The Blessed Virgin Mary
May I speak in the name of God, who is creator, redeemer, and sanctifier.
I don’t usually title my sermons or think about them in terms of themes, but in my head I’ve been thinking of this one as ‘We need to talk about the Virgin’. I’ve realised that I think the Virgin has a lot to answer for: the idea that women should just accept any job that is handed to them, no matter how onerous or impossible or degrading it might be. The idea that women ought to be able to stand with grace through any situation, sorting out the wine at the wedding, weeping quietly at the cross, pondering, pondering, pondering things in our hearts, but not speaking out, unless it be in song, in the presence of an elderly female relative. That we should be, basically, Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music, a little flawed, perhaps, but with just the right combination of gentleness and vocal range to make us good enough to raise seven children and make sure the colonel gets his dinner on time and doesn’t miss his cue. The important business is for others. We are there to watch, and bear, and be good, and centuries of theology has told us that should be enough.
I was pondering this when I heard an episode of Michelle Obama’s new podcast [on Spotify], an interview with Michelle Norris, a journalist with National Public Radio whose voice brings calm into the midst of chaos. Michelle and Michelle were talking about the pandemic and Black Lives Matter and raising their daughters in these challenging times. And Michelle Norris gave a little sigh, and admitted that ‘the strong Black woman trope is… a cement necklace. [It’s] supposed to feel like pearls…but…it perpetuates the notion that we can throw anything at you. We can just hurl anything at you and you will catch it, and look elegant doing it. And that’s just not true.’ And Michelle Obama, the strongest woman you could imagine, could only say, ‘Oh God, yes. Oh God, yes.’
I wanted to say, at this point, that the Virgin Mary isn’t a strong Black woman…by which I meant, I don’t want to appropriate that cultural experience that isn’t mine. But the point is that the Virgin Mary should be a strong Black woman, should be any strong woman’s real experience and real strength, not the paragon of serene and pliable virtue that we have imagined her to be, because her anger or her pain are uncomfortable or inconvenient, because her screams in labour would be undignified, because it is much easier to think of her child passing through her with no more effect than sunlight through glass—and you think I’m making that one up, but it’s still official Marian dogma. The African American poet Lucille Clifton imagines an elderly ‘island mary’, wondering in a Caribbean lilt,
could I have walk away when voices singing in my sleep? i one old woman. always i seem to worrying now for another young girl asleep
in the plain evening
what song around her ear? what star still choosing?
There is a wilder and freer story of Mary, a story of song and star that is what God imagines for her, not what we need from her, not what we require that she be. A Mary that says yes because she must, but that is free to be afraid of the shame, or the pain, or the uncertainty. Or to be angry if she wants, to speak out the pain of her people. Or to take delight in her own place in God’s plan, to know that she has been chosen for more than her bloodline and her reproductive organs. And yes, to ponder, ponder, ponder, to treasure up in her heart God’s
mysterious ways, his love child, the sword that will pierce her own heart and every cry that flew from her lips as he left her body.
I leave you with the words of another American poet, the long-forgotten Selma Derry, whose
poem ‘The Virgin’s Complaint’ appeared in 1925:
Last night I dreamed I wore the virgin’s shoes.
They were patterned in supple kidskin, And were strangely sewn with thong; They were curiously worn and narrow— They had been mine so long.
One was immaculate as a star, One bore a quaint quick scar.
I wore them pridefully, these tender shoes; I wore them gracefully, without a care, Down a lost path jutting with naked stones. I wore them gracefully—I, unaware.
In the name of God who made us, loves us and keeps us. Amen.
Rev Dr Erica Longfellow
Dean of Divinity, Chaplain and Fellow New College, Oxford