St. Mary the Virgin: Mary of the Incarnation

Stephen R. Shaver
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA
St. Mary the Virgin
Isaiah 61:10-11
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 1:46-55
Psalm 34 or 34:1-9

Hail Mary, full of grace: the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

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Back in 2005, when The Simpsons had just recently become the country’s longest-ever-running sitcom, there aired an episode in which Homer and Bart Simpson decide to convert to Roman Catholicism—lured in by pancake suppers, bingo, and an engaging young priest voiced by Liam Neeson.

Shocked at this development, Marge Simpson has a vision of an afterlife in which she’s sent to Protestant Heaven: a bland place where upper-crust WASPs with sweaters slung across their shoulders play croquet and badminton, sip gin and tonics, and address one another with names like Buffy and Dash. Looking off in the general direction of Catholic Heaven—set far across an impassable gulf—they shrug their shoulders and say, “Not our sort, dear.” Squinting into the distance, Marge sees a rollicking land of fiestas, piñatas, spaghetti feasts, Irish dancing, food and drink bursting off of every table—and in the thick of it, living it up, are Homer and Bart.

Marge is so upset at not being with her family that she demands to speak to Jesus. But tough luck, the anemic-looking preppies with her tell her, pointing over towards Catholic Heaven. “I’m afraid he’s gone native.”[1]

Now we Episcopalians occupy the strange, beautiful, and somewhat unique position within Christianity of being able to claim to be Protestant and Catholic at the same time. Within North American culture we have sometimes been seen—and have sometimes functioned—as a church with just that elitist, upper-crust identity The Simpsons skewers. But at our best, we are heirs to the rich tradition of incarnational Christianity that knows food and feast and dance and play can be sacramental encounters with the God who made the material universe and called it good. The sociologist and priest Andrew Greeley wrote about the “Catholic imagination,” in which God is seen not as distant from the world but as pervading the creation, the glorious presence animating the whole universe: so that saints and statues and candles and holy water and stained glass are just part of the multiplicity of the ways God reaches out to human beings in our bodies as well as our spirits.[2] It’s not as simple as a split between Protestants and Catholics, though: for there are Protestant mystics and Catholic puritans. It’s about a way of being Christian that recognizes the brokenness and sin in the world, but also believes that God’s yes is stronger than the world’s no; that human beings and all of creation still reflect the divine glory in whose image we were made; and that in Christ all things are being redeemed and transformed into fullness of life. At our best, Episcopalians share that sense that there is “a splendor burning at the heart of things” that lets us offer a robust affirmation of the messy and beautiful created world.[3]

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Mary, blessed virgin mother of our Lord Jesus Christ; beloved of Catholic Christians, both Roman and otherwise. And some of the ways in which Mary has been venerated down through the centuries can seem more than a little unworldly: lily-white statuary, flowers, songs whose texts emphasize concepts like purity and perpetual virginity and meekness. Puritan Mary: ethereal, unearthly, unangry, unsexual, unsullied by the messiness of life.

But there is another Mary. This is Mary the Theotokos: the God-bearer, that title given her to emphasize her role in the incarnation of the living God. Mary is the saint of incarnation: the saint of the flesh, the very one who lends her own fleshly humanity to the eternal Word. And this is the Mary we meet in scripture: Mary the fierce upholder of God acting in this messy world. Brave Mary, consenting to an unlikely pregnancy and the likely social scandal that would attend it. Resourceful Mary, traveling poor with her husband, having her baby where the world would let her. Angry Mary, reprimanding her twelve-year-old messianic adolescent for disappearing in Jerusalem and scaring his family sick. Insistent Mary, coming to Jesus at the wedding at Cana to get him to keep the party going by replenishing the supply of wine. Concerned Mary, showing up with Jesus’ brothers to try to get him to come home when his ministry seemed to be getting out of hand. Brave Mary, again: standing at the cross, loving her son to the last. And then, in the first chapter of Acts, the last time we see her in scripture: Mary the disciple, there at the birth of the church, witness to her resurrected son and Savior.

Today in our Gospel we hear Mary in her own words. The pregnant Mary has gone to visit her cousin Elizabeth, herself pregnant with John the Baptist: and in her exultation Mary pours forth this revolutionary song, the Magnificat, which has become the church’s song at Evening Prayer. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior: for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. . . . He has scattered the proud in their conceit; he has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” The nineteenth-century Christian Socialist Thomas Hancock called Mary’s song “the Marseillaise of humanity,” the hymn of God’s liberation for the poor.[4]

One of Hancock’s contemporaries was Stewart Headlam, a thoroughly incarnational character from our tradition’s history. Headlam was an Anglican vicar of radical politics and Anglo-Catholic piety—both of which made him a significant headache for his respectable Evangelical bishop, and had a great deal to do with the fact that he was assigned to parishes in the slums of London. But according to his biographer, John Orens, what seemed most blasphemous to Headlam’s more conventional fellow clergy was neither his politics nor his churchmanship: it was his support for the theatres and music halls that made life worth living for the working poor whom he served. In Headlam’s time, even the legitimate theater was seen as morally questionable: as the Buffys and Dashes of that time and place would have said, “Not our sort, dear.” The music halls of the working class were thought of as scurrilous dens of sin: places where copious alcohol and illicit sex were both easily available, and where the human body was shamelessly displayed moving and flowing in dance. For Stewart Headlam, on the other hand, the music hall had a great deal in common with the mass. The potential for misbehavior was outweighed by the fact that the music hall also offered the potential for joy in the midst of the dismal environment of the sweatshops. The God who was the source of all joy and beauty, and who was encountered in stained glass and statues and incense, was also the ultimate source of the beauty of music and dance, and of the human form itself.

Now Stewart Headlam had a passionate devotion to Mary. Indeed, when the suspicious bishop asked his vicar whether Headlam believed in the divinity of Jesus, the vicar’s jesting answer was: “Of course he does, and I think he believes in the divinity of Our Lady also!”[5] But his devotion was not to Puritan Mary, but to the Mary of the incarnation. Once an angry opponent asked him whether he thought St. Paul would ever have set foot in a music hall. “I do not know what St. Paul would have done,” said Headlam. “But I do know that our Lord would have gone; and taken his blessed Mother with him.”[6]

Today we at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, celebrate the Mother of God incarnate. And she has things to say to us, here in this parish that so deeply values beauty. We are in many ways heirs to that Catholic revival of the 1800s, with our rich tradition of music and our beautiful space and vesture and liturgy. And we are here in this amazing city of Berkeley: a place of theater, and music, and counterculture: a place of great wealth and great poverty: a place of messiness and of incarnation.

Here and now, God is looking with favor on servants, showing strength with his arm, scattering the proud, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. Our vocation is to join in.

May Mary’s song call us ever more deeply into that vocation, today and always.

[1] See,_the_Son,_and_the_Holy_Guest_Star. Video clips are available in various places online.

[2] Andrew Greeley, The Catholic Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

[3] John Orens, “The Anglo-Catholic Vision” (downloadable from

[4] Orens, “Dancing the Magnificat” (downloadable from

[5] Ibid; for this quote Orens cites Frederick G. Bettany, Stewart Headlam: A Biography (London, John Murray, 1926), 63.

[6] Ibid.

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