‘The Identities of Mary’ – 19th December – 4th Sunday of Advent

The Readings


Micah 5.2-5a

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labour has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.

If the Assyrians come into our land
and tread upon our soil,
we will raise against them seven shepherds
and eight installed as rulers.


Luke 1.39-55

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
   and my spirit rejoices 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;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

The Sermon
By Rev'd Matthew Rhodes, St. John's, Ranmoor

A few years ago I read a book called The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin. It’s written from the point of view of Mary looking back over her life and especially over the death of her son Jesus. Toibin powerfully evokes the pain of a grieving mother. But alongside this he gives an additional sinister undertow in the book. This Mary feels that the story of her son, and her own story, are being manipulated by the Gospel writers to fit their own agenda. She sees them trying to create a religion out of her son’s life and feels that they are using her to give legitimacy to what they are doing.

It’s not an approach that I agree with but it’s an interesting idea. And it illustrates an important aspect of Mary’s life. Mary can and has been used by lots of people to reflect their own ideas. The writer, Colm Toibin does it in his book. He doesn’t deny the Jesus story but questions Christianity with a capital C that has been built upon it. And he uses Mary as the mouthpiece for his questioning. And though that’s not a picture of Mary that I recognise, I can see how she has the potential as a character to be portrayed in that way. And that leads me to suggest that we have to treat Mary carefully. She is open to manipulation. Not Mary herself of course but her image. Her story.

Mary has so few lines in the Gospels. There are lots of gaps to be filled in and plenty of people willing to do so. Marina Warner in her book, Alone of All Her Sex, suggests that the cult of Mary has been used in all sorts of ways since the church began. When Christianity encountered pagan cultures with female deities, Mary took on many of their characteristics. This helped to root Christianity in all sorts of places.

During the Second World War, many women did jobs that had previously been done by men. Afterwards, they were encouraged to give these jobs back to the men and return to their homes as housewives and mothers. It’s no coincidence that at same time the Catholic Church placed a new emphasis on Mary. Pope Pius XII made her assumption a dogma in 1950. While Mary was being elevated, women’s rights were being eroded. Mary was presented as a role model for women that was often unhelpful to them. She seemed passive. Cut off from the realities of their lives. And this left some very faithful women feeling guilty and inadequate.  So we need to be a bit wary of the ways in which Mary’s image has been used.

On the other hand, Mary provides a wealth of identities for people to connect with. A few years ago Mary’s virginity was a very live issue for the church and was another reason why Mary seemed remote from real women’s experience. Nowadays, through the wonders of modern science virgin mothers are two a penny and perhaps they can see something of themselves in Mary. In her we also see the ordinary teenage mum. Poor and vulnerable but also resourceful and protective. In Mary we find the radical revolutionary of the Magnificat. Casting down the mighty from their thrones and exalting the humble and meek. There is Mary the mother who is worried sick, looking for her teenage son in Jerusalem. There is the pushy mother at the wedding at Cana. Desperate for her son to get on with whatever it is he is supposed to do. There is the mother who has to share her famous son with the crowds. There is the fearful mother who knows in her bones what is to come. The grieving mother standing at the foot of the cross. And finally Mary the Queen of heaven in the Book of Revelation. Clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. Mary may not have many lines in the Bible but there is plenty in her life that women – and men – can respond to.

In the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Nazareth there are images of Mary from all over the world. There are revolutionary Mary’s from South America. Black Madonnas from Africa. Blond Marys and Middle Eastern Marys. Marys in saris and Marys in kimonos. The Mary from the United States appears to have her wrapped in aluminium foil. Perhaps that’s a comment on domesticity and consumerism. Anyway, the point is that all cultures can and should be able to see themselves in Mary. We should be able to see ourselves in Jesus but some of us find it easier to connect with Mary. The very fact that she has so few lines allows us to fill in the gaps with our own cultures, our own lives. The things that makes her image open to manipulation can also be Mary’s gift to us, helping us to make our faith incarnate. Bringing the good news to birth in our own time and culture.

Sometimes for Anglicans, Mary can bring out the Protestant in us. There is risk that her humanity, which is such an important part of her gift, can be undermined by attempts to make her into part of the godhead. Not quite part of the Trinity but a bit above ordinary humanity. Up there on a plinth. Dressed in blue. Perversely this elevation can make Mary less helpful. Mary is important because she was a real human being. She wasn’t God but she cooperated with God. She said yes to him. Let it be. And she bore a son who was fully human and yet fully God.

Not only is Mary able to reflect our humanity, she also has room within her for God. She is the ultimate example of openness to God and she constantly challenges us to be open too. To be willing to listen to the crazy messages of angels and to work with God in bringing his kingdom to birth. To magnify the Lord and rejoice in God our saviour. Mary had space in her life that we are able to fill with our humanity. She also had space in her life for the divine. A space big enough to bear his son. As we await the birth of the Saviour, Mary inspires us to find space in our lives too. To make room. Room to rediscover our true humanity. And room to welcome God and all that he wants to do in and through us. Amen.

The Prayers

Prepared By Barbara Waterhouse

In the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ, let us pray to the Father.

O God, the creator and preserver of all, we pray for people in every kind of need; make your ways known on earth, your saving health among all nations …

We pray for all of those affected by the Covid-19 epidemic.
We pray for those countries currently suffering from upsurges of the virus, thinking especially of those facing the omicron variant: please help them to keep their most vulnerable citizens safe. We pray that all politicians choose effective means of making sure that all the people they represent are safe and well.

We pray for the worldwide success of vaccination campaigns, and that vaccines are made available to all countries, regardless of their wealth or lack thereof. Please help each of us to give informed reassurance to those we know who are wary of having the vaccine and to play what part we can in ensuring that the rest of the world gets vaccinated too.

We pray especially for all workers in direct contact with the public who are at such risk of exposure to the virus: health care providers, shop workers, bus drivers, schoolteachers and all others similarly exposed. Please help all of us to protect all of them by continuing to wear masks in public and practice safe social distancing and by getting vaccinated, if we have not already done so.

At this time when family and friends are such a large part of our celebrations, please help us to remember all those who are unable to see those dear to them at this time and to do what we can to make sure that they are not feeling isolated or abandoned this Christmas.

We pray also for all those involved in trying to fight the climate crisis Please give all governments the political courage to resist further use of fossil fuels and to invest in sources of renewable energy instead. Please help each of us individually to contribute to protecting our planet in any way we can.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

We pray for your Church throughout the world; guide and govern us by your good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace and in righteousness of life

We pray especially for our worshipping community of St. John’s Ranmoor, St. Mark’s Broomhill and St. Mary’s Walkley as we struggle to cope with the ongoing pandemic. Please help us to feel your presence in a world turned upside down and to share that presence with others.

We pray that we can continue to worship together in ways that are safe for all of us, whether in person or online. Please help us to think of each other and let each other know that we care and to remember those who feel increasingly lonely and unsafe as the world is hit by yet more upsurges and variants of the virus.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

We commend to your fatherly goodness all those who are in any way afflicted or distressed, in mind, body or estate; comfort and relieve them in their need, give them patience in their sufferings, and bring good out of their troubles …

In moments of peace and contemplation, we name to you all those known to us who are suffering. Please care for them and for all those of whose suffering we are unaware.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

We remember those who have gone before us in the peace of Christ, and we give you praise for all your faithful ones, with whom we rejoice in the communion of saints …

We name to you in our hearts all those known to us both near and far who are suffering the loss of friends and loved ones, asking that you bring your comfort and healing to them at this time of grief.
Merciful Father,
accept these prayers
for the sake of your Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.