The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Choral Evensong      15th August 2021
Mary and the Church
Jeremy Fletcher

Acts 1. 6 - 14
Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chile, Republic of Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Croatia **
No, not the list of amber countries requiring PCR tests when you return from them, but the first 10 of 44 who celebrate August 15 as a national holiday for the Blessed Virgin Mary. I spoke at some length this morning about the history of August 15: that it derives from a commemoration of Mary’s death, and soon became an expression of the role of Mary as a woman in the story of salvation, such that it was felt she should be already in heaven, raised after her death, and even, perhaps, taken bodily to heaven before she died – the “Assumption” which the Roman Catholic Church made an official doctrine finally in 1950. 
Our anthem tonight, the Ave Maria, includes the words spoken to Mary by her relative Elizabeth: “blessed are you among women”. That’s become a contested phrase theologically: is she blessed because she was chosen, or chosen because she was already blessed?. It’s given rise to much doctrinal dispute about whether Mary was sinless or sinful, and indeed is part of the debate about her general role in the salvation brought through Jesus the Christ. 
We must honour her as the one who bore, gave birth to, Jesus. We must recognise her presence throughout Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. We must see that her role enables salvation to have been worked for male and female. But some doctrines are not held by all, and I have to stay with Jesus as the focus of our faith, the ground of our salvation. 
What about those words: “blessed are you among women”. One approach would be to see whether they were used of any other women in scripture, and known by Elizabeth, member of a priestly family. They are used only of two women: Jael, and Judith. Jael, during a conflict between God’s people and their enemies in Judges 4, lured Sisera, the commander of the opposing armies, into her house, and killed him by hammering a tent peg though his sleeping head. Judith, in the Apocryphal book which bears her name, does something similar to an Assyrian general, Holofernes, though she chops his head off. Elizabeth, calling Mary a blessed woman, would know this. 
Is this why Mary’s song, which we have as the Magnificat, is full of the ways that what looks weak and poor and humble to the world is turned to power and victory by God? In the history of God’s ways with the world it is the accepted notions of power and success and wealth and influence that get overturned. It is women who conquer the most powerful of men, the poor who display true riches, the meek who inherit the earth, the humble who overthrow the proud. Beware of placing Mary into a hermetically sealed sanctified bubble. She is blessed, like the women who showed the powerful before her that God works in stunning, overturning ways. 
With the disciples, Mary waits after the Ascension for the way in which God will overturn the world, filling the disciples’ weakness and small numbers with the Holy Spirit to change everything after Pentecost. With Mary we seek blessing so that what is weak may be made to speak God’s word and do God’s will. With Mary we say yes to whatever God asks. With Mary we ask not to be powerful in the way that other people might understand it. And with Mary we look to Jesus the Christ, that in him the whole earth may be blessed, so that, one day, we will sing her song in glory. Amen. 

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