Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 3 September 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Hail holy Queen, Mother of mercy; hail our life, our sweetness and our hope.
This evening’s anthem is probably the best known Marian text after the Hail Mary, because it is used at the end of the rosary as well as, traditionally, at the end of Compline in the green season.
What does it mean to address Mary, in this way – as Queen of heaven? And why do so at the end of Evensong or Compline?
In the Old Testament monarchy the Queen of the Davidic Kingdom was the Queen Mother. The Kings had many wives, none of whom fittingly could be called Queen. That honour was reserved for the mother of the King, whose authority far surpassed the many “queens” married to the king. We see this is the role Bathsheba played with respect to King Solomon and the occasions when the Queen Mother acted as regent on behalf of juvenile successors to the throne.
The role of the Queen Mother, therefore, was understood as a prophetic type of the Kingdom role of Mary, just as the role of the Davidic King is a prophetic type of the Kingdom role of Jesus. Jesus inherited the Kingdom promised to David, who was told that one of his descendants would rule forever.
The Annunciation proposes this Davidic lineage to the one to be born of Mary and the expansion of doctrine around our Lady’s role in the history of salvation after her proclamation as Mother of God by the Council of Ephesus in 431 logically embraced this scriptural link. But honouring Mary in our daily prayers has a simpler and more obvious history.
Mary gives us the humanity of Christ; she brings God to us that we may be brought to him. For this reason, her role in making God one of us and us his family, she is always a key figure in popular devotion. Of course once you make that link a complex of human psychology and cultural baggage around motherhood comes into play.
This was first brought home to me when travelling around Sicily, where, in addition to mulitple Marian shrines almost on every street corner, the many ancient statues of the mother goddess Demeter show an almost oppressive cult of motherhood predating Christianity. Especially noticeable there is the cult of the mater dolorosa, deriving from Simeon’s prophecy in the Temple that ‘a sword shall pierce your heart also’. Almost every church has a statue of the sorrowing Virgin, often draped in black, usually with seven swords protruding uncomfortably from her chest. The sword piercing Mary’s heart has been multiplied sevenfold to illustrate the highly developed devotion to the seven sorrows of our Lady. This cult of aggrieved mothers is said by many social commentators to have produced in their sons that happy mutual benefit society which we know as the Mafia: when Marlon Brando says ‘don’t go against the family’, he is really betraying that his mother has produced a monster. The newest shrine of Our Lady in Sicily is a vast modern church in Syracuse erected in the 1990’s to house a weeping picture of the Virgin to which crowds of Sicilian pilgrims flock. Because of all that, and because of centuries of devotional art in the manner of the Pietα (Mary cradling the lifeless body of her son after it has been removed from the cross) it is difficult to separate this devotion from a masochistic view of motherhood.
St Luke founded the cult of Mary – it is his gospel which first foregrounds her as Christian heroine with an emphatic role in the coming of Jesus. With Simeon he signals a tragedy in the classical sense: the downfall of the hero, and, with him, ‘many in Israel’, is foretold, as if by a Teiresias of the Temple. The sword that will pierce her own soul or heart – her psyche, her self – is usually taken to be a prophecy of her experience as a bystander at the crucifixion, watching her son’s side pierced with a lance.
This sword is to pierce her very self, her reasonable expectations of life: she will learn that obedience (which is Mary’s strength in Luke’s portrait), obedience to the word of God will transcend even family ties. We might recall how the priorities in relationship are depicted, as in Luke 8:
Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’
Which of course does not exclude Mary.
Or chapter 11
While he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!’ But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!’
Which characterises Mary precisely. From those verses we may conclude that, ‘don’t go against the family’ is the opposite of the gospel: God’s family is to be much more, and more inclusive, than our human families.
That is Mary’s gift to us as Queen of Heaven, and as our mother in the history of salvation. We are gathered into the truest, most human family, one in which we will always belong.