Revd Bonnie Evans-Hills On Virgin Mary
- Created on Tuesday, 25 March 2014
Revd Bonnie Evans-Hills*:
Thank you so much for this really kind invitation. I am going to begin with words that as a priest we normally begin our sermons with: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight. Amen.
As you enter the basilicia of St Peter’s in Rome in the Vatican it seems as if you are entering a grand palace. And to be honest I am not sure how comfortable I feel in such a place however much it is intended to be to the glory of God. But when you get through the main doors and turn to the right there is a statue of what is called the Pieter carved by Michaelangelo when he as only 23 years old. It is a carving of Mary holding her dead son Jesus as he is taken down from the cross.
Whenever I try to describe a profound experience it always comes out sounding trite and unsubstantial. But the expression on the face of Mary as she holds her dead son is truly a wonder. There is a deep sense of loss and agony at having witnessed the acute suffering of her beloved son. She is gently cradling this son in death as she cradled him at birth. When Mary and Joseph took their son Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem for his circumsion and blessing they were greeted by the elderly Simion and in our Christian daily prayers we recite the prayer of Simion as he rejoiced at seeing the messiah for the first time in his life. He had pleaded with God all his life to be allowed to live long enough to see the messiah which he praised. Now Lord let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled, my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people and light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people. This prayer is recited every night before sleep and during the funeral service.
But along with Simeon’s rejoicing he has a word of caution for Jesus mother Mary. He warns her that a sword will pierce her soul, will pierce her heart. Her sorrow and love are evident in the depictions of the madona and child and in the Pieter. The Pieter is a reflection upon those depictions of the madona and child. It is a vision of that moment the sword has pierced Mary’s heart. The moment she holds her tortured and dead son in her arms. It is an exquisite pain. Now you would normally consider something described as exquisite as something beautiful and normally it is. You can’t feel that amount of pain, that amount of agony unless you have truly loved, unless that person has meant so much to you and to your life and that love be deep and strong. Her pain and anguish was a result of the exquisite love she bore for her son for all that he did in his life, all that seemed to be left undone.
I say seemed because his doing, his action, his ministry, his love for us all continues to this day and beyond. This is also hinted at in the face of Michaelangelo’s Pieter and in the face of the dead Christ. Alongside the pain there is a serene peace, a peace that knows that God is here. As her son lays dead in her arms her risen son, the Christ, the messiah, the saviour of the world who scatters the proud and the conceited, casts down the mighty from their thrones, who lifts up the lowly, who fills the hungry with good things and sends away the rich empty, he comes to the aid of his people and fulfils God’s promise.
These are the words uttered by Mary when the angel Gabriel tells her of Jesus coming. She has the peace of a mother who knows that despite all the suffering he has taken on himself through all the he has gone through at the hands of people he loves, he has also risen before her. His face is not one of those who has died a torturous and dreadful death. His is a face that is peacefully at rest awaiting the call of his father to awaken him from his sleep and resurrect him and all of us to new life.
When directing his film the Passion of Christ, Mel Gibson felt it was important that the hand which is shown nailing the hands and feet of Jesus to the cross to be his own. As Christians we accept as part of our penance that whenever we hurt any or our fellow human being, whenever we damage God’s creation it is as if we are nailing Jesus to the cross in our actions.
There are many ideologies in Christianity in relation to atonement or redemption that Christ has offered us through his sacrifice so let me try and keep it simple. I remember responding to a Muslim friend of mine when she asked why if Jesus was the son of God he would need to sacrifice him to make him suffer so to pay for the sins of others, sins he did not commit. And my response was from my heart and not necessarily from a complex theology that God did not need to suffer on our behalf in order to atone for our sins, to make amends for them somehow. How can we ever really make amends for the things that we do as we believe that Jesus was really raised from the dead with his wounds intact. You can see the wounds on his hands and feet and heart. We can’t erase the past or make up for it but our past actions can be transformed. And this is what Christ offered to us – a transformation for our sins. He came to show us that no matter what we do to each other, what we do to our own selves and what we do that goes against God, no matter how bad it gets God’s forgiveness is there for us. All we have to do it turn to him.
