The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      15th August 2021
Mary and her Song
Jeremy Fletcher

Luke 1: 46 - 55
Because of the hardships of lockdown some churches have chosen to have Christmas services in the summer, but that’s not why we are celebrating the Blessed Virgin Mary today. Among other dates, the Church of England’s calendar invites us to celebrate her on August 15th. Look carefully and you’ll find that, officially at least, this is a recent development. The Book of Common Prayer of 1662 and even the Alternative Service Book from 1980 have nothing on August 15th. So what’s going on? 
In the church’s life the tradition built up not only to have seasons dedicated to aspects of the life of Christ and the life of faith, but also to celebrate events and people on particular days. Think of Lent as a season of prayer and discipline, Christmastide and Eastertide as seasons to concentrate on aspects of Christ’s life, and the commemoration of saints on the days of their death. Some saints were given more than one day (like John the Baptist, whose birth and death are celebrated separately in June and August).
Mary was such a vital figure in the life of the Church that it became important to commemorate various aspects of her life on different days. The Annunciation (on March 25) was an early feast, as was her visit to Elizabeth (on May 31) when Jesus and John leapt in their respective wombs. Those events were recounted in the Gospels, and protestants could recognise them, even as they were less sure about other commemorations. Mary must have been born, must have had parents, must have died, and the church began to commemorate these things too. September 8 became her birthday, July 26 acknowledged her parents, and August 15 marked her death. The Common Worship calendar now includes all of these, even if they don’t appear in scripture.  
Look into the history a little deeper and you’ll find that August 15th is not just about Mary’s death. Differences of view began to emerge about the nature of Mary’s place in heaven. Initially it was felt that, like Jesus, she was raised immediately, as one of the first fruits of the resurrection and is already in heaven, rather than resting in peace awaiting the resurrection at the Second Coming as the rest of us must. That remains the view of the Eastern and Orthodox churches today, for whom this is the “Dormition”, or Falling Asleep, of Mary. 
The Western Church developed the further belief that Mary did not die physically but was taken bodily into heaven before her death. Rather than “falling asleep” she was “assumed”. The Roman Catholic dogma, defined as late as 1950, is actually ambiguous as to whether Mary was assumed before or after death, but many believe the former. Today is then named as the Assumption, though not in the Church of England, where we just say “The Blessed Virgin Mary” and let people work it out for themselves. 
What I was interested to discover was that the psychologist Carl Jung believed that the statement of belief that Mary was taken bodily into heaven was the most significant Christian religious event since the resurrection. This was because it affirmed, in Jung’s words “the integration of the female principle into the Christian conception of the Godhead”. If you like, there is a woman in heaven alongside the man Jesus. It may well be that much of the prominence of Mary in the life of the church derives from this drive to affirm that humanity is not just male, however much the patriarchy makes itself felt. The inclusion of the female gender in the working of salvation is an inclusive thing, however complex the theology might be. 
For now, August 15 is as good a date as any to reflect on what we know of Mary, and to honour her even as we debate her place and role.  It is instructive to reflect on what St Luke shows: a young girl, steeped in her religious history, living it out among a close family who were aware of the way God had worked through their ancestors and were faithfully looking for the fulfilment of promises which were their lifeblood. After the Annunciation Mary runs like mad to her relative Elizabeth, wife and daughter of priests, herself amazingly pregnant.
In this family and community Mary is then able to the song of praise which is our Gospel today, with its ancient scriptural resonances: “my soul magnifies the Lord”. Rather than speculate about whether Mary is in heaven or whether she even died, I’d rather be knocked backwards by what she is recorded as singing, in the traditions of God’s people: that God has mercy on those who acknowledge God, that God looks at the powerful and humbles them, that God lifts up the lowly and humble, feeds the hungry, lets the rich know the true value of their wealth, that God affirms his love to the old and new people of God to all the children of Abraham by birth and faith. 
Mary is the God-bearer. Mary raises Jesus, follows him, cares for him at his death, sees him buried, sees him raised and ascended, prays with the disciples and sustains the early church. She sees the way in which God works through history and through and beyond God’s ancient people, her people. With her we should be anxious to hear and interpret the voice and challenge of God and find a community and family where we can hear that voice in each other and in our shared traditions. With her we should be amazed that God should choose us, and we should be filled with courage to do what God asks. And, God willing, at the resurrection, we can share that vision of God with her, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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