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Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – The Reverend Dr. Rowan Williams

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Revelation 11:19- 12:6, 10  Luke 1: 46-55

Solemn Eucharist – Wednesday 15 August

At my primary school, we had weekly hymn practice. Our favourite hymn, which we requested week after week, was one which you probably have to be a certain age to remember: When a knight won his spurs in the stories of old. It goes on to describe some of the clichés of chivalry. Knights are gallant and bold- and they kill dragons. Now, as a Welsh person I’ve always rather enjoyed the fact that our first reading from Revelation contains dragons- and red dragons at that. In the great East Window of the Minster above my head, the same red dragon appears alongside a monster with seven heads. Neither of them look particularly scary; but even as a Welsh person, I have to admit that the dragon of Revelation is meant to be a symbol of evil, waiting to destroy the woman with the crown of stars and her child.

The woman and her child are never named in Revelation: but their significance is obviously intended as a reference to Jesus and his mother Mary. There is so much about Revelation which makes it as easy to dismiss as fairytales and legends. If we no longer believe in knights, dragons and monsters, why on earth should we still believe in the rest of it- angels, heaven, God? Jan Struther’s hymn, which I learnt when I was seven, spells out why. The knights are all gone and the dragons are dead- but the dragons of anger and the ogres of greed  still exist and still need to be destroyed: in our Church, in our world, in our own lives.

We can no longer afford to believe in romantic visions of the past, but there is still a role for faith in the battle between good and evil. And Mary, the mother of Jesus whom we celebrate today, helps us to root that battle- and our faith- firmly in the real world instead of a world of fantasy. Her song, the Magnificat- which was our Gospel reading and which we sing here every day at Evensong- is a rallying cry for the transformation of the world. A young woman, whose whole place in society is already marginal because of her gender and made even more vulnerable by unexpected pregnancy, sings with absolute confidence of a God who confounds expectation. Mary names the dragons of her own day, and of ours: poverty, power imbalance, injustice, hunger- and speaks of God’s utter commitment to their destruction. So Mary’s song is not a wistful ‘if only the Kingdom were like this’. It’s a profound and radical call to put our faith into action, to build the Kingdom.

A great deal of nonsense has attached itself to the figure of Mary over the centuries. She sums up the ambivalence of a Church which took six centuries to declare officially that women had souls, and another six centuries after that to begin to take seriously the theological implications of Jesus’ humanity. That debate lies at the heart of the confusion about what exactly it is that we celebrate today. If Mary is an ordinary human being like the rest of us, her human death is not a matter for shame, to be explained away by theology. But if Elijah the prophet can be taken away into heaven at the end of his ministry, why not Mary at the end of hers? The very point of Mary is that she is indeed human; for if Mary isn’t human then nor is Jesus, and if Jesus is not human then we are not saved. But Mary’s existence as a human physical woman has been problematic too. Mary’s virginity and her motherhood have been used down the centuries to limit options for women: there’s still a kind of silence about those of us who are neither of those things, as if we didn’t or shouldn’t exist. When I was seven and singing When a knight won his spurs in assembly, my brother could join the church choir but I couldn’t. So it’s been a delight to sing services in the Minster this week with the girls’ choir from St Peter’s Wolverhampton, to show them that there are no reasons why one of them, can’t go on to preach, or to direct music in a cathedral- or anything else that they are called to do.

But not all the dragons are dead yet. We still live in a world where senior politicians can belittle women who choose to dress a certain way- let’s not forget that Mary wore a headscarf. We still live in a culture which thinks it can tell women (and men too, for that matter) what to eat, how to look, how to behave, who to go out with. We still live in a world where #MeToo needed to happen. The radical vision of the Magnificat is not a song for women. It’s a song by  a woman, which has become the song of every Christian who shares that vision of a better world- where the hungry are fed and the powerless enabled, where wealth and influence are equally distributed, and nobody is made more perfectly in the image of God than anyone else. Mary’s song is not a fantasy or a fairytale. The dragons of anger and ogres of greed are as much of a threat now as they ever were. But, as the hymn points out, it cannot be left to some mythical knight in shining armour to defeat them.

Mary’s story, Mary’s song, is ours too: an ordinary human being, called into relationship with God, called to work with God to bring about the Kingdom on earth. It won’t just happen. Except that we know that it is already happening. The dragon did not win. The woman and her child survive. And Mary’s song echoes down the generations, and outside all time: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. From henceforth, all generations will call me blessed.

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