Just a couple of months ago, about the time I turned 43, I noticed something unusual in church. I was having trouble reading the Bible. This was not a spiritual crisis; more specifically, the Bible I usually read from at Morning and Evening Prayer was becoming harder to read. Now, Saint Mark’s is not exactly flooded with light, and the print in this particular Bible is quite small, so anyone, I reasoned, might have difficulty from time to time seeing such fine print in such poor light. Time passed, but not much, and I began to look to see whether or not a light bulb had burned out somewhere in my vicinity, because the Bible was now growing noticeably harder to read. What circumstances around me could be changing to produce this strange effect, I wondered.
I deployed the only reasonable defense I could think of to battle this optical challenge – I brought the Bible up closer to my face in order to see the small print more clearly – but I realized that this tactic was not working. So, by chance I tried a different approach, something counter-intuitive: I pushed the Bible a little further away from my eyes than usual, extending my arm at some distance, and then the most extraordinary thing happened: lo and behold, the words of Scripture came into focus! A miracle!
Today we are celebrating Mary, the Mother of Jesus. And we are doing it in some style, since devotion to Mary has long been a hallmark of Saint Mark’s, and the catholic-minded movement from which this parish sprang 163 years ago. To some Christians, such devotion to Mary has seemed very much like the act of pushing the Bible away from you – because much of what the catholic tradition has said about Mary cannot be found in the pages of Scripture: that she was conceived without the stain of original sin (her immaculate conception); that she was carried bodily up into heaven at the end of her life (her assumption); that she shares with Jesus the ministry of salvation (she is co-redemptrix); that she has special access to Jesus’ ear in heaven (she is mediatrix); and that she is the Queen of Heaven. And I list all these without even getting into the issue of her virginity (perpetual or not)!
With this kind of thinking going on so close to Rittenhouse Square in the 1840s and 50s, is it any wonder, really, that our neighbors soon organized to build a low church across the square on Walnut Street where the Bible could be expounded upon with deliberate clarity, rather than obscured by Marian folderol?
Mary has been seen by some in the church as a problem, a distraction, an opportunity for indulging the worst excesses of liturgical and theological foolishness. And it is true that she has had to bear the misguided exploits of the church over the years, the object of all kinds of projection and other neuroses of the church and her leaders. But like many a Jewish mother, she has borne her burden gracefully, and without complaint.
And of course, Mary is not absent from the pages of Holy Writ; she is very much a presence there. What other reports have we in such detail of angelic encounter as the annunciation that Gabriel makes to Mary? Who else is so close to the Cross on Good Friday, and so much on Jesus’ mind?
And who else has given the church such a song of beauty to sing as Mary? “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior!” These words of the Magnificat are said or sung in churches every day at Evening Prayer or Vespers; they are recited here at Saint Mark’s every day, to be sure. Mary’s song has been on the lips of the church since the days we first re-covered the memory of it, when Saint Luke wrote it down in his gospel.
My soul doth magnify the Lord! It’s a funny thing to sing or to say – after all, what does it mean? Our English translation borrows the Latin word “magnify” that itself came from an old French word that means to praise or extol. It can also imply that something is made more exciting, more exaggerated, or to seem larger than it is. Or, it can mean that something is actually enlarged, made bigger.
Mary’s soul magnified the Lord. In a sense this is literally true since the embryo that developed in her womb grew to become the child she delivered into the world. But I think there is more to Mary’s magnifying than that. Because I know how hard it can be to see Jesus and to know him for who he is. I know how hard it is to find faith in this world of ours that a man who spoke in parables; and who was killed on a cross two thousand years ago; whose followers wrote almost nothing down and were not especially good community organizers; whose name has been used to invoke all kinds of horrendousness; whose church so easily becomes a shambles – that this man is the Savior of the world. Yes, it can be hard to see this.
Jesus has been so miniaturized in our society, shrunk down to such insignificance. Even his Cross is often preferred these days without his body on it. In can be hard to see Jesus at work in the world. But Mary, saw something all those centuries ago when Gabriel came to visit and brought her word that she was highly favored and that the fruit of her womb would be blessed by God in a special way. Somehow Mary saw the story of salvation, spread out before her, and the place her Son would play in it, before she could even feel that her belly had begun to swell. And then she magnified the Lord.
And when she did, what did she see? She saw that lowliness was not a condemnation from God, but, more likely, a sign of his favor. And that pride would be scattered by God as easily as ashes from a spent fire. She saw that real power does not reside in the thrones of kings or the offices of presidents, but in the weakness of the lowly and meek. She saw that riches pass away, but that the hungry can and will be fed by God’s providence. And she saw that God’s promises, made so long ago, like his mercy, do not fade away. This is what she saw, when she looked closely, to magnify what God was doing through her in the world. And when she saw that God was at work in her, she knew that it was the Lord who was magnified, not her.
So many have missed this truth about Mary – that her soul magnifies the Lord – as though that couldn’t possibly do any good. But in a world with poor vision it is extremely helpful to have someone magnify the Lord, who can be elusive, small, and hard to see.
The folderol (on display most prominently in our hymns this morning) is, or course, un-necessary, as folderol always is. And the church has occasionally gotten carried away with this folderol where Mary is concerned, if you ask me.
But here at Saint Mark’s, I think we know what it feels like to be inspired by Mary, to think that our souls might some day magnify the Lord, too. That we might see Jesus somewhere before anyone else does, and that we might lift up our voices in song to help magnify him so that others can see him too.
Most of us know, I dare say, what it is like to squint in the dim light and look for Jesus, and see nothing but a blur, at best. Most of us know the feelings of disappointment, despair, loneliness, failure, and hopelessness that lead us to suspect that the Scriptures are not true, that wars have not ended, peace is not accomplished, sickness has not been healed, fear, hatred, and racism still hold too much sway, the rich still seem to get richer, and the poor get poorer, and most of us remain stuck somewhere in the middle, not moving much at all even though it seems like we have been working awfully hard to catch up. Can we be blamed for feeling at times as though Jesus is hard to find, and for suspecting this means that he is not really here?
And can we take the church seriously when – with Scripture apparently at arms length – we indulge in fantasies about Our Lady? But isn’t it just at times like this - when things that used to be clear to us have grown blurry, that certainties of life begin to seem so uncertain, that mystery begins to become so much more present, and the light seems to be dimmer than once it was – that we do something counter-intuitive, since squinting and looking closer didn’t seem to be getting us anywhere.
And if in stretching our arms out, we appear to be pushing Scripture away, then this is only an optical illusion. For there is a song in our ears, and (God willing) on our lips, as we do what we never had to do before – we reach our arms out, further, and behold, at last we can see!
And if we are to celebrate Mary, it is not, I think, because we have gotten carried away with a silly old tradition, and thrown away the Bible. It is because we want to see Jesus more clearly; we want to make him more visible to the rest of the world; we want to heighten the importance of his ministry to the poor, the lowly, the meek, and all who suffer unjustly at the hands of power. It is because we want to magnify the Lord, and we can think of no way to do it better than to sing with the one whose soul first magnified him, whose womb brought him into the world, whose wisdom taught him to pray, whose feet followed him to the cross, and whose heart first gave his sacred heart its beat.
My soul doth magnify the Lord, and with Mary, my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior!
Thanks be to God!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
The Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin
15 August 2010
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia