Last Wednesday, the 15th August, was the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated by Christians around the world. At St John’s we kept the feast this Sunday, it being the Sunday within the octave of the feast. Here’s what I said.
I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I am addicted to the ITV reality singing competition The Voice. I’m not at all embarrassed to admit that I have never watched a single edition of the ITV reality singing competition The X-Factor. Whether you like these programmes or not, like me you may well be amazed me that seems to be endless supply of young people desperate to be plucked from obscurity and rewarded with fame and fortune. They are all convinced that they can sing. Whether it’s the X-Factor or The Voice there are plenty of would-be stars – as to whether they have any talent or not, that’s for the public to judge. And then there are always those who say, “I’ve wanted to be a singer all my life!” Well – the pedant in me wants to say to them, “No, you haven’t – you didn’t want to be a singer when you were six months old!”
Today we come together to honour a young woman to whom the prospect of being plucked from obscurity and thrust into worldwide stardom simply never would have occurred. Such things are a product of our age, of course – there was nothing equivalent in 1st century Palestine. She was simply one teenage girl among thousands of others. And what had she wanted to do all her life? Well, she probably had no expectations of anything other than getting married and bearing children – that was life for women in 1st century Palestine. Though as far as we know she had spent her life in the service of God – certainly Church tradition would have us believe that, and that belief would be supported by the words of Gabriel when he came to announce to her that she had been chosen, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you!”
And as for talent – well, as far as we know she wasn’t chosen for her singing voice – but she gave us a song that has been repeated daily in worship by countless Christians for almost as long as the Church has worshipped. I’m talking about, of course, the Magnificat – which we heard in our gospel reading – and the young woman who sang is Mary.
For on August 15th, or the Sunday following, we come together with Christians around the world to give thanks for the role played by Mary in bringing about our salvation. For without Mary’s “yes” to God there would have been no incarnation.
The feast of the Assumption is a very old one. We know it was celebrated, first in the Eastern Church by the turn of the 5th century where it is called The Dormition or the Falling Asleep of Mary, and then a little later it was adopted in in the Western Church. It is celebrated around the world by Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Old Catholics. But where does this belief come from?
At the end of the 4th gospel, as he hung on the cross, Jesus put his mother into the care of St John. Remember those words of Jesus from the cross to Mary and John that we hear every holy week: Behold your son! Behold your mother! Traditionally it was believed that some four to six years after the death of Jesus, St. John accompanied Mary to Ephesus where they dwelt in a small house over which now stands the Council Church, or the Church of the Virgin Mary. The ecumenical Council of Ephesus, held in the year 431, recorded this. Later St. John brought Mary to a house on the slopes of Bülbül Mountain, around 9 km from Ephesus, the position of which was later forgotten, until research was begun in 1891 to find traces of it. A small house was subsequently found. It was officially accepted by the Orthodox Church to be the house of the Virgin in 1892 with the celebration of high mass there by Timoni, Archbishop of Ýzmir, ancient Smyrna. It has now also been accepted by the Catholic Church as the home of Mary and John. The house is known as “panaya kapula” or “the door to the virgin”.
And it was in this house that Mary was believed to have lived out her life with St John and where she died. The story goes that she was buried in Ephesus. St Thomas asked to see inside her tomb – why, we don’t know. Perhaps he didn’t believe she had died – St Thomas, the doubter still. At any rate, the tomb was opened and Mary’s body was no longer there. This was taken by the apostles, so the story goes, to be a sign that her body had been taken straight to heaven. On the site of the house there is also a cruciform church with a central dome, which is thought to have been incorporated into the original building in the 6-7th centuries.
In our gospel reading today we have one of the most important songs in the whole of Scripture. Its importance is such that it is repeated every day at the office of evening prayer, as it has been for centuries. This great canticle of praise was uttered by Mary at her meeting with Elizabeth in response to her cousin’s exclamation: Blessed art thou among women. Mary’s response to her cousin’s greeting is a wonderful song of praise and glory to God. The first part concerns herself, and Mary shows full appreciation of what God has done in her life. She cries out with delight – all generations will call me blessed. How true that prophecy has been. The whole Church, even those who look with suspicion upon traditional catholic devotion to Mary, refer to her as the Blessed Virgin.
The rest of the canticle we call The Magnificat concerns itself with describing the mighty deeds the Lord has performed and the promises he made and kept. Unlike those young people of today on The Voice or X-Factor who want to draw the eyes – and ears – of everyone to themselves, Mary wants to draw the eyes of everyone to God and to Jesus. And this is what we are celebrating today. A promise kept by God, the promise of salvation. And the life of the woman who made God’s offer of salvation to all possible by accepting God’s will for her, and who in so doing brought Jesus our Saviour into the world.
God sent his only son into our world precisely to complete this task—to bring us salvation to save us from sin and death and to enable us to enter and live forever in his Kingdom of Glory. Jesus came into the world through the co-operation of Mary; he preached repentance, proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom and gave his life for our sake. In this way he overcame sin and brought us salvation. This is what we are celebrating today in this feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Because Mary co-operated in the plan of God for the salvation of the world, because in a unique way she was “full of grace”, because like none other she points us to her Son Jesus. Look at any icon or statue, and Mary holds up Jesus for us all to see.
And so Mary is our model – an inspiration for us to follow. Because she accepted God’s will for her she won the prize. Not a prize of tens of thousands of pounds and a recording contract like those on our TV talent shows, but something far, far more valuable and enduring – salvation, and the gift of eternal life. And all she had to do to win that prize was say, “yes.”
Because we too are called to discern God’s call to us, we too are called to say our own “yes” to God. We too are called to show Jesus to the world. And as on this day we remember that Mary, after a life given to the service of her God, was taken to heaven, so we are assured that when we have served our God here on earth we too will be taken to heaven to be with our God for ever. This is the salvation which Jesus came to give us and which we are able to enjoy through the obedience, through the “yes” to God, of a young teenage girl. And we too win the prize – for in God’s scheme of things everyone can be the winner.