Humanity was and is tortured and killed. He was betrayed by his friends, was judged with injustice by the religious authorities who should have defended the oppressed, the poor and the vulnerable. He underwent all the evil that humanity could inflict and still his love and forgiveness and remains. God’s love and forgiveness remains.
It is this love and forgiveness of Christ that shows on the Pieter and on the face of Mary. Such wisdom, such grace, such love for a 23 year old Michaelangelo to find in his heart and in his skill to portray.
The person of Mary has been a point of much debate theologically throughout the Christian centuries. How can a human hold the divine within, carry the divine within their body. And as yet creatures formed by the hand into which he breathed his spark and life we all hold a spark of the divine within our humanity and this is the whole point of another name for Jesus, Immanuel which means God with us.
In the introduction to today’s programme it was mentioned that Christians and Muslims believe in the immaculate conception. This idea of an immaculate conception is not all that clear. It is something that has been discussed throughout the centuries and it was only crystalised in the 19th century. It is something really very recent that we have this idea of Mary being and remaining a virgin.
There was a need at that time in European culture to engage with the sciences and to explain the world around us so there is a real challenge of religion to somehow make concrete what is not necessarily meant to be concrete. There is a need to make literal scripture that was never meant or intended to be interpreted literally.
Mary is described in the New Testament with a word that really means a young woman, a young woman without sin. And somehow a very masculinised theology has interpreted Mary and reduced her to private parts and negated the sexuality of an ideal woman. Sex was made to equal sin when what was really intended was a spiritually holy state of right relationship with the world or right relationship with humanity.
Her magnificat, that is her prayer, is a celebration of those right relationships of a God who scatters the proud in their conceit, casts down the mighty from their thrones, who lifts up the lowly, who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty, who comes to the aid of his people and who fulfils God’s promise. This is right relationships of humanity with God and humanity with one another. This is the purity of the virgin not something reduced to physicality.
The gospel of Mathew expresses in chapter 25 when Jesus speaks about the kingdom of God he says that all people will be separated into those who clothed him when he was naked, fed him when he was hungry, gave him something to drink when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, will be separated from those who turned him away. And when he is asked when this happen his answer was that whenever someone provides shelter to the homeless, visits the prisoners or those who are ill, gives food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, water to the thirsty it is as if they are doing it for Jesus Christ himself.
Whatever good we do in this world, whatever gesture we offer should be as if we offered it Christ, to God. Whoever we meet we should see the face of God and when we meet you we should see the face of God in you we should see the divine in one another.
We are so close in our thoughts Christians and Muslims in our daily practise of prayer and self examination and to echo the chant from muharam, every day is ashura, every place is Kerbala. Every day is a day when there is oppression and every day is a day when a sacrifice is made, when those who love their God with all their soul and might and strength and who love their neighbour and their fellow humanity as themselves give up their lives for that love it can be said that every place is a place where love exists. Every day is a day when we love and give our lives for one another.
I have a verse from the Qur’an, it is in chapter 3 verse 169: Think not of those who are slain in God’s ways as dead, may they live finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord. Thank you.
*Rev'd Bonnie Evans-Hills is assistant curate, with MA in Pastoral Theology from Heythrop College, University of London. She has considerable experience in Muslim-Christian dialogue, focusing in particular on dialogue with Shi’a Islam following a period of three years study in Qum, Iran. She also took part in a theological exchange at al-Azhar University in Cairo for the Anglican Communion’s al-Azhar Dialogue. Bonnie is a priest, Acting Interfaith Adviser to the Bishop of Leicester and serves on the national Presence & Engagement task group mandated by General Synod to resource multi-faith parishes. Alongside her colleague, Michael Rusk, Bonnie is writing the book ‘Engaging Islam: a Christian perspective’ for Peter Lang Publishing. She is also an Associate Member of the Christian Muslim Forum
Open discussions/Gulf Cultural Club
Virgin Mary: The mother of the believers
18th December, 2013
Sheikh Mohammad Saeed Bahmanpour
Revd Bonnie Evans-Hills