Images of Mary – Sermon for the Patronal Festival of St Mary’s, Ewell

How do you feel about Mary?

I confess to having struggled somewhat with the Catholic traditions and spirituality surrounding Mary.

I feel myself to be a high church Anglican but somehow worship involving Mary always seemed to me to be Popish and frankly not very British.

However, the Parish in which I live and from which I was called to ministry is St Mary’s Headley and we are here today in St Mary’s Ewell – there are a great many St Mary’s churches in England and so it is clear that Mary must have been a very important figure for devotion and inspiration for our predecessors in these islands.  As such she has to be worth attention.

When I was on placement here in Ewell I thought I would encounter a lot of Marian devotion perhaps even processions like this.


This could be the scene on the Ewell by-pass!

But I didn’t see much sign of this and this suggested that perhaps I was not the only one who felt a little uncomfortable with Mary

One of the issues that I had was the Catholic imagery with which I associated with Mary

As Queen of Heaven, complete with fairy lights:

fairy lights

Or with a huge crown

queen of heaven

Let alone the alabaster statues of as the Madonna of the sacred heart.

sacre coeur

I recently flew back from Athens and got into conversation with an Orthodox priest and his wife who was an iconographer – a writer of icons

I said that I was interested in images of the Blessed Virgin and she interrupted me and said we do not call her Blessed Virgin, we call her Theotokos.

The orthodox emphasis is not on Mary as queen, nor her virginity, not even her femininity, the emphasis is on Mary as the person who gave birth to Christ – the person who brought God into the world – the instrument of the incarnation.

As such the Orthodox icons of the Son of God with His Mother are powerful testimonies to the reality of God’s incarnation as the human being Jesus as well as being an exemplar for the relationship that we can have with Jesus and so in turn provide the example for our relationship with others.

Mary is revered as a Saint and Saints achieve Holiness by modelling Christ – they are exemplars

Mary does this primarily in terms of her acceptance of the will of God – Mary’s Annunciation prefigures Christ’s Gethsemane

Mary gives up her life and then all that she has (her status as an unmarried and childless woman – i.e. a virgin) to the will of God.  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38)

In this respect she shows us the way of faith through obedience to the will of God.

A small but very important group of saints not only model Christ but do so by their treatment of Christ himself.

My own name saint is a good example of this, St Christopher.

According to the legend, St Christopher carried the boy Christ and thereby mirrored the actions of Christ who would bear the sins of the world.  Bearing the weight of the one who bears the sins of the world turned out to be harder than the Saint expected!

Image result for image of st christopher

The patron of my current church of St Martin is another example – St Martin famously cut up his cloak to give to a beggar whom he only later realised was in fact Jesus Christ.

In the Gospels, Mary is seen interacting with Christ and modelling Christian behaviour

She intercedes on behalf of the embarrassed wedding guests at Cana and asks for more wine

She weeps at the crucifixion as a model for our sacrifice and compassion

Above all of course she bears Christ in her womb and brings him into the world – as it is our task to bring the gospel to the world

Not only that, but Mary is present through all of Christ’s life – she is there from the conception to the crucifixion and beyond – our last sight of her is with the apostles – constant in prayer in the first chapter of the book of Acts .

She thereby models Christ as being present for the alpha and the omega of Christ’s life who was himself the first born of all creation and the first born of the dead (Colossians 1).

Following the tradition of Mary as the Theotokos we can see more examples of Mary as an exemplar in various forms of Orthodox ikon (I am indebted for these insights to Rowan William’s excellent introduction to the Ikons of Mary – ‘Ponder These Things’.

First, Mary’s role as leading the way and showing us the way is captured in the icons of Mary Hodegetria – literally she who points the way.

Notice how she looks at Jesus and points to him – he carries a scroll as a sign of his fulfillment of the prophesies of the Old Testament – the promise made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.  (Words from the Magnificat – what could be more Anglican than that?)

A second type of ikon is the Eleousa (= merciful) in which Mary’s face nuzzles against that of Christ in a gesture of great intimacy and love.   Jesus even has his arms wrapped around Mary’s neck – this is the very incarnation of love – it reminds us that the place where the human and divine meet is love.

Our reading from John’s gospel tells how Jesus showed his compassion and handed on the responsibility of looking after his mother – “behold your mother, behold your son.”  In a manner which prefigures his passing on his mission to his disciples in the next chapter – ‘as the father sent me so I sending you’ (Jn 20:21) – just as Jesus once looked after the poor and hungry, the lame and the widow he is now passing that on to us.

