Hail Mary, full of grace

Luke 1.39-55

Well, it’s all over for another year, with people across the country wondering what on earth to watch on TV last night – we certainly were! Yes, a week ago yesterday Stacey Dooley and her partner Kevin Clifton were crowned Strictly Come Dancing (Dancing with the Stars outside the UK) champions for 2018, with Kevin shouting out live on air, “it’s a Christmas miracle.“

For Stacey Dooley it means a new-found fame and has certainly boosted her future career prospects in television journalism. For Kevin Clifton, four times a losing finalist and now a winner, it felt like  a miracle. And their reaction when they were announced as the champions showed just how much it meant to them. Their excitement and their joy was manifest and I’m sure they continued to celebrate over the following days. But reality TV competitions are not real life, and for the rest of us, having shared in their journey and in their victory, life the day after was just back to normal and coping with the every day events of real life.

Well, here we are this morning considering the reaction of a young Jewish girl to the news that – for her, at least – the world was never going to be the same again. For most people, the day following the Annunciation was much the same as the day before. For Mary, the visit from God’s messenger, Gabriel, meant that her whole life was to be turned upside down and she was propelled from unknown Jewish teenager to eventual global fame.

Mary receives a message from an unexpected visitor. And Mary would have been forgiven for thinking that the news she receives wasn’t that good at all. And yet, it’s hard to convey just how excited and joyful she is when she hears what the news is. Hearing the words read out in our gospel reading just doesn’t convey what she is really feeling. Stacey and Kevin’s reaction on winning Strictly was somewhat muted in comparison.

Believe me – Mary’s blessing from God puts her in a whole different league to someone winning a TV competition. This really is – not a Christmas miracle as it’s nine months before of course – but a true miracle nonetheless. And even Mary grasps the reality of it all when she cries out:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed!”

No fleeting stardom for this young girl – two thousand years later we come together to worship today and remember her. We come together to join with Gabriel in saying “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you” and with her relative Elizabeth in declaring “Blessed are you among women, blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Now, those of you who were here last week will remember that we were thinking about the great forerunner, John the Baptist, and I linked his message to Eddie Cochran’s pop song “Three Steps to Heaven”. Well this week, another song came to mind. It’s a Beatles song that seemed appropriate. Let It Be. One of The Beatles most famous songs, with Paul McCartney singing:

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

McCartney wasn’t singing about the Virgin Mary – he wrote the song after he saw his own mother, who had died when he was fourteen, in a dream during a difficult time in his life. But the words seem so apt when we reflect on the role that Mary, mother of Jesus and spiritual mother to all Christians, has to play in the life of the Church. For today we hear how Mary, having received the news that she was going to bring God’s Son into the world, goes to visit her relative Elizabeth, and speaks words of wisdom – the song we now know as the Magnificat.

And what amazing words they are. Surely, at this point, Mary cannot have fully appreciated the import of the role that was being thrust upon her. She cannot have known what the future would bring – the heartbreak of the cross, the joy of the resurrection. And yet she knows that God is doing a wonderful thing. Somehow she is inspired to declare in this great song of praise the deep truths of God. She knows that she is truly blessed and that from this point on everyone – all generations – will honour her. And she knows that this amazing news, brought by Gabriel, means that God is bringing to fruition his desire to see justice in his world – to see the humble and the poor lifted up and the powerful and wealthy thrown down, the hungry fed and the rich sent away with nothing.

This young girl’s words of wisdom – this Magnificat – are so important in the life of the Church that they are said every day at evening prayer. Each and every priest repeats them daily. In them Mary proclaims a deeply radical agenda for God’s work – and therefore our work – in the world. For Mary proclaims a gospel, a good news, with a bias. The poor, no matter their circumstances or way of life – no matter whether they are what some in society might class as the deserving or the undeserving poor – will be filled. The powerful, the rich, no matter their circumstances or way of life – no matter whether they are what society might think of as deserving or underserving of their wealth or position – will be brought down and sent empty away.

And yet – if it hadn’t been for this young girl’s wisdom in recognising the blessing that came from God when she received her angelic visitor, God could not have achieved all that coming into the world, becoming incarnate, would mean. What tremendous courage, amazing insight, to respond to the message of the angel with those words: Let it be to me according to your word.

And the Early Church didn’t take long to realise that Mary, as the God-chosen mother of him who was to be Immanuel, God-with-us, was worthy of a special honour, a special place, in the life of the Church.

And so at the Third Ecumenical Council of the Church, held at Ephesus in the year 431, Mary was given the title Θεοτόκος (Theotokos). A strict translation of this Greek word is ‘God-bearer’ – however, it is usually translated into English and other languages as ‘Mother of God’ and this is the title by which Mary has been honoured ever since. For it reminds us that through the child-bearing of Blessed Mary, God became incarnate and lived and died as one of us. And it’s why in the Early Church there was no celebration of the feast of the Nativity, Christmas. For it was the Feast of the Annunciation that was the key feast of the Christian Year for it was then that God became incarnate, in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. It’s is Mary’s ‘yes’ to God that allows everything else to fall into place – without Mary’s ‘yes’ there would be no Christmas – or Good Friday or Easter. The Incarnation begins at the Annunciation, not at Christmas.

And now Jesus is risen and is reigning in glory. And we rejoice that Mary, chosen by God, is now truly blessed for she is with her risen and exalted Son in heaven, joining with all the saints in the eternal worship of God and in prayer for those of us still on earth as those of us who put our faith in Jesus wait until it is time for us to join them.. And as she prophesied we continue to call her ‘blessed.’

We have heard those words of Paul McCartney:
When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
Today, in our gospel reading, we have been called to reflect again upon those words of wisdom in the Blessed Virgin Mary’s great song of praise. It is part of the ministry of the whole of the Church today to listen to those words that proclaim God’s justice and to live them out. But perhaps we also, today, should reflect on those words of wisdom that she spoke to the servants at the wedding at Cana of Galilee, “Do whatever he tells you.” The problem, of course, is that the wine had run out. And Mary says to the servants, “my son is going to sort out your problem of having no wine, just listen to him and do what he says.”

Those are words we all need to hear. For Mary, the God-bearer, she who is blest by all generations, speaks to each of us words of wisdom as she points us to her Son and reminds us that he is the answer to all our needs: “This is my Son – do whatever he tells you.”

Just as Mary said ‘yes’ to God and did as he asked, so she tells us to say ‘yes’ to her Son and whatever he says.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.