Sermon preached at Evensong on the Third Sunday of Lent (24 March 2019) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached at Evensong on the Third Sunday of Lent (24 March 2019) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

The Dean gives the third sermon in the Lent Sermon Series: "In Quires and Places where they sing, here followeth the Anthem", focusing on the anthem of the day, Ave Maria by Mendelssohn. 


How are you feeling about yourself and the world this afternoon? There’s a lot to take on board: the ongoing political chaos of Brexit and the uncertainty which it brings; the massacre of Muslims in mosques in New Zealand; devastating floods in Mozambique and Zimbabwe; ongoing disaster and conflict, and environmental damage. It could be hard to stay cheerful.

It may not help that it’s the middle of the Christian penitential season of Lent, when we enter a time of fasting and discipline and self-examination in preparation for Holy Week. 

But it’s precisely in that encounter with the brokenness of reality that we find resources to bear the sorrows of ourselves and the world around us, in company with Jesus.

This Lent here at St Paul’s we’ve been having a sermon series on Sunday afternoons based on the anthem sung by the choir. 

The first two in the series were suitably penitential, with music to match: one of the anthems lamenting that God seems absent, and the other asking God to give the writer a few more years of life before he finally is seen no more.

But this afternoon the mood changes markedly with the anthem we’ve just heard: Mendelssohn’s Ave Maria, composed in 1830, with its evocative and soaring music and lush 8-part harmonies – it’s not quite what you’d imagine for Lent. 

Felix Mendelssohn, the composer was born in 1809 to a Jewish father who’d renounced his faith: Felix was baptised at the age of 7, and remained a Protestant, but was reticent about his faith and proud of his Jewish heritage. Anti-Semitism, and the conservative romanticism of his music, meant his reputation suffered in the later 19th and first part of the 20th century. He was a musical prodigy as a child, and came to particular fame with his revival of Bach’s St Matthew Passion when he was 20 years old. 

He was based in Leipzig and Berlin, but came often to England to perform and compose. His well known pieces include oratorios on St Paul and Elijah; music for Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream which includes the often-played Wedding March; his overture Fingal’s Cave; the tune for the Christmas carol Hark the Herald Angels sing; the piece ‘Hear my Prayer’ which includes ‘O for the wings of a dove’

Mendelssohn had delicate health, and tended to overwork, and died of a series of strokes at the young age of 38.

So why have Mendelssohn’s Ave Maria this afternoon, when it’s Lent? It’s because this is the eve of the day of the Annunciation; on 25th March is the day each year when the Church recalls the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary to announce that she will be the mother of the Saviour. 

The service of Evensong always contains the Magnificat, the song which Mary sings after the visit of the angel when she goes off to visit her relative Elizabeth: Mary is never far away when Evensong is sung. And in this service today. when we give thanks for the Incarnation of the Lord in the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Ave Maria which quotes words from the story of the Annunciation is particularly suitable. 

You can see the words of the anthem on page 12 of the service booklet; it’s in three parts. The first words are the greeting of the angel’s, as the angel says, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.’ The next sentence is the greeting of Elizabeth when Mary goes to visit her: ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb’ (the second phrase is normally used, but is left out of Mendelssohn’s text). 

The point of these greetings forming the first part of the anthem is to affirm Mary before God: filled with grace, the Lord is with you, blessed among women. Mary has a hard and difficult road ahead of her, as an expectant mother but not yet married, fleeing persecution, and seeing her son die on the cross. But that journey begins with the assurance that God’s love and power is with her, no matter what comes next. 

In the medieval period, these first two biblical sentences were used without the addition of the third sentence, which came into common usage in the 16th century: ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.’ The invoking of Mary to pray for us became part of regular Catholic piety, and has been incorporated into the saying of the rosary beads as a form of prayer. 

It seems a bit strange that a Protestant like Mendelssohn should set this to music, given that Protestants weren’t supposed to pray to Mary and the saints; but Mendelssohn was working in a mixed Catholic and Protestant Germany, where many people wanted the Ave Maria set to music. 

And we also need to remember that an anthem like this isn’t just about the meaning of the words. 

As Mary bore the incarnate Christ within, as God and humanity become one, so this anthem, like all great pieces of music, fleshes out words and their meanings through the emotional range and power of music. In Mary, God the Word becomes flesh; in an anthem, human words take on another dimension, and speak to the heart as well as the head.

Protestants can happily say the first two sentences of the Ave Maria, because they’re in the Bible. And calling Mary the Mother of God is an ancient phrase, affirming the divinity of Christ and thus the truth of the incarnation. 

But invoking Mary’s prayers was based on the concept of merit: that as the Mother of God’s Son and conceived without sin, she would have special influence with him, and so her prayers would be especially effective.

This isn’t however a concept found in the New Testament, where prayer is to be made in the name of Jesus. But what is attractive to Protestants is the idea of relationship: as Luther saw it, Mary is the role model for us, the first Christian, the one who opens her heart as well as her body to God in Jesus Christ; she is our oldest sister in the faith. 

And if the Church is united in the Body of Christ, then we are linked with one another, and our love for and care for one another, whether alive or dead, comes together in Jesus.

Whether that relationship between us means that Mary can and does pray for us, no one knows – but just as we can pray for those who have died, in commending them to God, it may be that those who have died in Christ can pray for us who are living. 

In the chapel of the Mount Zion convent in Jerusalem, where there’s one of the reputed tombs of the Virgin Mary, there’s a beautiful mural. It shows the soul of Mary as a small child, swaddled in bandages, going to heaven in the arms of her Son Jesus; Mary leading the way for us to be loved and held through death by Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Mary. 

Felix Mendelssohn took this ancient prayer, the Ave Maria, and turned it into an evocation of love and beauty: and may his music and these words open our hearts to receive the love and blessing of God as Mary herself received it. 

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee, Blessed art thou among women! Hail Mary, Mother of God, Pray for us sinners Now and in the hour of our death. Amen.