Sermon for the unveiling of Mary by Bill Viola, Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 8th September 2016 by the Revd Canon Mark Oakley

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8:00am Holy Communion
8:45am Morning Prayer
11:15am Sung Eucharist
3:00pm Choral Evensong
5:30pm Eucharist
6:00pm Cathedral closes

Sermon for the unveiling of Mary by Bill Viola, Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 8th September 2016 by the Revd Canon Mark Oakley

'This new work Mary brings a woman into the heart chamber of this space, a woman who may not have the strength of the battle field but who had the strength of a mother...'

Some of you will know the story of the holy rabbi who went to the men’s barber’s for a haircut. At the end, he went to pay but the barber wouldn’t accept his money. “No, rabbi”, he said, “I never take money from the clergy”. And the following morning when the barber got to work there on the steps of his shop was a bag of delicious newly baked bagels. The following day a Catholic priest went for a haircut. At the end the barber wouldn’t accept any money. “No father”, said the barber “I never take money from the clergy”. And the following morning, there on the steps the barber found a large bottle of whisky. The following day an Anglican vicar went to have his haircut. At the end the barber refused his money. “No reverend” he said “I never take money from the clergy” and the following morning there on the steps the barber found an enormous queue of Anglican vicars.

There is something unnervingly probable about this story because clergy, like the Church, and maybe like human beings in general, can have a tendency at times to become a bit too self-referential, the consequence being that our beliefs can give the impression that religion is some sort of project that’s in it for itself.

Perhaps to put the compass back in our hand and get us on a better road, the song of Mary or Magnificat is said or sung at every offering of the Church’s Evening Prayer. Mary has made her way to her cousin, Elizabeth, to do what human beings do – share remarkable news with someone close. The two women, both full of new life within them, embrace, in what Bishop Jeremy Taylor called that great ‘collision of joys’. And Mary then begins to tell her story and begins it with those words ‘My soul magnifies the Lord’. Magnify isn’t a word we use much today, except when we describe what a magnifying glass does – makes things look bigger. That’s not a bad place to start. Mary tells her story but not for her own celebrity but to make God bigger. When we praise someone we do make them large in the sense of giving them more room. We step back, we put our preoccupations and plans aside so as to let the reality of someone else live in us for that moment, find room in us. Real praise, as proud parents and partners will know, is about forgetting me for a moment so that the sheer beauty of someone other comes alive in me. In that moment I even begin to turn a little into what I’m looking at, something of their self caught up with mine. ‘My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God’.

This is why so much work has been done in recent years between different Churches to agree that Mary is a model of the Church’s faith and desire: to praise the great magnetism of God’s mystery and to be freshened in our own loving and trust as we do so. But in a world that has no native vocabulary for the soul and is, not unreasonably, suspicious of those who speak of this God in an often weaponised or bumper-sticker way, how can a cathedral such as this begin to connect in a purposeful and equal conversation about what an authentic search for God, and what an authentic human life, might entail? How can we get beyond the often banal attempts to be somehow relevant to the present culture and instead seek to be resonant to the deeper parts of our shared humanity? How can we magnify the holy in our own day?

Well, one way is surely through a shared encounter with art - for the person of faith, for the person of no faith, for the many serious reflective people today who are not quite sure either way as to whether reality is ultimately trustworthy or not, art pulls the chair from under our minds of logical banter for a while and says ‘stand together and look’. ‘Look and be seen’.

It has been an enormous privilege of my life to work with Bill Viola and Kira Perov over my six years here. They have taken the medium, film, that currently mass controls us and subverted the technology of spectacle against itself by time lapse, slow motion, patience, in order to deepen the perceptions of the human and encounter the usually unseen, reading the precious between the lines of day to day. Here matter is interrogated for what matters. Their work dispels illusions but without making us disillusioned. A Christian might see their work as sacramental, moments of crossing between space and time, human and transcendent, container and uncontainable. The rumour of God rumbles in the work as it interrupts our snoring and provokes us to take time to seriously wonder whether there might be spiritual adventure to be lived in joy, loss, birth, death, the present. Whether, though so rationally grown up as we like to think ourselves, there might yet be a soul, a soul, so unattended to yet calling on us to breathe, to find its freedom in the one who is its origin and hope. We have all been given the gift of being. The gift we are asked to give back in return for it is our becoming, who we become in our one life, and who or what we praise and magnify will begin to translate and take hold of us quicker than we can notice for good or ill.

There are not many women memorialised in this cathedral. And the men tend to be military heroes. This new work Mary brings a woman into the heart chamber of this space, a woman who may not have the strength of the battle field but who had the strength of a mother, the resilience to live a way of love even when, like so many mothers in our world today, holding her dead child in her arms. When we look on this strength, this courage, this resilient trust and faithfulness, even as the sword pierces her heart with grief at the loss of the son whose own courage and wisdom made her proud, made her rethink her life, made her love him so deeply, we then see that this was one who magnified God; God, not as some magician or guru, but as a God of perplexing mystery whose beauty seeps through all the things that matter most to us, the things that make us vulnerable and that can hurt most, the things that make us breathless and glad to be alive. She is indeed and must always be the model of the Church’s faith and the Church’s desire. It is right that this work takes its place in our midst.

Surely, from now on generations will call me blessed for the Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is his name.