St. Mary the Virgin
August 21, 2022
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The summer of 2006, I walked into St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Mission, Kansas for the first time. I was 26 years old, and quickly joined a group that Mother Lisa Senuta had started for young people called “God and Guinness.” We did something similar here before the pandemic that we called “Spirituality untapped.” Not long after I arrived, I learned that she was planning a short retreat for the group at Conception Abbey, a Benedictine monastery about an hour-and-a-half north of here. Once you pass St. Joe and get off of the interstate, it’s all farmland and rolling hills. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the old abbey church. You’re driving along, see the beginnings of a small village, and come to the top of a hill and it is as if someone has taken a medieval cathedral from Europe and dropped it in a field in the middle-of-nowhere Missouri. It is breathtakingly beautiful, but it looks just as out of place there now as it did in 1873 when the monks came over from Switzerland.
I think that many people have a similar experience the first time they visit St. Mary’s, especially on a feast day like this one with the intense choral singing and unfamiliar hymns and lots of Latin. Everything about this building and the music and the rich words of the liturgy exude beauty and wonder and awe, but when you’re not used to it, it seems just as out of place in 2022 as that old abbey church did when I rounded the top of the hill in rural Missouri.
Perhaps the most poignant way we see this phenomenon at St. Mary’s is in our devotion to our Blessed Mother, seen in its fulness for all to behold on today’s great feast! But let me be clear. We do not worship Mary. In fact, no Christian group on the planet believes that Mary should be worshipped – not the Roman Catholics, nor the Eastern Orthodox, nor us. We worship God alone, and we honor the saints. From at least the 5th century, the language the Church has used about this is latria, the worship due God alone, and dulia, the honor given to the saints. Theologians insist that the difference between the two is not about degree, but rather of kind, with dulia and latria being as far apart as are the creature and the Creator. We adore God, and we venerate the heroes of the faith who have gone before.
A third term used to describe the veneration of Mary is hyperdulia, which just means lots and lots of dulia. As we heard from Luke’s gospel, all Christians for all time will honor and venerate the Virgin Mary, for she prophesied that “all generations will call me blessed.” And that is what we are doing today, proclaiming with her cousin Elizabeth, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” We call her blessed not because she’s somehow inherently worthy of being honored in this way, but because when confronted with the preposterous news, received by the message of an angel, that she will conceive in her womb the Son of God who will reign over the house of Jacob forever, she said yes. Despite the way she’s often depicted in Christian art, her “yes” wasn’t meek and mild. She bravely said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”
And then she sings the song we heard in today’s gospel reading, the Magnificat, and it is clear that this young, teenage woman whom the angel greets with “Hail, full of grace”…she knows that everything that is happening to her is by God’s grace alone. In the face of this news that will change her life forever, she sings a song of praise in which she announces that God’s kingdom will begin to be fulfilled with its upside-down value system where the mighty are cast down from their thrones and the lowly are exalted.
This kingdom of God, into which Christians are baptized, feels foreign to us, just as a newcomer to St. Mary’s might feel with all of the signs of the cross and sitting and kneeling and genuflecting, and it will not stop feeling off somehow on this side of the veil. And that’s how it is supposed to be. Until the Last Day, it is never going to feel 100% normal to think that God exalts the humble and meek and casts down the mighty from their thrones, as everything about the value system of this world screams the opposite.
It all feels less foreign to me than it did when I first started the journey. When I round the top of the hill and see the old abbey church, I’m still struck by its beauty, but it no longer feels out of place. It feels as if it is exactly where it is supposed to be, with the monks working and praying as God has called them to do. Likewise, Marian devotion doesn’t feel as foreign to me as it did back in my Southern Baptist days. I feel like I’ve gotten to know Mary as my mother, in a sense, and it no longer feels strange to ask for her prayers, or to venerate her as “more honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious without compare than the Seraphim.” And in terms of the wider kingdom of God and its crazy value system, this Johnson County boy no longer dreads working with our houseless guests who knock on the office door day in and day out, but rather feel grateful that I have the opportunity to give them something to eat and drink.
Last Sunday, after the reception in the parish hall, a remnant group of folks went out to lunch. There were 14 of us at Harry’s Country Club at the Rivermarket, and as Mary Day was the following week, it came up in conversation. Two parishioners – one next to me, and the other across the table – said that Mary Day was the anniversary of their first visit to St. Mary’s, and that they’ve been here ever since. I thought about it, and remembered that my first day at St. Mary’s as a priest was this day five years ago. [I don’t mean to frighten those of you who are visiting for the first time!] As this is the fifth time I’ve given a sermon on this day, I went to see where the bodies were buried and re-read the first four. The first was about how I came to be Mamma’s boy (Mamma, as in the Blessed Mother). The second was about how Mary’s assumption into heaven is a foretaste of the promise of the resurrection of our bodies. The third, just days after Dcn. Gerry died from COVID, was about identifying with Mary’s sorrows, and last year’s was essentially a rework of an old Advent sermon I preached somewhere else because at that point in the pandemic, I was depressed and could hardly bear coming up with a new sermon.
This year, I am energized. Over the past few months, my calendar has been peppered with coffee and lunch appointments with both newcomers to St. Mary’s and existing parishioners who want to get more involved, and I can’t tell you how overjoyed I was to walk into complete mayhem in the parish hall the other day to see Dcn. Lynda and three of our dedicated parishioners putting together blessing bags with food and hygiene items for our houseless friends. If you are new to St. Mary’s, I ask you to consider coming back again soon and often! It is not an exaggeration or cliché to say that all are welcome in this place, no matter your station in life. If you have been absent more than present as of late and are home for the feast, please consider reengaging with your community of faith. And if you’ve been here every Sunday, or even 5-times-per-week for daily Mass, I ask you to commit to praying for those who are new and reengaging and do what you can to love and support them and all who have come to call St. Mary’s our spiritual home.
At the Offertory, we will sing an old, Anglo-Catholic hymn from the Victorian era that we don’t sing often enough – “Ye who claim the faith of Jesus.” For better or for worse, the compilers of the Hymnal 1982 replaced a few of the verses with deep and rich Marian theology with a paraphrase of Mary’s song from today’s gospel reading. When I discovered the missing verses and their content, I was annoyed at the change, but the new final verse has grown on me. In it we join Mary in her hymn of praise, including her prophecy of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom where the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Frankly, I can’t think of a more fitting thing for a community of faith under the patronage of the Blessed Mother to sing.
As we join Mary in magnifying the Lord and rejoicing in God our Savior, let us renew our commitment to this community of faith as we seek to spread the good news of God’s kingdom in both word and action. Let us join with all generations in calling Mary blessed, rejoicing that through her, God fulfilled the promise he made to our ancestors in faith and sent a Savior. And let us give thanks that that Savior came to save the lowly, the outcast, the sinner, even you and me. Amen.
 The English word worship has been used for both latria and dulia, making the difference important in English, but in modern-day time, the word worship is used almost exclusively for latria.
 Luke 1:42 using the traditional translation of the “Hail Mary.”
 V. 33.
 From the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!