St Mary as “Everywoman”: Four Sermons

(This is Neil.) I haven’t been posting much of late. There hasn’t been any dramatic reason for this – no freak accident or sudden realization of the futility of blogging. It is merely the result of the toxic combination of business and habitual laziness.

I had been meaning to post something on the Blessed Virgin Mary for the month of May, but the month slipped through my fingers. I still would like to draw your attention to four very good sermons delivered on Mary by the Anglican priest and theologian Nicholas Sagovsky at Westminster Abbey during this past month. Fr Sagovsky is a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), which released the joint agreed statement Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ two years ago.

Fr Sagovsky says about the deliberations of ARCIC, “We all agreed on that anything we said about Mary we said because it threw light on Christ and on the Church.” Mary is a “role model.” Furthermore, Sagovsky tells us that he often finds that “when there is a need concerning a family in distress it is to Jesus in the arms of his mother that I naturally turn” – he reaches out as part of the “Christian family” to those in distress with Mary, as well as Jesus. We can here refer to the ARCIC joint agreed statement’s claims that “Mary’s ‘Amen’ to God’s ‘Yes’ in Christ to her is thus both unique and a model for every disciple and for the life of the Church” and that “we walk together as pilgrims in communion with Mary, Christ’s foremost disciple” (my emphases). And, ARCIC goes on to say of Christians, “In singing the Magnificat, they praise God with her; in the Eucharist, they pray with her as they do with all God’s people, integrating their prayers in the great communion of saints” (again, my emphases).

In Fr Sagovsky’s first sermon, he focuses on Mary as role model: as “everywoman,” here meaning the “mother of those who keep God’s Word and share in the new life brought by Jesus.” He looks at the story of the wedding of Cana (Jn 2:1-11) and writes:

… It is Jesus who knows what to do when the wine has run out and something has to be done. And the mother of Jesus also plays a key role in the story. She is the one who tells the servants to do whatever he tells them. We are not informed how she came to have such confidence in Jesus. She hardly appears again in the gospel before the very end and there once more she plays a key role, standing by Jesus, when almost everybody else has run away. Mary is presented as one of the very first people to have complete confidence and trust in Jesus. When she brings the need of the moment to him, and when she tells the servants to ‘Do what ever he tells you’, she is a role model for all Christians.

To us it sounds strange that Jesus should call her ‘woman’. It may be that this is just a polite way to speak to her, rather like calling her ‘madam’ or calling one’s father ‘sir’, as children used to do. But there may also be a suggestion that Mary is everywoman, the woman who reverses the failure of Eve. Eve was everywoman, the ‘mother of all living beings’. Mary is also everywoman, but in a different sense. She is the mother of those who keep God’s Word and share in the new life brought by Jesus. She is the one in whom the life of the church is perfectly summed up and shown to us. When Jesus says to her, ‘O woman what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.’ we get a hint of what is to come at the end of the gospel. In the Fourth Gospel, the ‘hour’ of Jesus, the time when his glory is manifested, is the time when he is crucified. That’s the time when he will have a special need of his mother, and a special place in the continuing life of the church to pass on to her. …

The point for us now is that, from the beginning, in the New Testament, Mary was integral to the gospel. If we do not in our faith have a place for Mary we miss out on the fullness of the gospel. In the story we have looked at this morning the role of Mary is very clear. It is the same as the role of John the Baptist – to point in faith to Jesus: ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ If May is Mary’s month, that is because at this time of year, in the northern hemisphere, the whole of nature is bursting with new life, and the one who brings new life is the whom Mary – through the Holy Spirit – brought into the world. …

In the second sermon, Fr Sagovsky looks at Mary as “everywoman” in a very different (and perhaps unexpected) way and place, namely, at the foot of the cross. First, he quotes a verse about Mary written in the 13th century, during the reign of Henry III:

Now goth sonne under wod:
Me reweth [I pity], Marye, thy faire rode [face; cross].
Now goth sonne under Tre:
Me reweth, Marye, thy sone and thee.

Sagovsky writes about the anonymous author:

He (the writer was probably a man, quite possibly a monk) saw a mother bereaved of her son, and it broke his heart. He saw not the happy celebration at the beginning of a glorious ministry, as at the wedding in Cana, but the sunset of Mary’s joy and the brokenness of Jesus’ body. He saw the tree of life as the tree of death, and Mary, in her bereavement, left to struggle through the night. For him, Mary is every mother who has lost a child, especially those who stayed with their children as they have passed away, or have endured the agony of seeing their children tortured and killed.

Mary is the one with the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who for thirty years, every Thursday afternoon, gathered in the centre of Buenos Aires to walk around the square wearing white scarves, demanding to know the whereabouts of their missing children and grandchildren. About 30,000 of these young people, who disappeared in the 1970s, are still unaccounted for, and three of the mothers are themselves among the disappeared. Recently the mothers, now so much older, have accepted it is time to stop their marching because a democratic Argentinian government now supports the things their children died for. They say it is for them to defend the democratic reforms for which their children gave their lives.

Mary is the icon of the woman from Congo who recently told on the Today programme how she had been forced at gunpoint to strangle her own baby. Mary is the icon of the thousands on thousands of mothers and grandmothers in Africa who have seen their children die of AIDS. She is the icon of mothers in Burma at this moment struggling to protect their children from heat and disease. In Luke’s Gospel, we are told of the prediction that a sword will pierce Mary’s heart. Here we see what that means.

This was the image, the icon, that so captivated some unknown medieval writer that he gave us that tender verse. It was the image that so captivated the medieval imagination it was repeated in almost every medieval parish church up and down the land. The tenderness of Mary, mother of Jesus, is very much part of the Gospel.

Sagovsky continues his theme of Mary as “everywoman” when discussing the ecumenically thorny issue of Mary’s assumption (or dormition) in the third sermon:

Those who know the Psalms will recall the verse that says, ‘Thou wilt not … let thy holy one see corruption’ (Ps 16:10; cf. Acts 2:27). It is because of this verse that a body which does not decay has been seen as a sign of holiness. In the Old Testament there are stories of particularly holy people like Enoch and Elijah who, at the end of their lives, were swept up into the immediate presence of God. Could anything less have happened, Christians have thought, to the person who was the Mother of God Incarnate? … She gives us the perfect image of what it is to be a Christian woman or man. … Mary shows us the destiny of the whole Church.

And, finally, Sagovsky completes his discussion of Mary as “everywoman” by pointing us to the Orthodox language about Mary as “all-holy,” panhagia:

As with the Orthodox teaching about the Dormition of Mary, I think their teaching about Mary as panhagia can be extremely helpful to Christians in the West. It encourages us, because it makes of Mary an example we can all follow. As we receive the Holy Spirit we are given strength to fulfill the tasks God has for us to undertake. We are given strength to become bearers of Christ to a needy world. As Christian women and men, we can take Mary as our role-model. Like her, and with her, we can bring the need of the world to Jesus (remember she said, ‘They have no wine’ (Jn 2:3)) and like her, and with her, we can encourage the world to find in Jesus God’s provision for those things we most need (it was she who said ‘Do whatever he tells you’ (Jn 2:5)). We, both Christian women and Christian men, can say with the angel: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace (panhagia) the Lord is with you. Blessed art thou among women’ (Lk 2:28)’ and some will want to add, ‘Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour when we fall asleep.’

Please read the entire sermons if you have the chance.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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