, have grown up with a rather mawkish image of Mary as meek and mild, a demure teenager who couldn’t say boo to a goose. This has been reinforced in art, and in many of our favourite hymns and carols. ‘Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head’, we sing in one hymn. ‘Mary was that mother mild’, we sing in another. Gentle Mary – mild, meek, the handmaid of the Lord, head bowed in reverence. Can’t you see her there in so many paintings, stained glass windows, and Christmas cards?

But this is not the real Mary that we meet in her own words. The Magnificat is no sweet lullaby - it is a battle cry, bold and defiant. Secure in her faith in God as her Saviour, she cries out ‘From now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name’. She is certain that God cares for the poor, the powerless, the hungry, those with least in society, as he cares for her: ‘He has shown strength with his arm; 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’.

We short-change Mary when we idealise her as meek and mild. The real Mary was a fighter, fierce for God’s justice and righteousness. This is how we should remember her, and why we should revere her.

Sunday 13 December 2020

Rejoice, pray, give thanks

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan church on Sunday 13th December 2020, the 3rd Sunday of Advent,
Guadete Sunday.

In today’s Gospel reading (John 1:6-8, 19-28), we hear that John the Baptist ‘came as a witness to testify to the light’.

This light is the light of Christ. It is the light of the goodness and love of God. It is right that we should rejoice in it.

‘Gaudete’ means ‘Rejoice’ in the Latin language, and this 3rd Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday, from the initial word of the Latin introit, or hymn for the day.

‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you’.

In these words from today’s Epistle reading (1Thessalonians 5:16-24), St Paul encourages the Christians in Thessalonica to hold fast to their faith in the goodness and love of God – and you and me too, thanks to their preservation of his words.

And Isaiah too testifies to the goodness and love of God in today’s OT reading (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11), through beautiful, heart-stirring poetry:

The Lord God

‘has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners.’

It is powerful stuff, isn’t it? The Israelites to whom Isaiah is speaking would have drunk in his words. They had been living in exile in Babylon for many years. They know all about oppression and captivity. In a few years time, the armies of Cyrus, king of Persia would conquer Babylon, and the Israelites, or some of them, would be allowed to return home.

Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
   and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
   that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed’,

says Isaiah.

‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances’.

These words of Paul echo down the centuries to us. But let us be very clear just what a hard thing Paul is asking. To rejoice, pray and give thanks when all is well is one thing. But always? Without ceasing? In all circumstances? What of the man who has just lost his job? What of the single mother who cannot pay the fuel bill? What of the husband or wife whose life’s partner has just died of Covid-19, died alone? Isn’t Paul asking the impossible of them?

When everything seems to go against us it is very easy to become obsessed with our own misery, to fall into clinical depression. For those who have been there - as I have been there - life is very bleak, at least for a time. To be told to pull your socks up is worse than useless – it makes you feel worse. Medication helps many people, but at its root depression is a spiritual disease, I think. It is about feeling cut off from the goodness and love of God – as Jesus himself felt when said on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Depression starts to be cured when, for all our troubles, we begin to see things to rejoice over, things to pray for, things to be thankful about.

For this reason, Paul’s words are wise advice, both for the Christians in Thessalonica, and for all of us who believe in the goodness and love of God. Quite apart from the theology, they are a tool to help us resist depression.

You might like this analogy: If you stand with your back to the sun you see your own shadow, but if you turn to face it your shadow is behind you.

‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances’.

It is different, of course, for those who cannot for whatever reason experience God’s goodness and love. Paul’s words won’t help them directly, only make them feel worse. But we can help them, you and I can help them, by showing through our love and care for them, that there are things to rejoice at, things to look forward to, things to be thankful for.

The coming Christmas season will be psychologically difficult for many people. Society demands that everyone should feel jolly, when many don’t feel jolly at all. And this year for many it is made even worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. Let us make a special point of letting those who have lost a loved one in the last year know that we are thinking of them. Let us keep an eye out for our neighbours who are lonely, old, or finding life difficult, and show them love and support if they need it. And let us give as generously as we can to those agencies who are trying to relieve the shocking poverty too many are living with.

God sends us, as he sent Isaiah:

‘to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
   to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
   the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit’

I shall finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:

Eternal God,

you sent John the Baptist

to prepare the way for the coming of your Son:

grant us wisdom to see your purpose

and openness to hear your will,

that we too may prepare the way for Christ

who is coming in power and glory

to establish his rule of peace and justice;

through Jesus Christ our Judge and our Redeemer,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever. Amen