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National Pilgrimage to The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham

Monday 31st May 2004

A sermon delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, on the occasion of the National Pilgrimage to The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, Walsingham.

If you don't usually go to evensong or sing choruses, the word 'magnify' isn't instantly going to communicate much; it simply means what a magnifying glass does – making things look bigger. Actually, this isn't such a bad start to understanding what 'magnify the Lord' means. When Mary sings the Magnificat, she wants to make God look bigger, to draw attention to the greatness of God, as we do when we sing it. But the words used in the ancient languages are more robust – they really mean making something greater in fact, not just making it look greater. And this would be an odd thing to say in relation to God, since we can't do anything to make God more than God is. Yet in those languages the words are regularly used to mean praising, whether praising God or praising other human beings. And perhaps we should think of that as suggesting that when we praise someone or something else we make them bigger in the sense of giving them more room: we step back, we put our preoccupations and goals and plans aside so as to let the reality of something else live in us for that moment, find room in us. Real praise is about forgetting myself, even my feelings, so that the sheer beauty and radiance of something beyond myself comes alive in me. It isn't literally increasing the volume of what we're looking at and absorbing; but it is a moment in which what I am begins to turn into what I'm looking at, so that it lives in me as well as in itself.

Well, if that's how we're understanding the word, Mary's soul 'magnifying' the Lord is exactly what we'd expect – because she has just handed over her whole existence, body and soul, to give room to God. She has literally allowed something – someone – beyond herself, beyond her furthest imagining – to come to life in her. She is not only saying words that make God look greater; she is performing the most extraordinary and the most utterly self-forgetting action a human being could perform, making room for the life of the everlasting Word of God in her own flesh. She is still emphatically the human woman Mary; but she is also the one in whom the presence of God is growing moment by moment in the long, mysterious and subtle process of pregnancy. Because of her yes to God, there is through her freedom a new release of God's presence and power in the human world. There is more room for God, because the usual obstacles to God's work, in self-preoccupation and fear and resentment, have been overcome in Mary's unswerving willingness to absorb the vision God has given.

And so she says also that 'he that is mighty hath magnified me'. As she gives room to God, God makes her greater. What could be a more vivid illustration of how wrong and silly it is to think that God and humanity are somehow in competition? As if the more God there were, the less humanity there could be. But when Mary gives room to God, God gives room to her: her humanity blossoms into its fullest glory. Learn to give God room and you realise that what has to be cleared away to make room for him isn't your real humanity but all that has stopped you being human, all that makes you less than you could be. On the far side of the terrible, forbidding, draining business of letting go of your expectations, your safety and your possessions lies more not less of life.

For centuries, Christians have kept coming back to the idea that what happens in Mary is what has to happen to some degree in each of us. She, uniquely and once for all, says a yes so complete that her entire material life is changed by the coming of God to her; God's everlasting gift of himself that is the Son, the Word, emerges from her to begin that life which will change everything in creation. But we are called to the same job, to give God room so that we may be changed, so that the eternal Word will live in us and speak and act in love to others. Only so are we 'magnified', given our full dignity and splendour – not by rushing around in panic defending ourselves and standing on our dignity, but by being still enough to reflect and absorb the light flowing from God the Holy Trinity, something so wonderful that it can put into perspective the fears and pettinesses that we think are real life, and silence us for a moment, letting true life in.

There's a book just published by Hilary Wilson about her experience of living in a number of communities of people with serious learning difficulties and challenges, especially in the L'Arche community in Liverpool. It's called My Life Together – a title that already tells you quite a lot! But in the course of it she summarises the path to Christian unity by adapting what another writer said about Christian prayer: we need to learn the three R's – Relate, Relinquish, Receive. And this sounds like a translation of what 'magnifying' God should be, and a hint about how we are 'magnified' in the process. One of the most moving stories in the book is the testimony of a mother describing what it was like to come to terms with having a brain-damaged daughter – the shattering of expectations first, and the learning to live from day to day; then the unexpected relations made possible by the new challenge, the contacts with people you'd never otherwise meet; then the discovery of the reality and beauty of the child, growing into an adult, giving the parent what could not have been predicted. Gradually the fear of 'who'll look after her when we're gone?' is overcome as a whole world of fresh relations opens up. And the final normality of the mother learning to be a friend to this child who had seemed destined to be in profound ways a stranger. Relate, relinquish, receive: two lives 'magnified' as there is a slow absorption of the difficult reality that is also compellingly beautiful; dignity discovered and celebrated.

We are mostly very fearful, whether we call ourselves believers or not, of a God who will somehow take away from us what we most cherish. The unbeliever cannot manage to get out of his or her head the idea that God is an unfriendly alien, and that people who believe in God become less than properly human, boring at best and dangerous at worst. It would be easier to persuade them otherwise, of course, if we Christians were a bit more convincing in our witness to the fact that humanity blossoms where room is give to God, and that the half-life is ultimately the life without faith. Mary says to us in her song that when God is magnified, humanity is magnified also. Mary's Son is the only fully human being there has been, because he is wholly and utterly alive to and in God the Father. The gift of his Spirit which we celebrate at this season is poured out so that we can be always growing into his life.

So we must say to each other, Don't be afraid of magnifying God, being still and open to give him room; don't be afraid of the letting go and the risk God asks from his friends. This is the deepest wellspring of all in our learning how to reverence human dignity, to magnify one another also. As Mary magnifies the Lord, she also celebrates the Lord's honouring of the poor and feeding of the hungry, and his disappointing of the prosperous and self-satisfied. At a time when we are forced to confront daily the images of wilful human blasphemy against the image of God in others and the all too frequent refusal to confront and acknowledge the scale of the offence against human dignity, we need to hear Our Lady's challenge; she sings for the insulted and injured everywhere – in Iraq and Zimbabwe and her own Holy Land. And she calls us in her Son's name not only to be still and let God flower in us but to let God's justice work in us and through us also, as we seek to make room for each other with love and respect in our tormented and petrified world.

A magnifying glass is also a burning glass. Mary gave birth to a child who would one day say that he had come to cast fire upon the earth. In magnifying the Lord, she gives room for the Spirit to descend, to come upon her, to work in every moment of the life of her Son, to fall upon the disciples in tongues of fire. When God is given room, the Spirit begins to burn, to consume what holds us back from our own joy. We are called to look beyond the immediate danger to the longer hope and possibility that Our Lady's words speak of, to the promise that by the fiery Spirit of Mary's Son the face of the earth may be renewed and the glory of God's children revealed.

So it is, finally, the Spirit that will carry us through those three R's. Relate – be in the company of God and God's friends to be reminded of what faith is; relinquish – let go of what stops you being human, fear and prejudice and the longing to be known to be always in the right; receive – welcome with gratitude and reverence what God gives you through each other, through friend and stranger. Magnify the Lord and the Spirit overshadows you. And the Lord will magnify us, will glorify his creation, give us room in his love and the love of each other, as we find life together in the Body of Mary's Son.

© Rowan Williams 2004

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