Sermon Given at the Sung Eucharist on the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Tuesday, 15th August 2017 at 5.00 PM
Richard was in trouble. The year was 1381 and Richard was king of England, though he was only 14 years old. Wat Tyler and rebels from south-east England had amassed at Blackheath to protest against a new tax, a poll tax.
The chronicler Froissart gave a vivid description of how the king prepared to meet the rebels: ‘Richard II on the Saturday after Corpus Christi went to Westminster, where he heard Mass at the Abbey with all his Lords. He made his devotions at a statue of our Lady in a little chapel that had witnessed many miracles and where much grace had been gained, so that the Kings of England have much faith in it.’
The rebellion failed and order was restored. The King saw this as a miracle granted through the intercession of our Lady, and sought to encourage her veneration at Westminster. He placed his Kingdom under our Lady's protection, in thanksgiving for having regained it. ‘This is your Dowry, O Holy Virgin; therefore rule over it, O Mary.’ Richard refurbished the chapel here in the Abbey, the little chapel of Our Lady of Pew.
On 10th February 1399, he issued this proclamation: ‘The contemplation of the great mystery of the Incarnation has brought all Christian nations to venerate her from whom came the beginnings of redemption. But we, as the humble servants of her inheritance, and liegemen of her especial dower, as we are approved by common parlance, ought to excel all others in the favour of our praises and devotions to her.’
The image of Our Lady of Pew was removed from the Abbey at some point, although the colouring of the niche always preserved the place where the image had been. Then on 10th May 1971, following the initiative of a private benefactor and the work of Sister Concordia Scott of Minster Abbey on the Isle of Thanet, a new alabaster statue, modelled on the statue of our Lady of Westminster in Westminster Cathedral, was enthroned in the niche. Carved on its back is the prayer of our Lord Ut unum sint, that they may be one.
In that same small chapel, there is one remarkable carving from Richard II’s reign that has remained unchallenged and unaltered in well over six hundred years. The image is on the front cover of the service paper this evening. On a boss in the vault of the chapel is a beautiful tiny carved image of Mary, the mother of God, in red, her hands clasped in prayer, surrounded by six cherubs, kneeling on the cloud that is taking her to heaven: a 14th century image of the Assumption of our Lady, in Westminster Abbey, undisturbed by Protestant reformers in the 16th century, puritans in the 17th, deists in the 18th, revisionists in the 19th and modernists in the 20th century. Through thick and thin, she lifts to heaven the hearts and minds of any willing to look up from their daily cares and preoccupations and focus instead on the goodness, beauty and mercy of almighty God.
Our Lady, he was sure, had answered the call in trouble of Richard II, who gave his kingdom to the Lord’s Mother as her dowry. No monarch or government has since revoked that dedication. Richard II is not held out as the most shining example of kingship but one thing is sure: he was a man of immense piety, who loved the Abbey. The Wilton diptych, which you can see in the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square, depicts him, surrounded by saints who had altars in their honour in the Abbey, offering his kingdom to our blessed Lady as her dowry. His connection with the Abbey is still cherished.
Here at Westminster Abbey, there had been active devotion to our Lady from at least the 12th century. In those days, an altar was erected in the nave of the Abbey, where masses could be said regularly in honour of our Lady Mary. Later, on 16th May 1220, Henry III, another young king, aged only 12, laid the foundation stone for a Lady Chapel at the east end of the then Abbey church, before he began rebuilding the main structure of the church in 1245. We know little of that chapel.
A later king Henry, Henry VII, gave the money for the Lady Chapel to be rebuilt. Work began in 1503 and was more or less complete in 1509, when Henry VII died. John Islip, who was largely responsible for this rebuilding, was abbot from 1500 to 1532, when the Church was on the brink of the great changes brought about by Henry VIII’s divorce and the Reformation.
The changes threatened honour to our Lady. The Prayer Books of Edward VI’s reign in 1549 and 1552 omitted most of the traditional feasts of our Lady. Only the Purification survived on 2nd February, strangely so-called, since we now know it as the feast of the Presentation of our Lord. But queen Elizabeth I restored four additional feasts of our Lady Mary to the Calendar in 1561.
If abbot Islip had wondered about the future of the Lady Chapel or of honour to our Lady, he should not have worried. Five hundred years later, the Westminster Abbey Lady Chapel is in wonderful order and the Church of England has restored the major feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary on 15th August, which we celebrate today, as we commemorate her passing from this life to heavenly glory.
Devotion to our Lady, the honour of our Lady Mary, may seem a little sentimental, a piety that gives personal comfort but has little practical relevance. This devotion is focussed around the praying of the Hail Mary, the first part of which is simply the conflation of two biblical texts from St Luke’s Gospel, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.’ These are the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary at the annunciation and of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth at the visitation. The latter part of the prayer is simply about us and our needs. ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of death.’
But devotion to our Lady should involve absolutely clear practical outcomes, and would do so if we focused on the gospel reading we heard just now, of the Song of Mary, the Magnificat. Here Mary’s focus is on her own unworthiness and the graciousness of God in calling her to be his servant and a reflection on what this might mean. ‘He has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.’ Mary’s Song has universal relevance and is a call to all Christians, a reflection and reaffirmation of our Lord’s teaching in St Luke’s Gospel. ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.’
This is hard for us all to grasp, still less to act on. It should be no surprise that Richard II resisted the Peasants’ Revolt.