A Sermon from Sherborne

Mary – a path to God

A sermon for Patronal Festival Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 1 July by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes

Mary arose in those days, and went…into the hill country [of Judaea], and entered the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elizabeth.  (Luke 1: 39-40)

Picture this scene for a moment: the young shortly-to-be-mother Mary travels south from her home in Nazareth (itself hardly a seething metropolis) to the remote and barren hill country where her older cousin Elizabeth lived. It would have been a tough journey, quite probably made on foot. I have cycled some of it (not recently, I hasten to say), and can vouch for the ruggedness of the hills and valleys that must be crossed, and for the desolate nature of the terrain. When they meet, they greet each other and Elizabeth welcomes Mary to her house, where Mary will stay for three months, allowing them to get to know each other well and compare notes on natural childbirth. It is a touching scene, between two women in a remote area of a peripheral Roman province: neither of them is known at all to the outside world. As the priest-poet Malcolm Guite puts it in his sonnet on the Visitation:

Two women on the very edge of things

Unnoticed and unknown to men of power,

But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings

And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.

And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young’

Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime’.

They sing today for all the great unsung,

Women who turned eternity to time,

Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth,

Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.

Now picture 16th century England shortly before the Reformation. Well over 2000 churches are dedicated to Mary (like ours), and many cathedrals and abbeys (like this one) have Lady Chapels. The whole country has been described at that time as one huge shrine to the Virgin Mary, with frequent festivals in the Church’s calendar in her honour, and a large proportion of the Church’s sacred music being composed for her. A visitor from abroad around 1500 was astonished at the beauty of this music and the choirs that sang it, describing the sound as “more divine than human” – even the voices of angels could not be more exquisite. Everywhere in places like this there would be shrines to and statues of Mary, perhaps a little gaudy for our taste.  She was – and remains – pre-eminent among all the saints.

Yet in the gospels she largely occupies the background, stepping forward to play a major role only in the birth narratives, particularly Luke’s. During Jesus’ ministry she occasionally appears  –  for instance at the marriage feast in Cana, in St John’s Gospel; in John we also find her, most poignantly, at the foot of the cross. Otherwise we hear little about her. And it is this understated role that I find both characteristic and attractive. Her subsequent pre-eminence is of course due to her being chosen uniquely to be the mother of Jesus, the ‘God-Bearer’. As such, much significant theology has always attached to her; but I would like to draw out this afternoon something different: her human face, the obscure and somewhat mysterious Galilean woman who seems, even during her life, to have kept in the background, allowing her Son the limelight. That would ultimately mean, as the aged Simeon said to her in the Temple, that a sword would pierce her own soul, as she saw him die – though that, as we know, was not the end of the story. She is the one who faithfully reflects the character of God as pictured in the psalm sung at this service:  “Who is like unto the Lord our God, that hath his dwelling so high; and yet humbleth himself to behold the things that are in heaven and earth?” (Psalm 113: 5).

Mary is someone we can relate to, the family woman, the mother, the wife of the carpenter, the one in fact who shows us what true humility is: not the cringing sort of humility, nor the false modesty she could have displayed after her encounter with God. Rather it is a self-effacing disposition which, from a position of strength, puts others first, encourages and confirms. That is why Christians down the ages have sought her affirmation. A story, fanciful perhaps, yet telling, points to this truth.

There was once a juggler, tumbler and acrobat who earned his living by entertaining crowds at fairs across the countryside. He was very skilled, particularly in performing breath-taking acrobatics. At the height of his powers he fell sick and made his way to a monastery, where he was nursed back to health. He was so impressed with the care and love lavished on him by the monks that he decided that he too would like to become a monk, and was admitted as a novice, initially for a probationary period of one year.

Things did not go well. He was placed in the library first; but his Latin, I’m sorry to have to tell you, was not up to scratch. Then as a copyist he kept making a mess of his manuscripts; whilst his attempts at singing drove the choir master to despair. In the kitchens he produced nothing but burnt offerings. His work on the farm, in the dispensary and in the wine cellars was equally chaotic and disastrous.

Towards the end of his novice year he realized that he would probably not be allowed to stay on at the monastery. He felt a failure.  But he knew he had one gift that he could offer to God. So he went straight to the particular chapel which was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and in which stood a statue of her, and began to tumble, to perform his whole range of acrobatics, and to juggle plates and batons at amazing speed. The statue of Mary looked down at his performance and started to smile; then she began to laugh; then she guffawed. The tumbler felt elated. When the news of what had happened got out in the monastery, the Abbot summoned him, praised him for offering his one gift to God in Mary’s presence, and for being inspired by her. He asked the tumbler to stay on and take his vows. He had rediscovered his confidence and had found his vocation.

Over the centuries many people have found in the life and character of Mary a way to God. Her life, though largely hidden to us, nevertheless shines with a quiet radiance; her personality  –  notably her patience and proper humility  –  glows for us still, encouraging us and pointing us unerringly towards Him who is the God of all love, and our hearts’ desire.

Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes 01/07/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne