A sermon on
The Feast of St. Mary the Virgin
As preached by the Reverend Lawrence Crumb
August 15, 2012 – St. Timothy’s, Salem
I would like to thank Father Filbert for allowing me to share my golden jubilee in the priesthood here at St. Timothy’s. I first came here in 1993 as supply priest and returned many times, sometimes simply to attend. I found myself wishing I could move to Salem and be at St. Timothy’s every Sunday; and then, for two wonderful years, my wish came true when I returned as interim rector. Of course, it had to end, as it did with the arrival of one greater than I, whose forerunner I am pleased to have been.
Now, a Golden Jubilee is a fiftieth anniversary, but, of course, the story goes back more than fifty years. In September 1951, as a sophomore in high school, I joined the Young People’s Fellowship of Christ Church, Los Altos, a small but growing parish in a small but growing town on the San Francisco Peninsula, in the area now known as Silicon Valley. The following month, I joined the church choir, and a month later I was baptized and confirmed. A large addition to the church was being built, and the choir practiced at the home of a couple who both sang in it. One Thursday evening, I was greeted at the door by our host with these words: “The king is dead; long live the queen.” It was February 7, 1952. He was quoting from a speech given earlier that day by the British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill. The previous day, a twenty-five year old princess had climbed down from a tree-house in Kenya to learn that she was now, “By the grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of her other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.” Sixty years later, she is still queen. As an Anglophile monarchist, I am naturally pleased that my golden jubilee as priest should coincide with her diamond jubilee as monarch.
In retrospect, I think it is appropriate that, before ascending the throne, the new queen had first to descend from something, if only a tree-house. As St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, commenting on Christ’s descent among the dead, “Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?” (Eph 4:10 KJV) In a recent television program about the queen’s jubilee, several of the people interviewed stressed her humility. Humility is a good attribute for a monarch, or for a priest – indeed, for all Christians, since all Christians share in the royal priesthood of Christ, the greatest example of humility that ever was.
Surely, the second-greatest example of humility was that of St. Mary, whose feast we celebrate today. This was apparent at the Annunciation when, after the brief question, “How can this be?” she accepted her very dangerous vocation, saying simply, “Be it unto me according to thy word.” We cannot know, or even imagine, the feelings that must have overwhelmed her, and it is not surprising that she spoke but a few words. The true nature of her humility became more apparent at the time of her Visitation to Elisabeth, when she proclaimed the ecstatic utterance we know as the Magnificat. Mary has been called the first truly liberated woman, and we see here that her humility was not the false humility of Uriah Heep in the novel David Copperfield, but included an assertiveness based on a self-confident knowledge of who she was: “Behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” She could say this in humility because she knew who it was who gave her the mission and the authority to carry it out: “He that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is his Name.” Names were very important and powerful in her culture, and the name of God, especially so. When her son taught his disciples to pray, “Hallowed be thy Name,” he was reflecting this same consciousness. (Notice that the word “Name” is capitalized in the Prayer Book, in both the Magnificat and the Lord’s Prayer.)
We see another combination of humility and assertiveness in the story of Jesus’ first miracle, at the wedding in Cana, where we are told at the very beginning of the account, “The mother of Jesus was there.” This episode is recorded only in the Fourth Gospel, and thus may be primarily of symbolic significance. The Jewish Annotated New Testament, published just last year, suggests that “the wedding may allude to the messianic banquet,” especially since it is said to be “on the third day,” a phrase interpreted in the same commentary as possibly foreshadowing the resurrection. We don’t know what Mary’s role in the wedding celebration was, but her instructions to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you,” remains the most basic and succinct instruction to all Christians. It has become clear that Mary’s humility is linked inseparably with trust and faith.
We see the ultimate expression of Mary’s trust and faith at the foot of the cross, where she stands with John, the youngest disciple, and the other women, when strong men have fled.
And then … Did you ever notice that something’s missing from the gospels? There are several accounts of Jesus’ reunions with the disciples after his resurrection, but not a word about his reunion with his mother. What a moment that must have been! Perhaps it was too intimate and private to have been recorded. We do know that Mary remained in Jerusalem, for we read in the account of Pentecost that she was with those disciples who remained in the city, “constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” (Acts 1:14) They didn’t know exactly what they were waiting for, during the period following the Ascension – what I like to think of as the church’s first interim. But I can’t help wondering if Mary had a pretty good idea. Perhaps she suspected that, just as the Holy Spirit had come upon her to enable her for her mission, so the same Holy Spirit would come upon the whole apostolic community, enabling them for their mission, the Divine Commission to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:19-20)
We don’t know when Mary died, the event associated with this day – what the Orthodox call the Dormition, or Falling Asleep, and Anglicans used to call the Repose. However longer she lived, we may assume that she remained an icon of faith, trust, and humility to all who knew her.
One of the drafts leading up to the American Prayer Book of 1928 included a prayer of thanksgiving for the saints, including Mary by name, as an optional prayer following the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church; it followed the example of the 1549 book, which included the words in the longer prayer. It didn’t make it into the final version, but we now have it, slightly revised, as one of the optional prayers at the end of the Burial Office. It is appropriate for other occasions as well, and I would like to leave it with you today as a reminder that when we affirm our belief in the communion of saints, there is Mary, pre-eminent among them.
O God, the King of saints, we praise and magnify thy holy Name for all thy servants who have finished their course in thy faith and fear; for the blessed Virgin Mary; for the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs; and for all other thy righteous servants, known to us and unknown; and we beseech thee that, encouraged by their examples, aided by their prayers, and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, page 489)
[Note: I have given the queen’s present title, adopted in 1953. At the time of her accession, it was “By the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland, and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas, Queen, Defender of the Faith.”]