Sermon for The Blessed Virgin Mary: Reversal of Fortunes: preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 15 August 2021 by The Reverend Christopher Huitson. (Galatians 4: 4 – 7; St Luke 1: 46 – 55)
Some of you will know the story of the wife of one of the headmasters of Sherborne School and her piano. In 1560 a dwelling had been constructed from the remains of the Lady Chapel at the east end of the Abbey for the use of the School headmasters. In due course in the 19th century one Headmaster had a piano installed. This particular wife used to do her piano practice on a Sunday evening and thus provided an unexpected and unappreciated accompaniment to Evensong until she was persuaded to reschedule her playing. It wasn’t until 1934 that the restoration of the Lady Chapel took place.
This graphically illustrates the changes that took place as a result of the dissolution of the monasteries, the move towards Protestantism and the Reformation. The saints were no longer seen as mediators between humanity and God and the Blessed Virgin Mary herself, although still revered, lost a good deal of her influence. A Lady Chapel in the mid-16th century was no longer seen as essential.
Mary appears on a few occasions in the gospel narrative. Today we hear the words of Mary when she visits her relative, possibly a cousin, Elizabeth. We call it the Magnificat and indeed it opens with praise to God for magnify is linked with words like magnificent and so speaks of giving God the honour and worship rightly due to him. But God regards Mary with favour and this expresses a contrast between the lowliness of Mary and the unexpected heaping of honour upon her as she is given the task of Bearing Jesus.
It has been observed that the song of Mary has similar content to the song that Hannah sang in the Old Testament. Hannah had prayed for a son having been described as barren and did indeed conceive and gave birth to a son who was named Samuel, a great prophet who ministered at the time of King Saul and King David. Her song is in the first book of Samuel chapter 2 verses 1 – 10. Both the Magnificat and the song of Hannah speak about a reversal of fortunes. Hannah says: “He lifts the weak out of the dust and raises the poor from the refuse heap to give them a place among the great, to assign them seats of honour.” Mary says: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.”
This reversal of fortunes was an idea associated with the Day of the Lord and the end of the established order. This goes back in the history of the children of Israel to a more primitive time with less developed ideas about God and his activity. The Day of the Lord pictured God as a warrior god who would fight for his chosen people. He would defeat great empires and little Israel would be triumphant. But such a nationalistic attitude became modified over time so that it is the proud and wealthy whose lives are turned upside down and it is the poor who are given good things.
In the New Testament this is a common theme in the parables and sayings of Jesus. Think of the Sermon on the Mount and which categories of people who are declared to be blessed – the poor, the sorrowful, the gentle, those who thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted. Think of the parable concerning those invited to a banquet who spurned the invitation. They were replaced by the poor and homeless. Think of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican or the Prodigal son. So many of the stories which Jesus told contain a reversal of fortune.
That reversal certainly happened to Mary herself. She was not a princess but an ordinary girl from a small rural village but with extraordinary character. Simeon tells her that she will be pierced to the heart and she knew what that meant as she stood at the foot of the cross. But in time her fame spread wherever the gospel was preached. Many churches were dedicated to her including this great Abbey church at Sherborne and many churches would have a Lady Chapel in her honour.
Jesus, from the cross, asked John to look after her and there is indeed a building not far from Ephesus which is now looking like a chapel. Tourists are told that this is Mary’s house. A local water supply has been channelled into three taps providing various good results not least some cool relief from the scorching sun! While all this is unlikely to be authentic, nevertheless we would expect John to honour the request from Jesus and look after Mary for the remainder of her earthly life.
We honour Mary, the mother of Jesus with this special day when we reflect on her nature and character and her willingness to say “yes” to the angel delivering God’s request that she should give birth to the saviour of the world. May we be as ready to discern God’s will for us and give our willing and heartfelt assent.