Fill the hungry. Lift the lowly. Cast down the mighty. Send the rich away.

A sermon for the Feast of the Assumption – 2020

It was one of those things that appeared on the internet and all of a sudden it seemed like everyone I knew was retweeting it and sharing it.

At first when you looked at it you might have thought it was quite an old image. There’s something about a woodcut that is rather nostalgic. But this was nostalgic and retro in a hipster kind of way and it was a newly created image.

A familiar figure, but in a stance that I’ve never seen her depicted in before.

Her head is covered in some kind of head-dress and there seems to be a halo of stars around her head, so there’s no doubt at all who she is. She’s very familiar to us.

But here she’s standing in an unfamiliar pose.

I say standing but she’s more active than that. She’s jigging about. Trampling on a snake and a skull. And she’s waving a clenched fist in the air.

She looks for all the world as though she’s at a Black Lives Matter protest. Or a demo protesting against the government’s hostile environment policy that diminishes the lives of those seeking asylum. Or chanting about Climate Change. Or – well, so many things. So much that’s wrong. So much to put right. She looks like she could bring up a child who knew how to refuse the evil and choose the good.

And around her in the woodcut there’s words. Her words: “Fill the hungry. Lift the lowly. Cast down the mighty. Send the rich away”.

And it looks to me as though she’s chanting those slogans and punching her fist in the air in time with the chant.

Benjamin Wildflower’s woodcut of the Blessed Virgin Mary is at once familiar and unfamiliar. We know instantly that it is her. And we know fine well what kind of values that she stood for. But it is a stance that is startling. Surprising. Slightly unsettling.

And maybe that’s a better description of her than many – startling, surprising, slightly unsettling.

It is difficult to think of another woman who has been more depicted than Mary. Yet most artists have played fairly safe. They’ve often produced images of astonishing beauty but often there can seem to be a passivity about the figure whom they depict. As though it was all God’s actions and she was just a recipient.

Here at St Mary’s cathedral we tend to sit up and take notice when we encounter her in the scriptures. And she’s far from passive. Singing the Magnificat of justice even as she bore the child Jesus in the womb. Egging him on with the scandalous first miracle of turning water into wine. Turning up everywhere – when he was teaching. When he was dying. And being right at the centre of the circle of the disciples when they were set on fire at Pentecost to spread the news that we continue to spread today – that Jesus Christ, her son was raised from the dead. And death is not the end. And though there is much to weep over in this world, sadness is not our ultimate destination.

The church has had plenty of trouble in passing on this message due to the fake news of a Gentle Jesus who was meek and mild. And it feels as though Mary has been packaged up in the same way as a passive young woman without much of a voice for herself.

Not the Mary we know at all.

Some of my favourite images of Mary are the ones that break with that tradition. The woodcut fist shaking Mary is just one of them.

Elizabeth Frink’s Walking Madonna in the Close at Salisbury is another. A strong women. A woman striding very purposefully. A woman with things to do. And striding out from the church, not into it. She’s a Mary I feel I recognise from what I read in Scripture.

Or another one that periodically does the rounds on the internet – a medieval manuscript Mary.

It is from an age where it was very natural to depict the devil as a creature with horns.

In the image I’m thinking of from 13th century England there’s just such a devil – a bit of a pantomime figure for our cynical modern eyes. And next to him there’s Mary all bedecked in draped clothing as usual. Her body hidden and her face rather beautiful. But this is another Mary’s who is using her fists. Not waving a fist in time to a protest song this time. But something a good deal more aggressive. She seems to be holding the devil with one hand at the back of his neck. With her other hand she’s bashing the devil in the nose with her fist.

These images of Mary take us both to the scriptural Mary and the theological Mary.

She’s not just a woman who once sat in a room whilst the Holy Spirit did all the work of the incarnation.

She’s a collaborator with God’s work in the world. She’s in cahoots with all that is holy and true.

We get chances in this life to be passive. There are times in our lives when we can choose to do nothing.

We also get chances to shout out that the Mighty must be brought low. We get chances to stride out in power to do what needs to be done to put the world to rights. And we get chances to recognise the evil from the good and act on that knowledge. Every act a punch in the devil’s nose.

Mary was one of us.

She took her chances.

Let us join her.

And demand  that God remembers his promise of mercy. That the humble may be lifted up, the proud scattered in their conceit and the hungry filled with good things.

She’ll be with us all the way.

Amen

Every Eucharist is a Virtual Eucharist

Heaven

Every Eucharist is a virtual Eucharist. Of course it is.

We know this.

We experience this.

We forget this.

Christianity – at least the bits of Christianity that are worth taking seriously – takes time and space so seriously that it knows that the particular cannot ever express the ultimate. Indeed, time and space are playthings in the hands of the religiously inspired.

Over the last few months it hasn’t been possible for my congregation to celebrate the Eucharist together in one space. But when we used to do that, we were never entirely in one space anyway. The very building itself is designed to transport people from the knowledge that they are a few yards from a busy thoroughfare in the Second City of Empire. Taking a few steps inside we find that we are in another place altogether. And in another empire, where the Emperor is servant of all and love is the essense of the law. The conceit that going into church takes you into a divine, heavenly realm is not an idea exclusive to the East. Coming into St Mary’s you are supposed to feel that you are stepping into heaven. It has been built to make you feel that. It has been decorated to make you feel that.  It does make people feel that.

Whenever I take people into church I almost always hear them express a sense of wonder. We have the wow factor. It has been created by human skill to make you feel that the reality that you experience as you stand in the street is not the only reality that you can experience. It is a space that conveys that love, joy and peace might be possible and it does that without words. It is done with beauty and it takes people a few steps up the stairway to heaven.

And it is the church playing with reality.

That experience of going into a holy space and feeling part of something bigger is something common to religions that are divided on all kinds of doctrinal matters. It points to things that are best expressed through virtual reality and religious people are so used to virtual reality that they sometimes forget that it is all around them.

When people come to the Eucharist in St Mary’s they are at once in Glasgow and simultaneously elsewhere. And elsewhere isn’t even singular either. At the Eucharist in Glasgow we are at one and the same time in an Upper Room in Jerusalem rather a long time ago and at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb at the ultimate consumation of all that is. The Last Supper and the Breakfast at the End of the Universe happen at the same table. At the same time.

And as we gather at our table, we gather at every table and eat in communion with those who share in the same meal. Our fellowship with them isn’t prevented by circumstance. Our Eucharistic fellowship has never been prevented by circumstance or lack of physical proximity.

We couldn’t keep the Triduum in Holy Week without virtual reality.

Without virtual reality it would just be a way of making feet smell less.

Without virtual reality it would just be a bonfire that would die.

Christ is the celebrant at every Eucharist no matter which particular celebrant is standing there. Virtual reality becomes interwoven with the reality of the lives that we bring to the table and we are formed and changed and made new. It is how God’s love is expressed.

This is virtual reality. Every Eucharist is a Virtual Eucharist. Cyberspace is one of the most powerful metaphors for prayer that human beings may ever develop.

Our bodies are bound by physics.

God’s love in this world isn’t.

This is why religious buildings are important. It is also why they are not important.

Every Eucharist is a Virtual Eucharist.

Every Eucharist always was a Virtual Eucharist.

Of course it was.