Sermon preached at the Church of All Saints, Blackheath
at Parish Mass on Sunday, September 8th 2013
‘Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing
of the children of God … and in this hope, we were saved’
O FRUITFUL garden, and yet never till’d!
Box full of treasure, yet by no man fill’d!
O thou which hast made Him that first made thee!
O near of kin to all the Trinity!
O palace, where the King of all, and more,
Went in and out, yet never open’d door
Whose flesh is purer than an other’s spirit,
Reach Him our prayers, and reach us down His merit!
So wrote John Donne, in the opening of his poem To the Blessed Virgin Mary. Today’s celebration of her birth is but one of many Feasts that we keep in her honour. Through the year the church celebrates her Conception, Annunciation and Assumption. We honour those places where she has appeared – Walsingham and Lourdes, Fatima and Medjugorje. Flowers have been named after her; churches dedicated to her and this land, England, was once known as ‘Our Lady’s Dowry’ because of the devotion given her by countless generations. And in honouring her we honour Him who was the fruit of her womb, Jesus.
Yet for many, devotion to Mary is somehow foreign, excessive and unbiblical. Never mind that Mary was the Mother of God, a title given her to make sure Christians knew that her Son was both God and Man, nor that the person closest to any son is his mother. The relationship between Mary and Jesus must have been crucial and if we want to be His brothers and sisters then we need to acknowledge Mary as our Mother.
MARY - THE FEMININE FACE OF GOD
So Donne can say of Mary: O near of kin to all the Trinity, and, in so doing, hints at the way she has become regarded as the feminine face of God. Not that Mary is the ‘fourth person of the Trinity’ but that through her we encounter something of the Divine feminine. The scandal of Christianity is not only the Cross (I Cor. 1:22-24) but the Incarnation – that God did not chose to come amongst us through some apocalyptic revelation but in our frail humanity. He united Himself with a woman, chose one through whom to appear among us. And that woman Whose flesh is purer than an other’s spirit, was above all others blest. It’s not just Christianity that affirms this but Islam, too, for as the Qu’ran says: “O Mary! Allah hath chosen thee and purified thee - chosen thee above the women of all nations.” And whilst Islam does not recognise the Divinity of Christ, it speaks more lavishly of Mary than does the New Testament. Yet recognising the place of Mary in the story of our faith is more than simply acknowledging the role she played and making sure our generation, like all generations, calls her blessed. For It is arguable that without her the patriarchal nature of monotheistic religion could become overbearing. We need to wander in Mary’s ‘fruitful garden’ and ask her to point out to us the ‘treasure’ contained in her ‘palace’ which only one closest to the King can recognise. For Mary helps us to encounter God. As someone has written, she is an: ‘interior-oriented" woman, who hears God's will, responds to him with sincere faith, follows her Son's salvific mystery from the beginning of her vocation. She hides herself in the shade of her Son to glorify the Father and the Son.’ (AHN Jung-han)
OUR LADY OF THE SIGN
And that glorifying of the Son is seen most powerfully in an icon of Mary known as ‘Our Lady of the Sign’ where she, facing the beholder, bears the Christ-child within a roundel on her breast. The icon is often displayed in the semi-circular apse of Orthodox churches together with the title: “She who is more spacious than the heavens.” It’s a most remarkable statement and reflects a verse in the Second Book of the Chronicles when, at the Dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, Solomon ponders: ’ (II Chr. 6:18) So Mary is the new Temple. And if she, a mere mortal, can provide such a dwelling place for God on earth then it gives hope to you and I and all people that God will reside with us if our hearts are spacious enough for Him. Spacious and holy, swept clean of sin. ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God’, begged the psalmist, ‘and renew a right spirit within me.’ (Ps.51:10)
The Icon of the Sign attests to Mary as the Woman of Prayer who sought to make room for God to live in her heart. Here we have not just a woman who reveals the face of God but the feminine out of which God is incarnated. If we are to be united with Him (and that is our vocation) then this icon reminds us that we are called to open the depths of our being to the whole of God’s nature. As Dante wrote: ‘Look now upon the face that most resembles Christ's, for only through its brightness can you prepare your vision Him to see.’
S. FRANCIS AND MARY
So S. Francis of Assisi, beloved of many and whom some consider nearest to Christ in his life and in his love, took Mary as his inspiration. “He embraced the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ with indescribable love,” wrote St. Bonaventure, “because she had made the Lord of Majesty our brother and had obtained mercy for us. After Christ it was Mary in whom he placed his trust and whom he chose as advocate, both for himself and his brothers.” (Major Life. 9:13)
This intimate relationship between Jesus and Mary isn’t some optional extra ‘for those who like that sort of thing’ but a profoundly intimate bond which, if embraced, will have an equally profound and intimate effect on those who seek to be united with Jesus. However apart from a few (but profoundly significant) times when she appears in Holy Scripture her life is only known to us through apocryphal writings. Yet all of them attest to a girl and a woman whose gaze was turned towards God. We know this because God was with her, filling her life with grace. She had become blessed among all women and was the one whom, from every generation, God chose to be His Mother. Her “Yes” to God which she uttered at the Annunciation is a ‘yes’ which she had learnt to utter. Though we know nothing of her childhood with Joachim and Anna it’s arguable that she was nurtured by them to trust God and live in His will. So her ‘yes’ is one in which we are to join that God’s will may be done on earth as it is in heaven; that it may be done in us as well as through us. That God’s kingdom may come alive in our hearts and that we may, like Mary, become God-bearers.
That our own hearts may become spacious enough to incarnate Christ – that we may be signs of God’s presence.
Donne concludes his poem with these lines:
O BREAD of life which swelld’st up without leaven!
O bridge which join’st together earth and heaven!
Whose eyes see me through these walls, and through glass,
And through this flesh as through cypress pass.
Behold a little heart made great by thee
Swelling, yet shrinking et thy majesty.
O dwell in it! For wheresoe’er thou go’st,
There is the temple of the Holy Ghost.
Today’s Feast celebrates the birth of a girl to parents who, like most, could not have known what would become of their child – how she would grow up nor what fate awaited her. In stating that ‘Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God … and in this hope, we were saved’, S. Paul echoes the way that the birth of Mary is the beginning of God’s saving revelation. Mary, now so often neglected in this country yet with thousands of churches and altars dedicated in her honour, has been seen as the image of Divine Wisdom and to encounter her is to encounter God. If we gaze on her then, with a mother’s love, she will always point us to her Son.
So let me conclude with another poem said to be from the pen of that great Spanish mystic, S. John of the Cross:
IF you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy, and say,
“I need shelter for the night,
please take me inside your heart, my time is so close.”
Then, under the roof of your soul,
you will witness the sublime intimacy,
the divine, the Christ, taking birth forever,
as she grasps your hand for help,
for each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.
Yes there, under the dome of your being
does creation come into existence eternally,
through your womb, dear pilgrim –
the sacred womb of your soul,
as God grasps our arms for help:
for each of us is his beloved servant, never far.
If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the street
pregnant with light … and sing.