|Mary Windows, Episcopal Church of All Saints, Indianapolis|
I think this may be the only Gospel reading that comes around on a Sunday that, if I were a betting man, I would wager a pretty big proportion of this congregation has memorized in its entirety.
There’s no need to feel bad about it if you don’t, by the way; it’s just that by virtue of being in choir and singing some of the countless pieces of music its been set to, or by praying the Liturgy of the Hours or the Daily Office, whether for a lifetime or stints of a few weeks here and there, repeated encounters with these words of Mary, the blessed Mother of Jesus, have caused these verses to be written in our minds, if not on our hearts. For many centuries in the western church, monks, nuns, priests, and ordinary faithful like us, have greeted the sunset with Mary’s inspirational and aspirational invocation of God most high: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior.”
This passage is also known as the Magnificat, after the Latin for “magnify.” In it, Mary, pregnant with Jesus, speaks of herself not only as rejoicing in the Lord, but magnifying the Lord. Making something that isn’t readily visible, visible.
Even though we make a big deal out of Mary here, what with our statue and stained glass window devoted to her and all, devotion to Mary is, in fact, optional. Scripture doesn’t say a great deal about her. But from the earliest days of the church Mary has loomed large in the Christian imagination. A vast and beautiful tradition has arisen in her honor. It’s easy enough to see why.
In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ is our savior. We know that he through whom we were loved into being will not let us fall in the end. But by choosing to follow Jesus, and the way of the cross, in baptism, we have chosen a difficult road, and we need companions on the way. That company includes one another – those in this church traveling the same path – the great cloud of witnesses in heaven and on earth, and the risen Jesus himself, most especially in the sacrament of his body and blood.
That company also includes Mary, his mother, who in some very literal ways has made Jesus visible to us. It was Mary who bore God the Son safely into his earthly life, responding affirmatively to the angel Gabriel’s call. From her womb she bestowed him with flesh and blood. With her hands she wrapped him in swaddling clothes. At the wedding in Cana, Mary noticed the wine was running out and prompted her son’s first miracle. At the place of the skull she watched him die; at the foot of the cross she held his corpse with the same tenderness with which she cradled him as an infant, away in a manger all those years before.
On the cross we see a God who gives everything for us, who endured death in order to create a safe passage for us on the other side of that door. In Mary, we see the joyful expectation, and the trusting endurance of sorrow, of swords that pierce the soul, that characterize the life of a disciple walking up to that doorstep. And we see the fulfillment of what it is to be Mary, full of grace – one who has so generously received the gifts of God’s love and mercy that she can’t help but emanate that grace as well.
Mary has been commemorated with so many sculptures and stained glass windows, so many settings of the Magnificat and Ave Maria, rosaries, grave markers, garden statues, grocery store candles, refrigerator magnets – so much merch – that it can obscure that the heart of Mary, which in our prayers in a few moments we will describe as “immaculate,” is more than anything ordinary, like yours, like mine. Mary’s worthiness to bear Jesus came not from being somehow special or unusually holy, but from being faithful.
That is both comforting, and challenging. There’s comfort in knowing that any one of us could be worthy to be chosen by God to be a vessel used to pour God’s grace into the world. Challenge in that being a vessel used to pour God’s grace into the world may well be our call. That it is not just for Mary’s soul, but for ours, too, to magnify the Lord.
I won't call out this person by name, but there is an All Saints parishioner who, most years if not every year, makes a gift of flowers in honor of St. Constance and her Companions, the Martyrs of Memphis, near their feast day. That commemoration falls on September 9, so if past is prologue, we’ll see flowers for them in just a few weeks.
Constance’s name, and the other Martyrs of Memphis, showed up in the bulletin annually a few times before I took notice and thought to look them up. Without any other knowledge, I assumed they were early church martyrs, North African desert mothers martyred in Memphis, Egypt.
But in fact they were martyred in Memphis, Tennessee, less than a century and a half ago. Constance and her sisters were Episcopal nuns, who had come to Memphis in 1873 to found a girls school. By 1878, an epidemic of yellow fever hit the city. Rather than flee as many others did, Constance, Thecla, Ruth, and Francis stayed to treat the sick. 5,000 people died, including them. Constance died on September 9, 1878, with the rest following her within a month.
It’s a moving story, all the more resonant here because of our church’s intimate experience of AIDS. And it’s no surprise that the patron of Constance’s sisterhood was none other than St. Mary. I daresay the souls of Constance, Thecla, Ruth, and Francis magnified the Lord, showing the power of God to turn hearts to love and mercy, to take risks, and to turn hands to tender service of the sick and fearful.
Now Mary herself was not called to martyrdom, and at one time I might have segued out of this story by saying something along the lines of, “we may not be called to such heroics.” But COVID has killed a million people in this country and isn’t done with us yet; metaphorical violence plagues our airways and actual violence plagues our streets, schools, and other places we’re told are supposed to be safe. So who knows what might be demanded of us? We would do well to prepare our souls to make God visible each day in ways small and large, whatever may come.
And to do that, we could do a lot worse than to follow Mary. And there’s no shortage of ways to do that, as we can see just from the objects and windows in this church.
Following Mary’s example can mean looking like an elegant renaissance lady, being single and pregnant on a street corner, reading quietly until interrupted by an angel, being part of a family on the run, cradling a dead son, and being Queen of Heaven, flanked by angels.
Magnifying the Lord, the soul of Mary brings what is blurry into focus, makes the far away close, makes the unseeable seen. Mary’s soul is a pair of glasses turning indistinct text into story; it is a telescope that coaxes distant galaxies our of darkness.
Magnifying the Lord, Mary’s soul is a lens atop a lighthouse blazing beams of light into the night sky above the roar of waves, warning sailors and wayfarers away from rocks, guiding us into harbor, so we can walk safely on solid ground.
Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with you. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray that our souls, like yours, may magnify the Lord, now, and until the hour of our death.
The Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, transferred
August 14, 2022
The Episcopal Church of All Saints, Indianapolis
Readings: Is. 61:10-11; Ps. 34; Gal. 4:4-7; Lk. 1:46-55