The Magnificat, or Mary’s Song

Luke 1.46-55

Today, the 15th of August, is one of those times when the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church and the Church of England all celebrate a major feast, that of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

For Roman Catholics, this is the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin – a celebration of Mary being taken body and soul into God’s eternal presence as Queen of Heaven.

For Orthodox Christians, this is the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God – a celebration of Mary, her earthly life ended, falling sleep-like into the eternal arms of God.

We in the Church of England, however, noting that there’s no account of the end of Mary’s life in the Bible, just mark today as a general celebration of Mary.

Mary doesn’t in fact say that much in the Bible, but among the words she does say, the ones we heard in our Gospel reading have been sung, spoken and chanted for centuries.

To get a good idea of what’s going on here, we need to have some context.

Mary has learned that she is pregnant, even though she’s a virgin.

That’s a huge shock, and a scandal.

She’s also learned that her cousin, Elizabeth, is pregnant.

Elizabeth is too old to conceive, so her pregnancy is also a miracle.

Mary visits Elizabeth. When Elizabeth sees Mary, the baby inside Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy.

Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”.

Imagine how overwhelmed Mary must be by all of this.

Our Gospel for today is her amazing response.

It is beautiful, prophetic poetry, containing strong emotions.

He has shown strength with his arm.

He has scattered … who?  The proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down … who? The powerful from their thrones.

And lifted up … who? The lowly.

He has filled … who?

The hungry with good things.

And sent… who? The rich away empty.

What’s going on here?

It seems like God loves … who? The lowly and the hungry.

How does God feel about the arrogant, the powerful and the rich?

Not so good.

This is the point at which rich and powerful people start to squirm.

And it raises the question, does God hate rich and powerful people?

Let’s see what’s going on here.

God scatters the proud because he hates arrogance and loves humility.

God brings down the powerful because they use their power to oppress others.

God sends the rich away empty because they keep things to themselves while others suffer.

It seems that the issue here is not our level of wealth or how much power we have but rather how we deal with them.

God’s main concern is not with the size of our bank account but with what we do with the money we have.

Do we selfishly hoard our treasures, or do we have generous hearts and a desire to help those with less?

Do our money and possessions make us feel that we’re better than others, or do we see them as generous gifts from God to be used for the good of all?

God doesn’t say that person is powerful, let’s pull him down a peg or two.

Rather, he wants to see power used responsibly, with care for others, with justice and with mercy.

Is power just for our benefit, so we can get what we want, or does it come with a responsibility to use our position to do good?

I think we can safely say that God doesn’t hate rich people.

Rather, God hates arrogance, selfishness and oppression.

God doesn’t hate powerful people.

God hates injustice and misuse of power.

And on the other side, God doesn’t love poor people because they are poor.

God hates it when people are mistreated and will always stand to defend the weak.

The climate report this week highlighted the threat to some of the poorest people in our world, some of whose countries may disappear completely under the sea.

We also heard the horrific news from Portsmouth, including the tragic death of a young girl.

Surely God cares about these things and these people, and will bring about justice for the weak and the poor?

Not, though, so that the lowly can lord it over the mighty in some sort of twisted justice.

Rather, God’s aim is to remind us that each human being is a beautiful creation of God, and we are all equal in his eyes.

God’s work of salvation involves restoring proper relationships not only between God and humanity but also between people.

Mary understood this, and so she sang of God’s new world order, one in which all have value, all are loved, all are cared for and protected, and each person looks out for the good of others.

Much has been said about Mary during the Church’s history, and she’s been exalted in the minds and hearts of some to a degree I’m not altogether comfortable with.

But she did catch a wonderful vision of what God’s salvation means for our world, and for that we can thank her and God.

Compassion of God

A talk given at Morning Prayer on 23rd October 2019

Ecclesiasticus 18.1-14 / Mark 15.33-41

The Apocrypha

Our first reading today came from the book of Ecclesiasticus, also known as the Wisdom of Sirach or just Sirach, which is one of the books of the Old Testament Apocrypha.

Nowadays when we refer to something as “apocryphal” we generally mean that it’s dubious or probably untrue, and just dismiss it.

But this isn’t the whole story of the meaning of the word.

An apocryphal story, according to the dictionary, is one which is probably not true or did not happen, but which may give a true picture of someone or something.

So, with the books of the Apocrypha, the stories may or may not be literally true but they do give us a true picture of something or someone – in this case God and his dealings with human beings.

And, because of this, while the Apocrypha did didn’t make it into the official biblical collections of either Jews or Protestant Christians, the books it contains are considered to be good and holy reading, nonetheless.

Some Bibles print the Apocrypha in between the Old and New Testaments at the back.

And if you happen to be reading a Roman Catholic or Orthodox Bible you will find that these books are considered to be part of the Old Testament proper.

Bird droppings, dogs, fish and angels

My favourite of these books happens to be Tobit, which features Tobit, recently blinded by bird droppings, sending his son Tobias off a long journey to collect some money for him, accompanied by his dog and the archangel Raphael, disguised as a relative. Along the way a fish tries to eat Tobias’s foot but with Raphael’s help Tobias kills the fish and uses parts of it to heal a woman possessed by a demon and then his father.

But, going back to Ecclesiasticus, what we have in this morning’s first reading is a picture of God that seems to fit well with what we know of God from the Bible.

