Homily: “Religion and Relationship with Blessed Mary”

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Solemnity of Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2016.

We have just heard the Song of Mary, known as the “Magnificat” because the first words in Latin translation are “Magnificat anima mea, Dominum”—“My soul magnifies the Lord.” It is embedded within a larger moment in Saint Luke’s Gospel that is known as the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That particular moment as a whole is commemorated on our Calendar on May 31st. Mary travels to the hill country in Judah, having been confronted by the Angel Gabriel and told that she would conceive in her womb and bear a son, and call his name Jesus. That is the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25. Three Calendar days are related to today’s Gospel reading! Anyway, Mary travels to be with Elizabeth, herself bearing a son by the work of the Holy Spirit, that son being Saint John the Baptist.

Just before Saint Luke records this Song of Mary, he tells us that “when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’” We hear of course in Elizabeth’s words part of what has become in the Church the Hail Mary prayer. Yet what might be missed is that this moment is in fact the first miracle of Jesus. He sanctified Saint John in the womb of Saint Elizabeth—and Jesus did so by the words of Mary. Can Mary’s words be anything but prayer? No sooner had Mary spoken in prayer than John was sanctified. His first miracle, performed through the prayerful words of his Mother—should this surprise us? It is by Mary that Jesus has come into the world—it is through Mary’s prayer, then, that Jesus might come into our hearts.

The full name for today’s feast is “Saint Mary the Virgin, the Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Its date on the Calendar of August Fifteenth coincides quite intentionally with what is called in the Roman Catholic tradition as “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Let it be clear that these feasts, despite the different names, are one and the same. The words of our Collect, “. . . you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary . . . ” are everything that is meant by the Assumption of Mary, and the theology of Mary’s Assumption into heaven by God upon the end of her earthly life —or, as is said in Eastern Orthodoxy, her “dormition,” or “going to sleep”—has been widely received within Anglicanism, particularly within parishes.

When we think of Blessed Mary, it is common to immediately think of the Hail Mary prayer. A part we have already heard from the mouth of Saint Elizabeth. Here is the rest: 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.

So often we hear the words “pray for us” or “pray for me” or “have a particular person in your prayers,” or “keep such and such person in your prayers,” and so on. It is ancient custom in the Church, when celebrating the feast day of a Saint, to ask that Saint on his or her day to pray for us. At my ordination to the deaconate, well over seventy saints were named, after each one was chanted, “Pray for us.” All this while I was prostate on the floor before our bishop. Afterwards he called it a very contemplative moment, and let me tell you, it was a particular hot afternoon in the church. So you can imagine that all the sin got burned right out of me.

To want to know what we are doing when we are doing it is a mark of maturity. And so, when we say, “Pray for us”, what are we saying? This phrase finds its context, first and foremost, in the saints of the Church. What all saintly Christians have in common is a life lived toward Christ in the fullest sense; and so we can say that, in a word, what they have in common is holiness. We ask people who display something of a tangible sense of the holy about them to pray for us. God is at work in them, and his activity is palpable, apparent to the senses, apparent in their life. God is calling them in a focused, discernible and active way.

Of course the best example of holiness is Mary. Luke wants us to know that her soul “magnifies the Lord.” Her “spirit rejoices in God.” These are marks of holiness that I think still apply today. Also notice that Saint Luke would have us hear Mary as echoing the prophets. Her words echo the prophet Isaiah, who wrote “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God.” Saints, as I have said before, are the best interpreters of the Bible, because the biblical revelation has struck them in a deeply personal way, and as a result they have lived out the biblical revelation within the human condition in a remarkable manner. “Living with the revelation” is the heart of what it means to be a disciple, and from that comes holiness.

When we ask a person to pray for us, we are saying three things at once. The first is that we are asking the person to say or think something that will help us in some way. “Pray for us” is a form of intercession. “Pray for us, because we really need it.” This is obviously a normal way of speaking when we are faced with some difficult challenge or obstacle, or perhaps when we are suffering in a particularly acute way, or we know that a medical procedure is soon to be performed. Because that person exhibits a sense of holy, we are comforted by God through them, and their offering of prayer brings the Peace of Christ to our hearts.

The second meaning of “Pray for us” is we are asking the person to pray because we are not able to. “Pray for us” here means vicarious: say or think something on our behalf, in our stead, because we are not able to do it. Here, through these three words, we recognize that some people have a vocation to pray. A vocation to be a Pray-er, in the sense of something committed and disciplined. In his letter to the Romans, St Paul writes that “For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” Disciplined, unceasing prayer is a gift. And so when we ask Mary to pray for us, we are recognizing her vocation to full-time prayer, and we are sharing in that vocation. Prayer is a gift that can only be shared. In asking such a person to pray for us, our prayer through them will be a better prayer to God.

Here, then is the fullest understanding of “Pray for us.” “Pray for us” means relationship. When we ask Mary to pray for us, we are asking her to be in relationship with us, and we are acknowledging our relationship with her. There is a simple, elegant beauty in doing just that. We say “pray for us, Mary” because we know that being in relationship with her is better than not.

When we are in relationship with Mary, and when we think about what it meant for her to be the predestined Mother of God—totally dedicated to the person and the work of her Son—the Christian religion is transformed from a collection of moral principles, biblical sayings and rules, doctrines and ideas into simple life of obedience and love; from spectacular battles in a culture and political war into unspectacular service to others; from trying to control events into active surrender to God’s loving hand in all things. When we are in relationship with Mary, and see the Christian life more and more from her perspective, the true nature of the Christian religion is revealed. For when a poor and powerless young woman was confronted by the Angel Gabriel and told that she would bear in her womb the savior of the world, the Son of the Most High, holy Son of God, she said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In the face of the unfathomable, the incomprehensible, the seeming impossible, Mary said Yes to God. Who would not want to be in relationship with a person like that? This is why Elizabeth was filled with joy—she recognized in that instant that being in relationship with Mary means being in relationship with the Holy Spirit, filled with the Holy Spirit, and thrown into joyful prayer.

I conclude with a prayer from a seventeenth-century Anglican bishop named Jeremy Taylor.[1] Besides being one of my favorite prayers, I share it because it ought never be said that within Anglican tradition there has not been a strong devotion to Mary. Let us pray.

O Holy and ever blessed Spirit, who did overshadow the Holy Virgin-Mother of our Lord, and caused her to conceive by a miraculous and mysterious manner; be pleased to overshadow our souls, and enlighten our spirit, that we may conceive the holy Jesus in our heart, and may bear him in our mind, and may grow up to the fullness of the stature of Christ, to be perfect men and women in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] Rule and Exercises of Holy Living, IV, ad S.6

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.