All Saints Margaret Street | The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, High Mass and Procession Saturday 15 August 2015

Sermon for The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, High Mass and Procession Saturday 15 August 2015

Sermon by Revd Canon Dr Simon Jones, Chaplain Merton College, Oxford

‘A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’.

As a ‘genuflexious’ teenager a group of friends and I used to make an occasional Sunday evening excursion from St Albans (Hertfordshire, that is, not Holborn!) to high church ‘dos’ in London.  This Church was one of our regular destinations, as was St Mary’s, Bourne Street where, on Marian feasts, their image of Our Lady would be processed through the streets as we sang Wilfred Knox’s wonderful hymn: ‘Though the streets of heaven, Mary thou dost tread, Roses in thy bosom, Stars about thy head’.  Coming, as I did, from a somewhat Evangelical parish in the provinces, this spectacle made quite an impression; that is until one year, as we were turning a corner, the crown toppled from Our Lady’s head.  Looking at the precious object on the floor, I was utterly dismayed to see that the jewels which encrusted the crown were fake.  Cheap costume jewellery would have been a disappointment, but this was far worse, and plain for all to see, as coloured drawing pins scattered across the streets of Pimlico!

One of the problems many Christians have with today’s festival is that much of the imagery associated with Mary’s assumption, both artistic and linguistic, is overly influenced by our first reading.  To my mind, this is as much a problem for those who rejoice to carry Mary through the streets as for those for whom it is anathema.  The significant joint Anglican – Roman Catholic report on Mary, published just over a decade ago, stated that ‘the teaching that God has taken the Blessed Virgin Mary in the fullness of her person into his glory is consonant with Scripture’.  And that’s fine.  But it does not require the woman in Revelation chapters 11 and 12 to be identified as the Mother of Jesus for it to be the case. 

This afternoon, as we celebrate Mary’s Assumption and prepare for our own procession, I would like to offer you another image of Our Lady which may give us a slightly different perspective on this feast.

Entitled Our Lady Queen of Peace, it stands behind the High Altar of Tewkesbury Abbey, facing east, towards the site where the Abbey’s original Lady Chapel stood until its destruction at the Reformation.  It’s a relatively modern statue, the work of Anthony Robinson, and was given to the Abbey in 1992.

Its base is a pile of rusted metal, twisted and misshapen – which has led some of the more conservative members of the Abbey congregation to refer to the image as ‘Our Lady of the Scrap Heap’!  But there is some truth in that.  Within the contorted features of this pile of scrap many have seen instruments of torture, the wreckage of a car crash, and the Ground Zero of September 11th.  For me, this ugly pile of metal speaks of a painfully disordered world of chaos and despair – of a world and its people tortured and disfigured by the effects earthquake, flood and famine; of terrorism and persecution, of religious and racial prejudice and intolerance. 

From this chaotic base rises the image of Mary – elegant, graceful, gleaming in stainless steel, her hands parted in prayer.  With its two parts, the statue speaks of the movement from death to life, from Crucifixion to Resurrection, which is, of course, at the heart of the Christian story.  But unlike many of the other Marian images at Tewkesbury, this is no gooey sentimental Christmas Card representation of the sort of mother who cradles her child in her arms in order to protect him from the painful reality of what is happening beneath them.  The twisted metal is an integral part of the statue.  Without it, the image is incomplete and would topple over.

‘A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’.

In the chronology of Luke’s Gospel, Mary’s Magnificat, which we’ve just heard, is her response to two encounters: first, with the Angel Gabriel, and then with her kinswoman Elizabeth.  As Mary utters those words how could she have had any idea what she was responding to, as to what her ‘let it be to me according to your word’ would involve?  The Mary whose son would be born in a cattle shed and laid in a feeding trough; the Mary would be forced to flee into Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous threats; the Mary whose son would be rejected and persecuted by her own people; the Mary who found herself standing in a place where no mother should ever have to stand, a powerless spectator of her son’s bloody execution, whose final filial embrace was of a cold, disfigured and lifeless body.