Power and Compassion

We see a God who is powerful and eternal, who is beyond all praise that could be offered.

He is described as living for ever, as having created the universe.

None can fully describe God’s power and great deeds because they are beyond human experience and understanding.

We might expect a being of such power to hardly notice us, like we hardly notice small insects scurrying about at our feet.

Yet Ecclesiasticus also tells us that none can fully recount God’s great mercies.

For this great and powerful God looks on humanity with compassion, patience and forgiveness.

This God sees our short lives, our confusion, our sin and our stumbling – and reaches out to help.

This is a picture we see again and again in the Bible – people go astray, fall into sin, misunderstand and generally mess things up but God comes to us with outstretched hands and patiently offers us help.

And, of course, we see the great climax of that compassion on the cross, as we heard in the second reading, when Jesus voluntarily fully entered into the human experience of feeling utterly alone, abandoned, scared and hopeless, all so that we need never feel alone or abandoned by God again.

So, as we go into this day, and all the days that follow, let us hold on to that picture of a God who cares and stands with us in the mess of life with compassion, forgiveness and love in his hands.

Gathering the Scattered Ones

GENESIS 11.1-9 / Acts 2.1-21 / John 14.8-17

The Day of Pentecost

When we say, “Come, Holy Spirit” what do we think will happen?

What are we expecting?

What are we hoping for?

Perhaps a warm fuzzy feeling, maybe some divine inspiration, a little more confidence in our faith?

When the Holy Spirit came to the disciples on the Day of Pentecost he came with noise and fire and disruption.

He came with power.

It’s quite a violent image, unsettling, unexpected and designed to shake everything up.

And the disciples began speaking in other languages.

This is an odd sounding thing – God’s spirit bursts into the room and suddenly everyone is a language expert.

What was the point, you might think, what did it do for them?

But this miracle wasn’t for the disciples, to make them feel good or superior or show how great they were – it was for everyone else.

It was for people who didn’t believe or understand the gospel.

It was for people who might not even have heard of Jesus.

It was for the outsiders.

There were Jews from across the known world visiting for the Jewish festival of Pentecost – basically a harvest festival.

Maybe it was even their first trip to Jerusalem for some of them.

And now they were confronted with a group of local Jews talking away at them in their own language.

Babel Reversed

What was happening here was a reversal of the effects of the Tower of Babel.

As you may remember, the story in Genesis 11 goes that everyone spoke the same language and came together to build a huge tower to get as near as they could to heaven and get some fame and glory for themselves.

Their aim was to prove that they were equal to God and able to match him in power, showing that they didn’t need him.

They were also for some unexplained reason afraid of being scattered across the face of the earth and thought they could protect themselves by using their own power.

But God put an end to this by doing the very thing they were afraid of – he caused them to be scattered across the world by making them unable to understand each other.

In this way God limited their arrogance and proud ambition and placed limits on them.

And looking at how people treat each other given unlimited communication on the internet I think I see God’s point.

But the Day of Pentecost turned the scattering of humanity on its head.

By making it possible for people from all over the world to understand the disciples’ message the Spirit was reaching out and gathering into God’s kingdom everyone who wanted to come.

People who wouldn’t normally meet and who couldn’t understand each other were being drawn in by the power of the Spirit.

He was inviting them to gather together as one people belonging to God, united by a common language of love, forgiveness and understanding based on the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The Spirit was starting the process of bringing together the scattered people of the world and healing the nations.

And this is a process that’s still going on today.

In our world we’re divided by so many things – by race and gender and politics, by ideology and by creeds, by arguments and by long-running feuds.

And terrible wars are fought – we’ve been remembering this week the 75th anniversary of D-Day, a great day in that it was the beginning of the end for the Second World War, but also part of a very dark time in our history.

A New Hope

Yet, despite our ongoing divisions and problems, we see in the coming of the Holy Spirit a new chance for reconciliation, unity and hope.

A new beginning for humanity.

We can see the gathering power of the Spirit in churches where people of different ages, experiences, ideas, temperaments and backgrounds come together to try to live and worship as God’s people.

We can see it when people reach out to each other with repentance, forgiveness and understanding, not forgetting the past but also not letting it poison the present.

I saw this week a video of a meeting between two soldiers who fought in World War II, one English and one German, and they declared themselves to be friends, partners and brothers.

In such recognitions of our common humanity we can see hope for a better future.

We also see the Spirit’s power to bring people together when they try to understand those who are different from themselves, not being content to lean on stereotypes or prejudice but willing to listen and learn and break out of the bubble of those who are just like us.

And this is the power that’s at work within each one of us today.

We have access to the power of the Sprit – not to use for our own fame and glory, like the builders of the Tower of Babel tried to do, but to be part of God’s work in the world.

Our gospel reading reminded us that we’re given the Holy Spirit to be with us, to guide us, to remind us of the way of Jesus, and to enable us to do things for God – not just for our sake but for the sake of gathering into God’s kingdom all the scattered peoples of the world.

Just as those first disciples were given power to speak in other languages so that people from across the world could hear the gospel, we are given power to do the work that God has for us to do here and now.

We are given the power of the Sprit so that we can point to Jesus and through him to the Father, in the things we do and say, in how we live our lives, and in the ways in which we serve both God and the people around us.

And by pointing people to God we help to bring together scattered humanity into God’s kingdom, where all are united in love, joy and peace forever.