The 15th August (the day that I’m writing this blog) is the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the Catholic Church it’s the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, in the Orthodox Churches it’s the Dormition (or Falling asleep) of Mary, but in the Church of England it is just the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
There can be no doubt that the place of Mary in the piety of the church has been a bone of contention, especially between Catholics and Protestants, for centuries. Today, in the C of E some churches will call today the Assumption, others the Falling Asleep, others will probably ignore it altogether.
However, for most of us, regardless of theological debates about how Mary got into heaven, Mary is a person that is rightly revered and honoured for the role she played in making possible the salvation of humankind.
We can all honour her for the way in which her ready obedience to the will of God paved the way for the birth of Jesus. We have respect for her role in the bringing up of Jesus through his childhood and in preparing him for his adult ministry. We feel for her as she stood at the foot of the cross watching her Son die.
Our gospel reading for her feast is part of the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth – the Magnificat or the song of Mary (Luke 1.46-55). And what a song it is. A song of praise to God – a song that praises God for his justice, a song of promise for the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden, a song of liberation. A song of revolution.
As Mary sings these words it is as if she has been set free herself from a life of oppression and exploitation into a new life where she can know freedom and justice. As we hear her sing, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour; because he has looked upon the humiliation of his servant. Yes, from now onwards all generations will call me blessed it is clear that her own life has been transformed. But the rest of the song is also about how all lives can be transformed.
These words reveal a strong and active woman, not the Mary of popular piety – quiet, withdrawn, pure, passive. Through the centuries it is this passive Mary who has been the model for what it is to be a woman. Women were encouraged to be quiet, passive, submissive. Such has been thought the glory of Mary’s eternal virginity that women have, at times, been made to feel that, while being a mother is their highest calling, it is less glorious than being a virgin.
The Mary who sang, My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord has been used as a means to the oppression of women rather than as a means of empowerment for them. And although much has been done in recent years to emancipate women in our society, we know that in many places they are still routinely oppressed. We know too, that even in our own Western society they are still struggling for equality; we know that many are routinely abused on social media and elsewhere for expressing opinions; we know that many are mocked and abused for the way they look; we know that many are victims of sexual exploitation.
As Christians we need to rediscover Mary; that strong, powerful, political, radical Mary who sang Magnificat and bring hope to all the oppressed.
Holy Mary, pray for us.