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Mother Mary, bringer of the true gospel

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And Mary said, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour’ – Luke 1: 46, 47

THESE are words to call to mind today, Mothering Sunday.

Northern European religion is a rather dour masculine thing. John Updike said, I don’t think God plays well in Sweden. God sticks pretty close to the equator. This has certainly been my experience. I went to Scotland once, to St Andrews to give some lectures to teachers. Whether it was that unfortunate combination of pedagogy and Puritanism, or whether it was just the hailstones and the perpetual dusk, I’m not exactly sure, but they were hard going: people for whom, you might say, jokes were no laughing matter. St Andrews is rich in history and culture, but there was something severe about it: the grey stone of the sparse cottages and the strong east wind. 

Little villages on the coast had attractive names – Anstruther and Pittenweem – so I thought I’d drive out and take a look. They were so desolate I felt that if you looked back at them you might get turned into a pillar of porridge. Just up the coast was Crail, where the Calvinist John Knox brought the Scots the good news of their damnation. I went to Denmark once as well. It’s very clean in the Protestant style where cleanliness is preferred to godliness. It made me think of Kierkegaard and earache. The seashore was bleak, even beside the Little Mermaid, her head cut off by vandals for the umpteenth time. It looked the ideal place for Strindberg or Ibsen to commit suicide. The massive cathedral in Copenhagen was stony, austere, shouting of the angry God and bellowing Thou shalt not. The nave is full of twice-life-size statues of the twelve apostles dressed like 19th-century mayors of Copenhagen.

As Updike says, how different when you go south. On the east coast of Tenerife a few years ago, I came to the seaside village of Candelaria. The square was filled with youngsters in colourful clothes: girls in white dresses and veils, boys in red-and-blue shirts. The church was dazzling white and the bells were ringing for a Confirmation service. I went in. It was ablaze with light. Candles and chandeliers. Before the altar was the huge, smiling statue of the Black Madonna covered in flowers. The service was joyful, wholehearted – not like the psyched-up, faking-it ecstasy that you get among the English aisle-dancers. Afterwards everyone spilled out into the square for flowing wine and fresh seafood, olives, home-baked bread. It reminded me of W H Auden’s religious preference when he spoke of Catholic in an easy-going Mediterranean sort of way – lots of local saints.

I did catch a glimpse of this sort of thing in England when I was a boy of eleven. I was at my grandmother’s house in Leeds, in the front room with the piano and its yellowing ivories, the aspidistra and the ticking of the unwatched clock. The room was damp and used only for funeral wakes. On that particular morning I looked out of the window and saw the most wonderful procession. The whole congregation of Holy Family Catholic church passing by. My gran disapproved. Come away from that window! she commanded. She said it was all show, the Scarlet Woman, the mark of the beast, devilish priests. But I was transfixed by the girls at the front, all primrose and white. Little boys in their grey flannel suits, the priests in their high-quality satanic vestments. Incense boiling among the smoking chimneys and a mixture of Yorkshire and Irish singing Ave, Ave, Ave Maria . . . And the old ladies in black dresses with lace fringes and veils, crying their eyes out for sheer happiness.

This is the feminine side of religion and it is embodied in the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is there at all the crucial moments in the history of our salvation. She binds the whole story together in a tale of cradling and cuddling and comforting. The pictures blend into one another in an epic of tenderness about which the great painters tell us the truth. She holds the Christ-child in his swaddling clothes. She holds him again in the Pieta after the taking down from the Cross. 

We northern Europeans need to rediscover what we have lost, to become possessed again by the feminine vision. We need to remember that our England is Mary’s Dowry and join our forebears in singing of a maid that is makelss . . . as dew in Aprille . . . What medieval Christian people knew was that her care for the Crucified Christ became emotionally transplanted into her care for us. If she is the Mother of Jesus, she is surely Our Mother. She is with us in our ordeals. Not just the painters, but the musicians show this. She is there in our loss. I conducted a funeral for a five-weeks-old child. The soprano, bless her, sang Schubert’s Ave Maria. This was fitting, for Our Lady received and swaddled that little child as she swaddled her own Son. 

Why do we only think about the truth of our religion? We should feel it too.

But devotion to the Virgin Mary is not just emotional; it is deeply theological. They don’t come any more theological than St Thomas Aquinas and he said, When Mary said, ‘Behold, the handmaid of the Lord!’ it was the sign that a spiritual marriage was to take place between the Son of God and human nature. At the Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel sought the Virgin’s assent to this on behalf of all humanity.

The humility of Mary is the antidote to blasphemous spiritual arrogance, ancient or modern. She is the vehicle of the true gospel. Psychologists such as Carl Jung say she represents the feminine principle. No, she doesn’t. She is not an idea or a principle or an abstraction. Mary doesn’t represent anything. She is. And she is the one in whom the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. And so we say with her: Behold the handmaid of the Lord!

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with Thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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