My wife Luisa and I are beginning to get our heads around the prospect of moving house again, and whilst we have eight weeks before the great day – and are therefore not yet in panic mode, we are beginning to realise the enormity of the task. How sensible Fr Bird and his family are, to have remained in one place for so long!
One of the decrees that has come down from on high (from my wife that is) is that whilst the books are safe, the papers have that I have collected and which have travelled from England to Perth, and now to Newcastle are not. They are, I have been told, to be culled and scanned into the computer, because they are not coming with us to East Maitland. Well I am a great horder of papers, so this is something of a challenge; and over the last few weeks I have begun to tackle the task of rationalising folders and files that have been with me for a long time.
I came across one such file yesterday at the back of one of my filing cabinets. It dates back to when I was on the staff of an institution in England, and it is titled the ‘nutters file’. For some reason, when I worked at that institution, people were attracted to sending us all manner of bizarre communications. For a few years I kept the various strangest of them in what was rather unkindly called the ‘nutters file’ to be referred to only when we were in need of some humour. I fear that this file is not going to make it to the East Maitland Rectory. Sometimes they were anonymous handwritten letters asking us whether we were living our lives according to the ten commandments; one I remember was a letter calling us to be circumcised in order to truly be Christians.
The letter which I was most attached to in that file, was from a woman who lived in a flat in London, informing us that she had just given birth to the Son of God. She was very matter-of-fact about it all. She told us when it had happened, where she was living, and invited us to send gifts to honour this second Christ-child. Your response to a letter like that may well have been the same as mine. As I was re-reading that letter yesterday, it was a reminder to me that our Christian conviction and certainty that Mary gave birth to the Son of God is an absolutely extraordinary claim for the Church through the centuries to make; and on top of that our tradition tells us that Mary bore this Christ-child even though she was a virgin.
I don’t think that there is a person here this morning that would have been easily persuaded that Mary was in fact carrying the Son of God in her womb had we met her two thousand years ago. Yet we now hold on to this belief that God came to dwell among us in Jesus, through Mary, as if it were an entirely normal occurrence. This morning as we gives thanks for the witness of Mary we are reminded not only of the extraordinary nature of this Christian claim, but also of Mary’s central part within it.
For us the good news is that because God has been here on earth every aspect of our own lives is now touched by the presence of God (what we call the ‘incarnation’). Far more significant than any miracle story in the Gospels, or fantastic account in the Old Testament – our belief that God, through Mary became human in Jesus is the heart of the good news that we celebrate as Christians. We participate in this Mass of the Cell of the Shrine Our Lady of Walsingham this morning to ask for her intercessions, and to adore her Son, and to consciously join ourselves with the Holy House at Walsingham where they are both honoured in the worship and praise of God.
But in doing so we should not forget the heart-racing, utterly surprising wonder of it all. Mary, that most highly favour young woman, who is willing to say to the angel, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.” As she talks later to Elizabeth, who is to be the mother of John the Baptist expresses those familiar words: “My soul,” she says, “proclaims the greatness of the Lord… for he has looked with favour on me his lowly servant… the mighty one has done great things for me and holy is his name!” Scholars tell us that it is likely that Our Lady was fourteen of fifteen years old. She was betrothed to a man whom she was to marry. Yet when she is called to serve God in this most unexpected of ways, her response in faith is to simply give thanks, and to say “yes.”
Just as we often forget how extraordinary the claims of our faith tradition about Jesus are, we also overlook the fact that the response of this young girl to God is absolutely extraordinary as well. Mary’s “yes” to God, points not to her being somehow divine, but to her being truly and wonderfully faithful. We need to read between the lines of the story which we are presented in the Gospel if we are to truly understand the situation which Mary found herself in. Saying “yes” to God, in her situation, was a costly decision which could have led to the termination of her marriage agreement and to her expulsion from the community. But that “yes” begins the trickle flowing, which becomes a stream, then a river, then a tidal wave of love, as the Kingdom of God is inaugurated through the birth and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus here on earth.
Mary, the first human being to experience the presence and the reality of the incarnation here on earth. The one who quite literally lives in the presence of Jesus in the nine months of her pregnancy, as she goes about her normal life whilst bearing him within her body, and then as she nurtures him – the Son of God who is also a helpless baby – into the fullness of his humanity. There is a wonderful statue in the cloister of a Benedictine community in England which expresses all of this so powerfully. Our Lady is uncovering the baby Jesus, she is pulling back a shawl under which he has been sleeping. The sculpture is entitled, “Mary reveals the Light of the World.” It is an image which is worth remembering. Mary reveals Christ to the world – the light of the world, and of course Mary also reveals the world to Christ – God is born through her, in human form. Through Mary God lives in Christ as one of us.
Our Anglican quarters of the Catholic Church often appear perplexed and puzzled about the place of Mary in our tradition and our piety. But if we find ourselves looking at the example of Mary, and not being pointed by her life to Jesus, then we have misunderstood her place in the pilgrimage of salvation. In Mary we find the model for our own discipleship and response to God, in Mary we find our pattern for being aware of Christ’s presence with us through his Holy Spirit, and our part in making that presence known in the world. At this Mass we ask for her intercession that we may continue to respond to God as she did, and we say with her, ‘Yes God! You have looked with favour on your lowly servant. Let it be to us all according to your word.’