The Dean - The Very Reverend Andrew Nunn
Isaiah 61. 10-end; Galatians 4. 4-7; Luke 1. 46-55
The opening scene of the must-see musical of this year, ‘La La Land’, shows people emerging from their cars on a freeway and dancing for sheer joy.
It’s that simple exuberance, that uncontrollable joy that as far as I’m concerned musicals seem to capture quite unlike anything else.
My colleagues in the Cathedral knew exactly how to treat me when I was celebrating my big birthday in July. They organised an outing to see ‘42nd Street’. If you haven’t seen it and enjoy musicals and dancing, if you’re the kind of person for whom the beginning of this year’s season of ‘Strictly’ – I wonder how the Revd Richard Coles will fare, is he going to be the ecclesiastical equivalent of Anne Widecombe or last year’s sensation Ed Balls dancing Gangnam Style – then you must go. The show opens with the curtain being raised just enough for the audience to see a line of feet tap dancing away. It was one of the most joyful things that I’ve ever seen.
I promise not to let my imagination run away with me on this Feast of Our Lady, this celebration of our patron, Mary the Mother of Jesus. I don’t imagine Elizabeth and Mary dancing for joy, but it’s a close thing.
The Gospel for today is a deeply familiar song, it’s part of the texture of the worship of the church, the daily evening song of the western church, the daily morning song of the eastern. But whether the morning or the evening the church continually echoes the song of the virgin, the Magnificat.
I need to put it into some kind of context. Mary, betrothed but not yet married, Mary, barely a woman, really a child, is visited by an angel in her home in a backwater town of Palestine and is told that she’s pregnant and that God’s the father of her child. This unmarried girl is to face the prospect of being ostracised at best, killed at worst, within the community of which she’s part – and she was being put through this by God, who, she was told, had specially chosen her for this.
St Paul is clear, in his Letter to the Galatians, that the child was born ‘under the law’ but in many ways the child would be born outside the law and set his mother outside of the law and Joseph with her.
Perhaps in an effort to protect her she’s bundled off, down south, to a relative, an older woman, a cousin, the wife of a temple priest. No one knew her there and she’d be safe whilst Joseph did some speedy work on how to redeem the situation.
Mary arrives to find that miracle pregnancies are the order of the day in her family. This woman, Elizabeth, barren, dry, unfruitful as far her neighbours were concerned was also pregnant and her husband was speechless, struck dumb at the news. But Mary arrives, the young, fruitful, full of promise girl and is met by Elizabeth, old, barren but blooming. And their hearts miss a beat and their stomachs turn over and their unborn children dance within them and Mary bursts with joy and sings – or at least that’s what St Luke tells us.
Mary, in what can hardly be described as normal or the most promising circumstances, being put through it by God, bursts with praise.
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.’
She sings the most fantastic song. Her world has been turned upside down and that’s what she recognises as the work of God as she sings the song of the earth-shattering, life-changing God who will reorder society, reorder creation, reorder lives
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.
My grandma used to sing all the time she worked, as she was heaving the washing out of the boiler into the mangle, as she was washing the windows, black leading the hearth, cardinal polishing the step, sweeping the yard. She sang through the hard work of life and we learnt her songs. I like to think that Mary didn’t sing this song once but many times and in the hearing not just of her unborn child but of her growing son so that, when he gathered the crowd on the side of the mountain and taught them, he could sing the Beatitudes to them – the radical gospel that he drank from her breast and heard from her lips, that would redeem those ‘under the law’.
The great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary compared to the air we breathe’ describes Mary as the one
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.
In her joy and in her acquiescence to the will of God Mary lets ‘all God’s glory through’ and as St John says
‘We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’
Since a church was built on this site by the river, maybe, maybe around the year 606, but who’s counting, we’ve been under the patronage of Mary. That means that we believe she prays for us and holds us in her heart. But the convent and the priory that succeeded it weren’t just called St Mary’s but St Mary Overie. It’s a strange name, a strange title, there’s no other church with that dedication. It makes us unique amongst all the hundreds and thousands of churches dedicated to Mary, Our Lady, in every part of Christendom. We’re unique because the word ‘Overie’ is about where we are and where we stand.
This church has always been ‘over the river’, on the other side, over and against the city and the places of wealth and power and influence that have always existed on that north bank. There were and are churches dedicated to Mary in the city, but this is the church dedicated to Mary over there, over here, overie.
For me that gives me a clue as to what our vocation, what our calling from God is.
This is the first Sunday of the new choir year, the occasion when new Stewards are admitted, when we get back to normal, the holiday is over, we get down to work and the business in hand. And what is that business?
The prelude to our holiday was a dreadful period in the life of this city and nation as terrorists struck here and elsewhere, as a tower block went up in flames and, literally, countless lives were lost. The summer saw a continuation of acts of terrorism in Barcelona and elsewhere. The last few days we’ve watched the effect of hurricane and flood on the richest and the poorest nations. We’re horrified by the posturing of aggressive leaders in North Korea and the USA, staggered by the inhumanity shown in Myanmar to the Rohingya Muslim minority. We’re already experiencing the effects of Brexit as our currency plummets and our world standing is diminished. There’s never been a more uncertain period in our recent history and it can feel as if there is little to sing and dance about.
But Mary lets all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Mary sings into her uncertainty, just as Isaiah had sung into his. For the prophet knew the truth as Mary did, that the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
And that is what we have to witness to, from this privileged view from the other side of the river, from this place of inclusion and diversity, this place of justice, mercy and peace, this place in which the Magnificat is not just sung but lived. It is with Mary ‘one work that we have to do’ and in the strength of divine food, of bread and wine, we’re sent off to do it, to dance and sing through creation until the whole world sings and dances for joy and justice with us.