Patronal Festival:  Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary 9 September 2018
Isaiah 61.10-end; Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 1.46.55
By Revd Canon Dr Judith Maltby

I’d like to say what fun it is to be at St Mary’s Primrose Hill today.  Like your vicar, I grew up in the US but have spent most of my adult life here in England.  When I was an undergraduate in the American Midwest, my parish priest lent me his copy of Percy Dearmer’s The Parson’s Handbook, which I loved.  So, it is wonderful to finally visit this church, so associated with him, after all these years.  

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He has brought down the powerful from their throne, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Today you are celebrating your patronal festival on one of several feast days of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom this particular church is dedicated.  Our gospel reading is the Magnificat, part of a larger story known as the Visitation, the meeting of Mary with her elderly cousin Elizabeth: a meeting of two women who are pregnant – Mary with Jesus – Elizabeth with John the Baptist.  It is a story in which for two women, biology is not destiny.  One a young virgin, one past menopause, one too young – the other just plain too old – who somehow, remarkably, subversively, find themselves fulfilling destinies beyond the dictates of social convention and essentialist biology.  Both expectant – one of them even finds herself expectant with the Incarnate Word. Wonderfully in this encounter, it is the Incarnate Word who is completely silent. (Characteristically, John the Baptist makes his presence known by giving his mother Elizabeth a kick in the womb.)  But in the space created by the present but silent Incarnate Word, Mary is empowered to proclaim what must be among the most subversive, the most revolutionary, verses in the New Testament – though it is sometimes easy to forget that at a Choral Evensong – the Magnificat: the humble are lifted up and the mighty cast down; the poor are filled and rich sent empty away.

‘Let the Word of God dwell in you richly’ says St Paul in his letter to the Colossians.  As Mary is expectant with the Word, so is every Christian, female or male. Biology is not destiny for men or women.

Now, some caution is necessary here about sentimentalising and romanticizing birth.  It is, I'm told, a painful, messy business, and it particularly behoves those of us who have never given birth to be careful in how we use it as a metaphor.  It can all become too glib.

But those provisos taken, if biology is not destiny for us, how do we like Mary, become bearers of the Word?  It takes time for the work of the Word in us to come to maturity. Patience is required.  So is risk, the risk of intimacy: intimacy with God, with others. Mary does not proclaim the Magnificat because she is self-absorbed – in a sort of Me-and-God bonding moment – but in response to Elizabeth:  ‘How is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’, Elizabeth asks.  And part of the way the Word comes to its fullness in us is by taking on our own flesh and blood.  Like Mary, we clothe or incarnate Christ with our own bodies, our blood, our flesh, our own selves.  In this sense the Word ‘needs’ us. If that all sounds a bit too trendy and modern, I refer you to that well known trendy lefty theologian, a sometime student and Fellow of my own college in Oxford, Richard Hooker, writing in the late 16th century:

... [since] God hath Deified our nature, though not by turning it into Himself, yet by making it His own inseparable habitation, we cannot now conceive how God should without [the human race] ... either exercise Divine power, or receive the glory of Divine praise.  For [humanity] ... is in both an associate of the Deity. 1

In the Incarnation, in Christ and Mary, Hooker sees that the human race has become God’s ‘inseparable habitation’ – I love that phrase – humanity is now God’s ‘inseparable habitation’.  This makes us all ‘partners’ or in Hooker's better phrase – ‘associates’ in the work of the Word.

But it doesn’t stop there, of course.  Being expectant with the Word, after all, is not an end in itself.  A Christian is expectant with Christ not as an end in itself, but to bring him into the world.  To share in this is the work of all Christians. Mary – perhaps more than any of Jesus’ disciples – provides an especially challenging model of discipleship for us all.

And the Christian should bear the Word to others.  Bearing the Word is not about a Me-and-God-inner-glow-thing for us anymore than for Mary.  For Mary, it compels her into relationship with Elizabeth. She must go see her, her friend, her kinswoman.  And it compels Mary into relationship with the world – a relationship which challenges assumptions of power and privilege.   ‘The humble are lifted up and the mighty cast down; the poor are filled and the rich sent empty away’.

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But there is a catch here, I'm afraid.  I’m sure some of you who are parents don’t need me, someone who is not a parent, to tell you this but the Word once given birth to, is its own ‘person’.  When we bear the Word, we must not forget to let go.  We are not in charge and how the Word works in others is not ours to control.  How Christ will work in others, be born in others, is beyond our brief. We are almost certain, if we remain open, to be surprised by what happens.  Disaster awaits those who think they can control the work of the Incarnate Word. Jesus Christ is an ‘independent fella’ despite our best attempts over two thousand years to constrain him.  Like all parents or those who have the care of children, we need to learn the painful art of bearing and ‘letting go’. And if the history of the Christian Church is anything to go by, we have barely begun to learn this lesson either.

But thankfully it doesn’t stop there either.  And here the metaphor of birth and parenthood, like all language about God, breaks down – because human language can never ‘capture’ God.  Because this Word which we, like Mary, bear, always, ultimately, bears us. It is our human flesh and blood, like Mary’s, which gives form and substance to this work, this love, this reality of Christ.  But if we were dependent on our own resources, we would be up a gum-tree. We may give birth to the Word, give our own bodies to incarnate Christ for the sake of the world: but our source, our origin, our ‘parentage’ also lies in Christ.  A now almost unread seventeenth poet – though widely read in his lifetime – is a great favourite of mine, Francis Quarles.  Quarles captures this idea in poem written for Christmas Day. He puts to his reader this riddle:

This day’s [Christmas day] a riddle for the God that made

This day, this day from his owne Creature had

His making too; his flesh and bone, and lim

And breath from her, that had her breath from him.

We give our flesh and blood to incarnate the Word only by taking the risk of intimacy, as Mary did with God, with Elizabeth, with another; to bear Christ for the world he died for, for sake of the world he rose for, for the sake of world he is returning to complete and fulfil.  We bear the Word, in order to let go of the Word to work in others.  We bear Christ to others, but are firstly – and finally – borne by Christ.

This day’s a riddle for the God that made

This day, this day from his owne Creature had

His making too; his flesh and bone, and lim

And breath from her, that had her breath from him. 2

Thanks be to God.

1: Hooker, The Lawes, V, liv.
2: Francis Quarles, from ‘Upon the Day of our Saviours Nativity’, in Hosanna or Divine Poems on the Passion of Christ first published in 1647.