Have you ever stopped to wonder how Joseph felt about all of this? Perhaps this is simply a window into my own inner workings, but I think that there is something almost distancing that takes place for men when their partners are pregnant. I am not suggesting that in the normal run of things fathers-to-be are not excited and daunted in equal measure when a baby is on the way, nor that they are dis-cconnected with all that is going on; but the experience of being a father-to-be is quite different from being a mother who is pregnant with a yet unborn child.
From the moment of conception, for all mothers, down through the ages, something utterly altering takes place in the identity of a woman. As that new baby grows within her, joined to her, part of her, so grows the reality that an expectant mother will no longer now ever be able to speak or talk or think of herself alone, she will from that moment onwards always be a mother, always be part of a ‘two’ not a ‘one’.
In amongst the joy of taking on a new life that is growing within her, and that will be inseparably linked to her own, there is also the loss as well as the gain. Pregnant with possibility, pregnant too with a new responsibility and the vulnerability and the fear and the pain of motherhood. The joy of a son or a daughter on the way, and the loss of freedom.
Many of you have experienced these realities for yourselves, or journeyed with others who have themselves experienced them. Looking ahead to all that will go right, and all that may go wrong as well – not just at birth but in the years that will follow. Perhaps mothers here today can resonate with what I am saying, or perhaps my observations, somewhat from a distance, are not quite accurate. But it seems to me that there is never a baby on his or her own, never a mother on her own, there is always a mother and child, whether they are physically together, or whether later they are separated by distance or estrangement or death. Nevertheless, there is always a mother and her child: and that is not quite the same experience that binds fathers to their children, and children to their fathers.
So I wonder, how did Joseph feel as all of this was going on around him? The news that Mary is pregnant, not quite being the plan that he had in mind when he became engaged to her. The news that this child is God, not part of any plan that he could ever have conceived of. Here is the young girl Mary, preparing to have her first son, engaged but not married to Joseph, who is her partner and protector. Here is Joseph, aware of all of these things, perhaps feeling at some distance from it all, not just because he is not having any of the experiences of a pregnant mother, but because he is not the father either.
In place of our psalm today we rehearsed the familiar words of the Canticle Magnificat, best known to those of us who have been around long enough to remember Anglican Evensong. That exuberant song of joy as Mary praises God for the momentous news that she has heard nine months earlier that will change her life forever. The news that changes any woman when she finds that she will no longer be one but two. The news that will not just change her life, but will change all of our lives forever.
Now we are nine months on from that momentous announcement and Mary’s response. All of the possibilities of the future lie ahead for Mary and Joseph as they travel to Bethlehem for the census, as it approaches the time for Mary to give birth; and finding no room in a hotel or guest house, she gives birth to the Saviour of the world and places him in a feeding trough amongst the animals in a stable. This is the story – so familiar to us all – that the writers of the Gospel of Luke paint for us, and that we hear again today as we honour and celebrate Mary the Mother of Our Lord.
We need to be honest, that there is a sense of ambiguity and perhaps for some, even uncomfortableness when we say too much about Mary in an Anglican Church.
As a priest said to Will and I on Friday night, the problem with Mary is that most Anglicans think that she is a Roman Catholic! Some of us are more ready to see depictions of Mary in our stained glass windows than we are to encounter images of her in statues and icons. There have been through the centuries since the Reformation, and remain to this day, movements of Christians who have wanted to minimise Mary’s role in the story of God’s love for us. These expressions have often rightly sought to bring a balance to perceptions that Mary has been given too prominent a place, almost as a god in her own right, within Christian thinking. But we need to be careful if we have in our minds that Mary was simply an incubating vessel who was used for nine months in order for God’s purposes to be fulfilled; because we all know, either through personal experience or observation of others, that motherhood is not like that at all. To side line Mary in the story of our salvation is to side line the humanity of Jesus as well, to say that somehow he was not as truly human as we proclaim.
So here she is, the mother of Jesus, giving birth in a stable. She will never again only be Mary, she will always be Mary, the mother of her son; and whilst we spend more of our time focusing our attention on Jesus’ father, whilst we rejoice that at the heart of our faith, this baby is God, come to us to fulfill his heavenly father’s purpose, Jesus can never only have a father, he is the child of his mother, the woman who bore him. Whatever else we proclaim about him, he is always the son of Mary. That is why we honour her in the life of the Church. That is also why we also celebrate today the ongoing work of the Mothers’ Union, who in Mary’s footsteps seek to support the ministry of mothers who nurture the life of Christian families around the world.
That is why way back at the Council of Ephesus over 1,500 years ago the Church proclaimed and continues to proclaim Mary as ‘Theotokos’ the God-bearer, the Mother of God. Not somehow just the mother of the human Jesus, as if his divinity is separable from his humanity, but the mother, of Jesus, the Son of the living God. In celebrating and honouring the Blessed Virgin Mary we celebrate the incarnation of her son, because whenever we look at Mary she always points us to her son, God’s son, our saviour.
Mary is the first human being to experience the presence and the reality of the incarnation here on earth. She is 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 into the fullness of his humanity. As the writer to the Church in Galatia declares it, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman so that we might receive adoption as heirs of God.” That is why as Anglicans we honour Mary above all human beings.
There is a story about a young man who is preparing to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. He meets with the Bishop in the vestry before the service, and the Bishop begins to quiz him to check that he has been properly prepared. “Tell me,” says the Bishop, what prayers do you know. “Our Father who art in heaven…” responds the young man, and then he recites the prayers that he has been taught to say when he enters the Church and after he has received Holy Communion. And then he begins to say the Angelus, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you…”. The Bishop stops him before he finishes, “young man,” he says to him, “you don’t need to learn prayers about Mary.” The conversation continues.
A little later the Bishop asks the young man, “and have you learnt the Creeds?” “Yes,” says the young man, “I believe in God, the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the…” “Go on,” says the Bishop, “do you know what comes next?” “Yes,” says the young man, “but I am not sure that I am able to mention her name!” You get the point. It is right there in the Creed.
It is only through Jesus that we know Mary, without him we would not know about her at all, her significance for us only comes through Jesus. But it is also true to say that it is only through Mary that we know Jesus. Her obedient part in God’s plan, her yes to God’s calling, ushered in God’s great work of salvation, through Jesus, God made man amongst us. Without him, Mary is unimportant, without her we would not have Jesus. And so with the Church around the world, we are pleased to honour her today, as we seek to follow in her footsteps as disciples of her son.