As Anglican Catholics, who are, for much of the time, happy to see Mary clothed with the sun and crowned with stars, we can sometimes fall into the trap of distancing ourselves from Mary and her experience by placing her on such a high pedestal that we honour her as the perfect Christian rather than the model disciple.  Obviously, there is a sense in which the unique vocation of the one chosen by God to bear the Christ places Mary in a different category of discipleship from each of us.  None of us has been called to be the Mother of God.  And yet, as children of God and of Mary, we must resist the temptation to emphasize the dissimilarity at the expense of the greater similarity which exists between us and her, both in terms of what God calls us to be and to do.  For if we’re not careful we can turn Mary’s ‘let it be to me’ into the easy, natural and obvious response of the perfect disciple, rather than the risky, uncertain leap of faith of a young Jewish woman whose discipleship we are called to model.  Tewkesbury’s Our Lady Queen Peace challenges us to get the balance right, by illustrating the connection which exists between Mary’s experience and our own.

For by making scrap metal the foundation for stainless steel, this image of Mary expresses the important Christian truth that the resurrection of Jesus Christ does not obliterate his Good Friday experience; it does not remove the intense passion caused by its pain, or its darkness or its god-forsakeness for him, for us or for Mary.  When applied to our own lives, this same truth helps us to come to terms with the often painful and frustrating reality that, like Mary, for much of the time, our lives are lived, not basking in the gleaming, reflective, and ecstatic splendour of resurrection glory, but struggling to find our way in that often sharp and ambiguous place, of what appears to be a spiritual wilderness or no-mans-land, where twisted metal and shining stainless steel meet. 

This same image helps me to approach today’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of VJ Day.  At noon Japanese Standard Time on Wednesday 15 August 1945, the broadcast of a recording of Emperor Hirohito’s voice brought the longed-for news that Japan’s government had been instructed to accept the Potsdam Declaration, thereby bringing to an end the Second World War.  Here in London, the streets were quickly filled with thousands upon thousands of people celebrating the end of six years of terror.  The euphoria was so great because Britain’s experience of war had been so great.  And yet, when the dancing stopped and the celebrations subsided, the reality of ceasefire erased none of the experience of suffering and loss of life, either for people here or, indeed, for the people of Japan, for whom two atomic bombs had caused death and devastation on an unprecedented scale.  Any hope of new life which could have been represented by shining stainless steel was held up by twisted, blood-spattered metal all over the globe.

On this feast of her assumption, we need to learn from Mary how to look for a constant coming of Christ into our lives and into the life of our world – into the chaos, into the misshapen and rusted disorder, and to look for opportunities to leave the twilight zone of our daily existence to reflect more fully the light of the risen Christ.  As we take to the streets at the end of today’s mass, may our procession remind us of this and also help others to experience the truth of crucifixion and resurrection in and through us.  We who are frail, conflicted, complicated, scraps of human flesh carry on our shoulders the image of the glorious God-bearer.  She is part of our story, as we are part of hers.  This feast of the assumption is Easter in August, Mary’s Easter, but it is also ours.  For the Mary who this day is assumed into glory invites us to join her in the risen life of her Son, not only when we die, but here and now, walking with her the streets of heaven as she walks with us the streets of this city.  Today let us ask for her prayers, that in this public act of witness and devotion we may catch a glimpse of a glorious vision, not only of Our Lady, but also of ourselves. 

For if, with our feet firmly rooted in the reality of the present, we can take the risk of lifting our eyes from the rusted metal, to look into Mary’s shiny, open womb, then the miracle of the Assumption will become plain to us; for in the place of her Son, we will see our own reflection, the face of one of her other children, a disciple, a brother or sister of Jesus and, yes, a child of God.  Like the ‘Hall of Mirrors’ in a fairground, the reflection may, for a time, be distorted, but there can be no doubting whose image we see – and there can be no shadow of doubt as to the even greater glory as yet to be revealed.

‘A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’.