The following is a guest post containing a recent sermon by Annie Bolger, one of our 2016/7 Church of England Ministerial Experience interns. She was placed at St. Martha and Mary’s church, Leuven. Annie grew considerably during her time with us and recently gave her final sermon as an intern, reflecting on what that time has meant to her and her sense of vocation. In the sermon below, on the Magnificat, you can read something of her story. I am delighted that Annie will be continuing with an exploration of vocation to ordained ministry in the coming year.
When I was invited to preach, Jack [chaplain in Leuven] suggested that I use any passage that expresses some lessons learned from my year as an intern at St. Martha and St. Mary’s. As I reflected back on an experience which has been formational on many levels, I chose to illustrate the year through the prayer that we just read, the song of Mary, the Magnificat.
I want to talk about this prayer, and about prayer itself, and about how my sense of prayer & place & voice has been cultivated as I have been among you in this internship.
Much can be said about this beloved prayer, the Magnificat. In structure, it reflects the composition of Jewish psalms. The first stanza displays a characteristic feature of Hebrew poetry—synonymous parallelism: “my soul” mirrors “my spirit”; “proclaiming the greatness” mirrors “finding gladness”; and “the Lord” mirrors “God my Saviour.” The prayer is expressed with symmetry and grace.
The prayer also demonstrates contrasting parallelism: the proud are contrasted by those who fear God, the mighty by the humble, and the rich by the hungry.
There is scholarly debate regarding whether the historical Mary actually prayed this prayer, primarily because the words echo several ancient Jewish psalms, including the Song of Hannah, recorded in 1 Samuel 2:1–10. I find myself bristling at this debate, not because I cannot perceive how this prayer may be a simple reiteration of a more ancient Psalm. This is certainly plausible. I bristle because the Gospel writer portrays Mary as the author of this prayer and in so doing, makes her the theological interpreter of her contemporary events. The Mary who prays the Magnificat is the Mary who recognizes and occupies a place in redemption history. This Mary understands two things — place and voice — and these are the themes that have emerged from my year as an intern.
One element of this internship has been the structure of praying the Daily Office. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the Daily Office in the Anglican tradition consists of Morning and Evening Prayer and Compline before bedtime. The Magnificat is prayed every day during Evening Prayer. At the beginning of the internship, I had a dutiful approach to praying the office. I saw it as a sort of checklist item: “I prayed today.”
My checklist item, “I prayed today,” implies that prayer happened because I did it. As the year progressed, and I started to learn more from my experiences, from my supervisors, from my spiritual director, I began to see prayer as a process that was taking place with or without me. Prayer is constant: all of creation is crying out to God, all of the saints and angels are praying continually, the Holy Spirit is ceaselessly interceding for us. Eventually, I began to hear the hollowness of my checklist item — “I prayed today” — and my concept shifted to “Prayer is happening, and I took my place and I lent my voice.” Place and voice. The dual themes of my internship.
Mary speaks of place on the Magnificat when she says “He has looked with favour on his lowly servant… the Almighty has done great things for me.” During one of my first internship meetings with Jack, he made the observation that life has crushed me in various ways, and he said, “Now you’re in a place where that is no longer the case. This year may be about stepping out and moving forward from that past.” I stepped into my role as intern timidly. I wasn’t quite sure what was mine to do. It took me some month or two before I felt comfortable serving at the altar, before I introduced myself as an intern to guests or visitors. But Mary, whose life was rendered perplexing in unwelcome ways by her calling, immediately has the spiritual acumen to see that God has lifted up the lowly and has filled the hungry with good things. She understands that God is doing that: like prayer, which is happening, God is lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry, and she sees that she has been invited to take a place in that great work, to stand with the lowly and the hungry and the crushed and be part of the great things that God is doing. I learned from her prayer that taking my place, naming my vocation, is likewise a mature and gracious way to take part in what God is doing.
Mary speaks of voice when she says “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” Two particular opportunities were given to me as intern: 1) leading our home group and 2) participating in our prayer ministry. In home-group this year, by increasing collaboration, we learned quite a bit about one another and how to build a trusting community. The crowning triumph of the year together was to take turns each week voicing our personal journeys of faith.
Similarly, this semester, Jane [an ordinand in Leuven] and I have offered prayer ministry after the Lord’s Supper for those who desired personal prayer. In this context, it was not unusual to hear someone say the words, “I have never said this to anyone before…”. In this year together, some of us have used our voices as never before, myself included.
The dual themes of place and voice culminated in our dynamic worship last week, in which I felt privileged to take my place, literally and metaphorically, near the cross and give voice to the stories of women who have been the victims of violence — to give voice to my own story of being silenced.
So on a final note, I want to offer sincere thanks to each of you for welcoming me to take the place of an intern here and to exercise my voice. In this community of warmth and welcome and kindness, I have been able to flourish. It has been a sincere honour to journey alongside you all at M&Ms. I ask you to continue to journey with me as I look forward to the year ahead: I will remain here at M&Ms. I have been encouraged to continue my discernment process, which may include some short visits to other parishes to round out my experience in the Church of England, and will also include some big interviews for which I will need time to prepare and for which I ask your support and your prayer.
Someone from the congregation approached me after dynamic worship last week to hand me a note which said, “Silent no more, never again.” And isn’t that what Mary says, when she declares that from this day all generations would call her blessed? She is saying that she has filled a place in redemption history and she can no longer be silenced. I can think of no better way to conclude this CEMES internship than by voicing Mary’s psalm once more. Will you pray with me?
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour;
he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed;
the Almighty has done great things for me
and holy is his name.
He has mercy on those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm
and has scattered the proud in their conceit,
Casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
to remember his promise of mercy,
The promise made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children for ever.