Sub Dean - Revd Canon Michael Rawson
One of the things I’m really looking forward to is visiting the National Gallery again
I keep getting caught out by the need to book in advance and by the time I decide to visit all the tickets have gone. Three years ago there was a stunning exhibition about the friendship and rivalry between two giants in the Renaissance art world – Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo. One of my favourite pictures in that exhibition was the Visitation by Sebastiano. It is the scene setter for this morning’s gospel reading and depicts a very pregnant young Mary meeting her aged cousin Elizabeth. Mary looks anxious and care worn, whilst Elizabeth enfolds her with reassurance and the wisdom of years, even though she too is pregnant for the first time. Look it up on Google images and see what you think. Or next time you’re in Paris pop by the Louvre where it is housed. Much as I love Sebastiano’s depiction of the Visitation I’m not convinced that it accurately portrays the essence of this gospel episode.
What a meeting it must have been between Mary and Elizabeth. After all the tensions, suspicions, cross words and inevitable falling outs in her family and with Joseph, it must have been a relief for Mary to leave Nazareth going to visit her cousin in the anonymity of the hill country of Judea. For a time she wouldn’t have to justify herself or try and convince others of God’s plan for her and the world. As soon as she arrives Mary is greeted by Elizabeth’s words, ‘Blessed are you among women!’ and her child, John the Baptist, leaps in her womb to honour the unborn Saviour and his mother. The Magnificat, or Song of Mary, is just that – it’s a song of praise and thanksgiving shouted at the top of Mary’s voice. There’s no holding back as she recalls all that God has done for her and will do for our world. The two women must have danced and sung for joy as they delighted in the new lives growing within them.
The Magnificat is, with the Benedictus, one of the bookends of Christian praise and prayer, recited at Evensong each day as we recall the mighty things God has done, exulting in a message of hope, of justice and turning the world on its head. This is at the heart of the gospel message and is good news for all who hear it; the kingdom of God coming in our very midst. It recalls a world with God at the centre, turning upside down the attitudes and priorities of our tired world and allowing space for the things of God, who makes all things new.
In this picture painted by the gospel writer, we witness two mothers to be who are full of anxiety and wonder at what the future might hold for their unborn children. Their sons will change the world around them in very different ways and yet both point towards the breaking in of God’s kingdom in our world. Both will turn society on its head, speaking the truth to power and not holding back from proclaiming the word of God. In the Song of Mary we hear echoes and resonances of the beatitudes spoken by Jesus in his later ministry when he exhorts his listeners not to put their trust and strength in the values of this world.
In the midst of the lockdown earlier in the year it seemed like we were being given a wake up call to see the world through different eyes. Those who kept our lives running were applauded – NHS and care workers, transport workers, teachers, delivery and shop staff, funeral directors – all those key workers who have usually been overlooked and ignored, were visibly vital to our daily lives. I suspect that as human beings we have short memories and we take them for granted once more. During the height of the pandemic the climate emergency fell off the headlines as we saw rising death tolls. How long will it be before we remember some of the lessons learned during the outbreak and respond to the disaster facing our planet? When will we heed the cries of the Black Lives Matter movement and truly celebrate our diversity and equality as beloved daughters and sons of the Most High God? How long, O Lord, how long?
Mary’s song is one of both praise and action. She shouts at the top of her voice, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,’ but at the same time she longs for the kingdom in which God, ‘has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.’ As people who walk in the way of Christ, we too sing the Song of Mary and ask for strength and commitment in working with God to bring about the values of the kingdom here and now, living the good news, and being good news to the downtrodden and forgotten.