Saint Mary the Virgin, 15 August 2013

Isaiah 61:10-11
Psalm 34
Galatians 4:4-7
St. Luke 1:46-56

Background:  The Blessed Virgin Mary and the Reformation
The honor that was accorded the Virgin Mary even after the Reformation seemed to prevail in some countries (Germany and England in particular) but did not survive in others.  England had a strong tradition to fall back on, namely the visitation of Joseph of Arimathea, and the dedication of a Celtic Christian Church in Glastonbury (St. Mary’s) in 65 CE.  The English Reformation maintained some aspects of Marian devotion and reshaped or eliminated others.  The opening up of the Scriptures allowed for a new study of Marian traditions and legends.  The English reformers were not put off by the perpetual virginity of Mary, but her role as a mediatrix was supplanted by the original vision of Jesus as the only mediator between God and humankind.  Looking at the Prayer book calendar from 1561, we see five feasts devoted to the Virgin: The conception, The Nativity (of Mary), The Annunciation, The Visitation, and The Purification.  The Assumption (15 August) as a feast day was not restored in Canadian and Scottish prayer books until much later – and even then it was called the Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary (as in the Eastern Church).  In 1922, the cult at Walsingham was restored.  In most modern prayer books, Mary enjoys the 15th of August as a feast day in which she is honored with collects, readings, and prayers.  In 2005, the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican churches issued a joint statement, “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ”, similarly the Lutheran-Roman statement: “The One Mediator, the Saints, and Mary”, was released in 1990.

Isaiah 61:10-11

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.

In the midst of the salvation oracles that both precede and follow our reading we discover this hymn of thanksgiving that is state in individual terms.  The imagery that it uses is tied to both marriage and agriculture.  “The garments of salvation” recall the festive clothing of the bridal pair, and the mention of “jewels” gives way to the beauties of the earth and its own fecundity.  In some respects the opening lines of this hymn recall generally the hymn of Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10) especially the first verse: “My heart exults in the LORD, my horn is exalted by my God.”  This and the remaining verses seem to be the inspiration for the Virgin’s song, The Magnificat, in the Gospel of Luke (1:46-55).  What these verses do not proclaim (as does the author of Samuel, and St. Luke, is the uplifting of the lowly – a theme of both hymns and the general thrust of a great deal of Lucan theology.  Rather, this hymn proclaims the beauty of an individual, and in its use on this day, describes the beauty of The Mother of God, the Theotokos.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. Could you rejoice similarly about your own life in G-d?
  2. How does G-d clothe us in garments of righteousness?  What does that mean to you?
  3. What is the beauty of your own faith?

Psalm 34 Benedicam Dominum

I will bless the LORD at all times; *
his praise shall ever be in my mouth.

I will glory in the LORD; *
let the humble hear and rejoice.

Proclaim with me the greatness of the LORD; *
let us exalt his Name together.

I sought the LORD, and he answered me *
and delivered me out of all my terror.

Look upon him and be radiant, *
and let not your faces be ashamed.

I called in my affliction and the LORD heard me *
and saved me from all my troubles.

The angel of the LORD encompasses those who fear him, *
and he will deliver them.

Taste and see that the LORD is good; *
happy are they who trust in him!

Fear the LORD, you that are his saints, *
for those who fear him lack nothing.

The young lions lack and suffer hunger, *
but those who seek the LORD lack nothing that is good.

Come, children, and listen to me; *
I will teach you the fear of the LORD.

Who among you loves life *
and desires long life to enjoy prosperity?

Keep your tongue from evil-speaking *
and your lips from lying words.

Turn from evil and do good; *
seek peace and pursue it.

The eyes of the LORD are upon the righteous, *
and his ears are open to their cry.

The face of the LORD is against those who do evil, *
to root out the remembrance of them from the earth.

The righteous cry, and the LORD hears them *
and delivers them from all their troubles.

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted *
and will save those whose spirits are crushed.

Many are the troubles of the righteous, *
but the LORD will deliver him out of them all.

He will keep safe all his bones; *
not one of them shall be broken.

Evil shall slay the wicked, *
and those who hate the righteous will be punished.

The LORD ransoms the life of his servants, *
and none will be punished who trust in him.

While this psalm is properly put into the mouth of David (who feigned insanity in order to escape the intents of Abimelech the King of Gath, see I Samuel 21:14f,) these words could also be heard as coming from the Virgin as well.  Here the inspiration for the Lucan agenda can also be seen: “the Lord’s seekers lack no good,” “Cry out and the Lord hears”, “Near is the Lord to the broken-hearted.”  Thus the reading is appropriate for this day that honors “the low estate of his handmaiden” – Mary. 

Breaking open Psalm 34:
  1. Whom do you know who could properly proclaim the thanksgivings of this psalm?
  2. Could you?
  3. How are you lowly?  How have you been exalted?

Galatians 4:4-7

When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

The author of Galatians continues his arguments regarding the status of those who follow Jesus.  In line with other commentary about the enslavement of the Law (which proves us not to be of God) the author promotes a different understanding.  He begins with what the culture says about children.  Before coming of age, the heir-to-be has no status and is no different than a slave.  The time of his coming of age needs to arrive before his full status is known.  The author continues the comparison by noting that the Galatians were “enslaved to the elemental powers of this world” – an element and understanding that seems to have blocked the Galatians progress in becoming one with Christ.  The author then begins his testimony and creed, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption.”  The ordinary (being born of a woman) gives way to the extraordinary (adoption).  Thus the slaves become heirs, and call G-d “Abba” (Father).  The role of the woman is not insignificant, for it is through her cooperation (“be it unto me as you will”) that the new relationship begins, with the Spirit sending Jesus into our hearts as well.

Breaking open Galatians:
  1. What do you understand by the phrase “when the fullness of time had come”?
  2. How do you understand the distinctions of being a child and being an heir?
  3. How is your humanity advanced in this reading?

St. Luke 1:46-55

Mary said,
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

Peculiar to Luke, significant characters – Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, Mary, and Simeon break into song.  It is a contrast to the Mary, deep in the experiences following the birth of Jesus, who then ponders in silence.  This is not that aspect of Mary.  Here she is quite ebullient, using phrases and ideas from the Hebrew Scriptures to give voice to her praise.  The tense of the verbs used in the song indicates an action “here and now”, not something from the past, or something that had begun and was incomplete.  Its fullness was present.

The hymn is stated in two sections.  The first (46-50) looks at what G-d has done for Mary as an individual.  The second section comments on what G-d has done for Israel.  Each of the sections is seen in the context of continuing mercies from G-d for both the individual and the whole community.  Some commentators have seen this as more properly a song from Elizabeth, the cousin that Mary is visiting at the time the song is first sung.  It also has roots in Hannah’s song (see above), and in Psalm 111:9.  In a way, Luke has Mary stand up as an example of the Lord’s favor not only to her, but also to multiple persons and incidents (Abraham and Sarah, for example).  Thus “future generations” are included in this array as well.

From the stability of these citations and inferences in the song we move to a world in which things will be uprooted and change.  This is not unusual for Luke.  For a good exercise here, compare Luke’s beatitudes (St. Luke 6:20-26) with those of Matthew (St. Matthew 5:1-12).  Matthew’s spiritualization of Jesus’ words gives way to Luke’s striking contrasts.  The second section of Mary’s song is about all the power that is being used in the land and the lowly of the land that are struck down by its oppressions.  The conclusion that “he has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,” will not only be seen as a fulfillment of prophetic hope, but as the context of Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What are the stabilizing elements of Mary’s song?
  2. What are the destabilizing elements of Mary’s song?
  3. Do either affect you?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


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