Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of St. Mary the Virgin – August 18, 2013
There are times when you may or may not notice that what we do liturgically at St. Paul’s may differ a bit from mainstream Episcopal parishes. Today, for example, when most churches are likely observing the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, we are celebrating the solemnity of St. Mary the Virgin, which falls on August 15.
While it appears on the calendar for all Episcopalians, it is within the Anglo-Catholic tradition a particularly festive day that honors the Blessed Virgin Mary as the birth-giver of God’s Son, Jesus, the Messiah. In honoring Mary, we follow the ancient tradition of the universal church and the decision rendered in the Fifth Century by the Council of Ephesus to accord her the title (ϴϵοτόκοϛ) Theotokos, or “Birth-giver of God.” The Icon displayed today is the Eastern Orthodox style of teaching this doctrine in picture form with Mary presenting the child Jesus to us and to the world.
I thought this might be an occasion to offer a mini-teaching about our liturgical ethos of St. Paul’s. An “Anglo-Catholic” parish since the 1930s, we have lightened up and reformed some of the more stale practices associated with this tradition yet have been faithful to what is at its core. We are a church where you will find more elaborate ritual, colorful vestments, a lot of music and chant, bells and incense. We’ve often expressed a more catholic-lite approach as “smells, bells, and sneakers.”
This all originated in the 1830s, when a group of Anglicans realized that in order to distance themselves from unhealthier aspects of Catholicism and its theologically questionable dogma, the Church of England did not have to throw the baby out with the bath water. There were elements of sacred tradition, especially in the liturgy, that were the practice of the ancient church and should be included in Anglican worship, even things as basic as candles and Altar coverings.
The Oxford Movement, as it is called, influenced the worship at a number of churches in England and in America. Sadly, critics of Anglo-Catholic worship focused all their discontent on the ritual, not noticing that this same movement put strong emphasis on the social gospel and care for the poor and were the first churches in the United States to stop the common practice of making parishioners pay for their pews.
For those not familiar with Anglo-Catholic worship, one elephant in the room is, of course, incense. Some love it, some hate it, some can’t tolerate it, many ask why we use it. So here’s the scoop: For those who are not fond of incense, it may come as refreshing news that it was absent in the worship of the early Church until about the fourth century because of its prominence in pagan Roman rituals.
For the incense enthusiasts, the good news is that incense was an integral part of Jewish Temple worship, the earliest model for our Christian liturgy. The Hebrew Scriptures make many references to incense such as in Psalm 140 where we pray that “our prayer might arise” in the Lord’s sight as incense. With the decline of paganism, incense was reintroduced, first carried in processions to make them more festal and later the censing of the Gospel book, bread and wine, altar, cross, and people.
The clouds of holy smoke are a symbol of our prayers ascending as well. We use incense to lead us in processions, to show honor for the principal elements in worship such as the Altar, the Cross, and the gifts of bread and wine we offer. And the thurifer, the minister in worship who carries the thurible or censor, censes us, the People of God, to remind us that we have been made in the image of God; we are “icons” of our Creator.
Let’s return now to our feast day celebration. In both western and Eastern Christianity it marks the falling asleep or death of the Virgin Mary and is referred to as the “Assumption” by Roman Catholics and the “Dormition” by the Orthodox. The Gospels, however, never mention Mary’s death and the text today takes us to a very different place in her life – to the beginning and God’s call to her. The setting is a visit between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, each of these women astonished at the unexpected news they have received at the hand of an angel – that they were inexplicably with child.
A pregnant young Mary has made an extraordinary and difficult journey to the hill country to visit her elderly cousin, both of their lives having been caught up in the dramatic workings of God. At the first sight of her cousin rushing up the hill, Elizabeth greets her: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Mary responds in song, describing a world turned upside down, in which the poor are gratified but the rich are turned away empty. Two pregnant women – one very young and one fairly old – words of wisdom uttered from a teenage girl, words that would be cherished and sung again and again through the ages, tumbling down all the way to us. It is sung in every service of Evensong here as it has been sung by our choristers over these past two weeks in great cathedrals in England: The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
Mary’s song, the Magnificat, calls for a new world order which would be set in place through the coming and ministry of Jesus. It’s a world where the proud are scattered, the powerful brought down, the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled with abundance, the rich sent away empty.
Today we honor a venerable and holy woman who as a very young girl accepted a huge challenge from God and took a giant leap of faith in assuming the role of birth giver of Jesus, our Savior and Brother. Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the most renowned preachers in the Episcopal Church, says “In the divine dance we are all dancing, God may lead but it is entirely up to us whether we will follow. Just because God sends an angel to invite one girl onto the dance floor is no guarantee she will say ‘yes.’”
In a culture that would scorn her for it, Mary was willing to take the risk, to trust in God and step out onto the dance floor. In Mary’s life we find a world of the unexpected, evidence that anything can happen when God touches our lives in profound, surprising, even bewildering ways. God still intrudes on us when we don’t expect it and stirs up new life within us – even when we may not think we’re ready for it.
Where may God be interrupting, nudging, asking you to step out on the dance floor now? How might our lives be caught up in the dramatic workings of God? What unexpected turn in your life might God be trying to initiate? Perhaps good questions to ask on this feast of St. Mary the Virgin. God does great things through ordinary people – for Elizabeth and Mary and even you and me.