The third major type of Icon of Mary is Mary Panagia (meaning all holy) also known as the Virgin of the Signs – with Mary praying (Latin = Orans)

Mary orans

She is shown praying with outstretched arms inviting us in, her eyes open to see our needs, in her stomach – her womb – is a circle that contains Christ and reminds us of a communion wafer.

Jesus is shown here blessing us in response to his mother’s request.

This is a reminder that it is in prayer through Mary not prayer to Mary that we reach Jesus.  Moreover, we pray to God as Mary taught us – like the apostles who were constant in prayer.

This remarkable Panagia image captures all of the words which are used when we chant the decades of the rosary.

I used to think this was bizarre practice but since getting under the skin of Mary through the orthodox ikons I have found it a powerful exercise in contemplation and meditation

Hail Mary, full of grace (this is Mary eleousa), the Lord is with thee (as in all of these ikons Mary is seen with Christ) blessed art though amongst women (because she shows us the way – the hodegetria) and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus (Panagia)

Holy Mary, mother of God (the theotokos) pray for us (orans) sinners now and at the hour of our death (from the beginning to the end of life).

This idea of Mary at the beginning and the end of the human story is seen in depictions of Mary as the new Eve

An idea which lies behind the famous picture by Cranach (Virgin and Child under an Apple Tree, 1530)


Eve’s Disobedience is overcome by Mary’s obedience

The curse of Eve in Genesis is replaced with the blessedness of Mary

Eve who was there at the beginning, who took and ate (the apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil)

Mary who is there at the end saying ‘take, eat, this is my son’s body which is given for you for the forgiveness of sins’

So we celebrate on this day the birth of her who gave birth to God – who was there at the beginning and who is there at the end – through the resurrection and into the present.

We pray that we may follow Mary Hodegetria who shows us the way, Mary Eleousa who has compassion for the world, Mary Orans who is constant in prayer and above all Mary Theotokos – as we take and eat the body of Christ in our Eucharist and he dwells in our bodies so we take him out with us into the world, to show others the way, to pray for the world and above all to love it.   Amen

Sermon Preach by Fr Christopher Hancock
On the Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary
St Mary, Ewell, 3rd September, 2017


Meditation on the Rosay

I take up my battered rosary from where it has lain unloved.
It does not reproach me for its neglect but welcomes my touch.
The wood is warm and instantly alive in my hands.

Each bead is a world: the earth, a planet which was created,
Small but significant in the order of the universe
Like God, holding it all in the palm of his hand – precious.

Each bead is an atom, an elementary particle, an electron, a quark,
So small it seems enormous, because of the extent of the nothing that surrounds it,
The unimaginable complexity within.
It is the thing which is not nothing, the shaper of the void.

Each bead is a rock, an isle, a moon, a sun, a galaxy,
A star in the night sky, a grain of sand on the sea shore.

The rope is the connection between all things.
The bond between atoms,
The genes which connect me to my parents, my ancestors,
Ancient species long extinct and to my children.
The relationships between us.
My love for my fellow man, my wife, my children.
The chain that links me to my enemy and my friend,
The man who is my neighbour – the next bead.

The wood of the Cross – it is soft but enduring;
I can mark it with the nail of a finger.
It becomes the true wood of the true cross,
A relic which is more than a symbol,
Because Jesus was here, living on earth, physically real.
And he suffered, bled and was killed here, dying on earth.

The prayer is ancient, foreign, half unknown
I say it with the reverence of a guest in a stranger’s house.

I see the holy family: God, Jesus, Mary

Mary is my representative,
The Lord is with her – she is full of His Grace,
As she is blessed so I count my blessings

Jesus is the fruit of her womb.
Her real, physical womb,
Because Jesus was a real, physical man.

Mary is special,
She is holy because she has said “yes” to God,
Becoming the mother of God,
Bringing God into the world

We ask her to pray for us, as others ask us to pray for them.
We are all sinners – now and at the hour of our death.

Each bead becomes a sin,
A weakness, a fault,
A selfish act
A missed opportunity,
A jealous thought,
An angry word,
A crime
A trespass
A lie.
And at the end of all the sins is the cross
It is the very end of sin,
The symbol of self-sacrifice and redemption,
The means of grace and the hope of glory.