St. Mary the Virgin
The Rev’d Ann Broomell
August 16, 2015
The year after my ordination, I was privileged to be able to spend a few days on retreat at West Malling, an abbey of cloistered Anglican sisters on the what was the pilgrimage route to Canterbury Cathedral. I still can hear their voices as they sang the same words from Psalm 34 at the beginning of each office
Oh, magnify the Lord with me
Come, let us worship together.
Our prayer that we might magnify God is woven throughout the Book of Common Prayer. The first canticle of Morning Prayer repeats the phrase praise him and magnify him forever ten times. In the suffrages of Rite I we pray: Day by day we magnify thee. Today’s Gospel reading, the Magnificat, is said each night at Evening Prayer. In the beautiful Collect for Purity with which we begin each Mass, we pray with the same words to God that: We may perfectly love Thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name…
The words are familiar to us, have you ever considered what exactly we pray to be able to do again and again? What is it to magnify the Lord? Is this something that rolls off our lips without our considering what it really means?
In Hebrew Scripture we can see that to magnify the Lord, to magnify God’s holy name is to proclaim, to exalt God. And we hear in the Gospels that Mary did this with her very being. Mary exalted God when she said yes to a request with life-long consequences she hardly could have understood. Mary exalted God when she risked being stoned to death conceiving a child out of wedlock. One might say that for her to say yes to God and no to her culture made no sense. She acted out of faith, out of belief rather than reason, and in her actions at that time and throughout her life, she magnified the Lord. She exalted, she proclaimed the Lord as she said yes to God’s request.
Mary trusted in God’s call and God’s word. Even as her life as the mother of Jesus became very difficult, she was steadfast to that call. For you and me to identify with her and with her response can give us security as we live in the life to which we are called, continuing to discern that call, continuing to be faithful to God..
The Mary of Holy Scripture was probably in her early teens--old enough to marry by the standards of her day, but incredibly young by our standards. Her education was surely limited to the chores and responsibilities of a woman and mother in the home. Of course, she didn’t read. She had no exposure to the world beyond her village. Actually, in that time, people didn't have a sense of themselves as separate from the village where they lived from childhood through adulthood. By our standards she was a simple, uneducated child. Yet, she found the courage to say yes to God.
At Emery House the country retreat house of the Society of St. John the Evangelist there is a statue of Mary. It shows her with her hands held in prayer, her features perfectly even, her eyes downcast. She has a passive, infinitely peaceful and obedient face. It’s a lovely statue, but it always made me just a bit uncomfortable. I don’t think an innocent with that type of passivity could have had the courage and strength to risk all that Mary risked to bear Jesus, to flee to Egypt with a newborn baby, to stand at the foot of the cross. What strikes me about her is her ability to say yes and then to trust again and again in an uncertain unknowable future.
Many of us here revere Mary, the Blessed Virgin Mother of Jesus. We ask her to intercede for us with Jesus. We pray the Angelus and ask that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
It’s important though that we don’t so focus on the magnificence of God and perfection of Mary that we think that we have to be perfect to be one who truly magnifies the Lord in our world. It can be a sin, something that stands between us and God, if we think that somehow we have to be especially worthy before we can bring God into the world.
All we know about Mary tells us this isn’t true. God didn't ask the most experienced mother to bear the Christ. God didn't ask the most powerful woman in the village either. God asked a simple, inexperienced, poverty stricken, powerless, very young woman to be the one to bear God, to bring the Christ into our world.
Mary's yes can be a powerful example for us. God calls us to our own Magnificat. God calls you and me to bring Christ into the world in new and different ways. Again and again we are asked to say yes to that same great request God asked of Mary—to allow ourselves to be a channel of God’s grace. God calls every one of us to so fashion our lives that through us people know more about God’s love and grace. It is in the security of that love that God’s call can be heard.
Mary is the model for our lives. We are asked by God to say yes and to risk our futures without knowing what it will mean to us and our lives. In saying yes, we entrust all that we are and might become to God. Saying yes and serving as God calls us to serve isn’t something that diminishes or ends as we grow older. Sometimes that’s when it most fully bears fruit. Saying yes and serving God is the only way I know of to truly thank God for all of the blessings we receive.
Decisions like Mary’s are essential to life in Christ. We can risk because of our faith, and every time we risk the act deepens our faith as well. Trust in God lets us risk and strengthens our sense of trust. All of our lives we are offered these experiences which follow one upon the other: changing, risking, trusting, becoming more faithful, knowing more and more how deeply we are loved.
Thursday marked the fiftieth anniversary of the arrest of Jonathan Daniels, an arrest that led to his death. Fifteen hundred people, most of them Episcopalians, gather this weekend in Alabama to honor Daniels, a seminarian who had taken time off to register voters in Alabama. After being unexpectedly released from jail, he and others walked over to a small store to find safety. As they neared the door a man with a shotgun confronted them. A young woman, Ruby Sales, was in front of Daniels. As the gun was fired he pushed her out of the way, took on the full force of the blast and died.
The Magnificat held special meaning to Daniels. He wrote of his experience one evening during the week that Martin Luther King, Jr. had asked for people to join him in Selma, Alabama for a march to the state capital, Montgomery in support of his civil rights program. During Evening Prayer at the chapel, Daniels decided that he ought to go. Later he wrote:
"My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour." I had come to Evening Prayer as usual that evening, and as usual I was singing the Magnificat with the special love and reverence I have always felt for Mary's glad song. "He hath showed strength with his arm." As the lovely hymn of the God-bearer continued, I found myself peculiarly alert, suddenly straining toward the decisive, luminous, Spirit-filled "moment"… Then it came. "He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things." I knew then that I must go to Selma. The Virgin's song was to grow more and more dear in the weeks ahead. (1)
Daniels gave his life in response to his call. For most of us the call to magnify the Lord takes on less heroic and more subtle shading. When you think of it, though, to respond to God’s call to magnify the Lord in our world today is no less frightening than it was to our holy ancestors in the
church. It is a unique call and a unique answer because it is ours alone. As each of us is a different unique person, our work is unique as well. In answering God’s call we bring our individual ministry into the world, a ministry that no one else can bring. And, above all, unless we give to the world the work to which we are called, the world will be without it.
With the joy of discovery we make the words of the Magnificat our own. My soul, my very being, proclaims the greatness of the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God, my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. The Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.
(1) Kiefer, James. E. Biographical sketches of memorable Christians of the past: Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Seminarian, 14 August 1965 http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/228.html