Archives January 2006

Sermon: Ordinary 4, Year B

Sermon: 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Why the Devil Goes to Church
Mark 1:21-1:28

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

This pericope is not the first time that the demonic have been in Church.

There was once a Church in rural Devon (where I’m from, of course) on the Dartmoor, and in the middle of the Mass, the devil appeared in the sanctuary in a puff of sulphur. Virtually everyone (including the priest) ran out of the little church screaming, except for one old lady, who remained in her pew praying.

“Don’t you know who I am” Satan bellowed “Aren’t you scared?”

The Old Lady looked up “Why should I… I’ve been married to your brother for 37 years!”

Spiritual warfare. There is real evil in this world: you only have to read the newspapers, see the TV news to see this. There is a force which actively seeks to separate itself and others from the goodness of God. If we want to wrap that idea up and give it a label, call it the Devil then fine.

The greatest accomplishment of the devil, said the French poet Baudelaire, was to convince people he didn’t exist.

If we label evil in the world, then we can have a handle on it. We can have power over it, for the power of evil is nothing compared to the power of Christ, as the demoniac in today’s Gospel knew.

Evil is present all around us, even in Church. Even in the synagogue, Christ had to confront and defeat the tangible presence of evil. This place, this body of Christ is not immune from the malevolent influence of that evil.

It may surprise you, but the devil has always been religious. Satan and his demons are even rather orthodox in some of their beliefs. American theologian A. W. Tozer said, “The devil is a better theologian than any of us and is a devil still.”

However, the sacraments of Word and Eucharist have power over the evil that seeks to undermine God’s work. By chipping away at tenants of faith, by underpinning the true moral meaning of the Church, the forces of evil try to undermine our worship of God by focussing on petty things.

Yes, the devil is monotheistic. He knows there is only one God. The problem is he doesn’t worship God. When he pitches up at church it isn’t for true worship but rather for false worship.

Satan’s religion is false religion but it is religion nonetheless. He doesn’t even mind if we come here for worship – just as long as its false worship.

He loves to see the body of Christ fall out with each other, remain unreconciled for year upon year. He loves to see us look down on others, exalt our own goodness. He loves it when we are preoccupied with other things – like who hurt our feelings recently, and what so and so thinks about us. He loves to hear our critical comments about the worship, the music, and oh yes, the preaching: not said openly, but always to others. Because if people expressed themselves directly, then those responsible could do something about it, and the Devil would have nothing more to play with.

The devil loves it when we don’t put our hearts into praising God. He likes seeing us just going through the motions, without thinking and seeking a comfortable retreat from reality. He can stand anything but worship of God in spirit and in truth. (John 4:24)

The devil is opposed to Christianity but he isn’t opposed to churchianity.

The demons know who Jesus is. The one in the synagogue did. He believed in the Incarnation of Christ – believed that he was both God and man at the same time.

The demon clearly identified Christ’s humanity by calling Him “Jesus of Nazareth”. But he also identified Christ’s deity by calling Him “the Holy One of God”. (verse 24)

So one of the lessons of this text is that the church continually be on guard against false doctrine.

There are those who think that the whole of the Gospel of Love pivots around a few select verses which they believe outlaw homosexuality from the book of Leviticus (and which in fact are usually taken quite out of context).

There are those who threaten schism in the church because they cannot accept the role of women called to be priests, and now Bishops – something which we in this parish celebrate.

There are those who seek to reject rather than embrace, and they my friends have clearly misunderstood the real meaning of Holy Scripture.

As well as False Doctrine, there is also that other tool of the Devil: False Worship. For False Worship leads to Dead Religion.

We cannot afford to become complacent and nonchalant about our worship of God! We should consistently re-evaluate why we worship and how we worship. Change is a constant, and if this Church is to grow, then it must continue to change, to re-order, to reappraise and restructure.

There is a vitality to worship which we must strive for: At the altar, from the pulpit, in the Choir, the pews, in our hearts. We should be open to the power of the Spirit in our worship and in our lives.

There have been a couple of copies of this book circulating the parish: The Church in the Marketplace by Bishop George Carey. It describes his experiences as the Vicar of St Nicholas, Durham, and the way the Holy Spirit transformed that community and made all sorts of things possible.

I think it’s a book we all, and I mean all ought to read. Get a copy. Order it from your local bookshop, from Amazon, from Abebooks if you want a cheap second-hand copy. It only costs a couple of quid. Borrow a copy, put your name on a list to get one of the circulating copies. Read it. And see how we can be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

It’s short, it’s cheap. It speaks honestly of a Church seeking to discern the will of God and I want to encourage you all to have a chance to engage with this book.

It has spoken already to some in this Church, and through it, we can be armed against the forces of evil, we can overcome the pernicious attempts of the devil to distract us.

“Oh, I am too tired”, you may say.

“I just want to come to Church and go home again”

“I don’t want to get involved”

Isn’t that just what the Devil wants to hear? Isn’t that just what he comes to Church for? To undermine your faith and prevent you, prevent others, prevent this whole parish from encountering God in the beauty of holiness.

God has power. The devil has none, unless he uses us.

Let us ask the Holy Spirit to descend upon us and help us to turn out the forces of evil from our worship, from our lives, from our churches and synagogues…

Come, Holy Spirit, our souls inspire,
and lighten us with celestial fire.
Come among us, as we pray
Fill our hearts with love today

cont.

Lead us on our journey, be here as our guide
Take this church to where you want us
Inspire us with your Word
Renew us with your Sacraments
Move among us and grant us your seven-fold gifts

May the Holy Spirit
Heal our wounds
Gift us with love and forgiveness
Transform our lives and relationships
Bring us into the presence of God

In a moment of silence, we attend on God
We ask for him to speak to us, to move in us
We offer ourselves…

God, you are here.
God, you are.
God.

Amen


Sketch: Sermon for Ordinary 3, Year B

DEATH OF A ROCK: The Martyrdom of St Peter by Fr. Wealands Bell
Text: Mark 1:14-20

They shouldn’t be long now, like.

I’m excited. I really am. I know it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. But, like I said, I’m really looking forward to it, actually.

He said it would happen. Or at least, he hinted at it. Yes, he was a great one for the hint, for the peculiar promise. I’ll be with you till the end of time, he said. Whoever eats me will live for ever.

I’m Peter, by the way. I didn’t know what he was on about half the time. I wasn’t a bit like Martha and Mary and Lazarus and them. To be honest, I wasn’t a great one for religion.

But I certainly knew what he meant when he said there’d be no more late night fishing, no more expeditions to fill the nets with flatfish, with juicy trout or a good leggy octopus.

Follow me, he said, and you will catch a shoal of souls. So I followed him.

I thought he probably wanted a job doing, a hand to shift something to the other side of the water, or to help him with a bit of heavy lifting. At the finish, I asked him. We were getting nowhere fast: we kept on meeting more and more people to who he’d just say, Follow me.

Where are we going? I asked him. Where on earth are you taking us? I said. To my father’s house, he said. And smiled one of his smiles. I wish I could see one of them now. But it’ll not be long.

The fact that he could cure people, heal them of diseases and that … That was the real giveaway. I mean, you’d expect the clergy and people like that to talk about healing (I’m a priest! Let me through! I can help you …) but there’s practically none of them that can actually do it. But by God, he could. By God he could. We did all sorts in the end. Cripples, demoniacs, deaf, dumb, blind. Hunchbacks, lunatics, all of humankind!

He even cured my mother-in-law once. I think I must have been in the other room, like, ’cause he’d done it before I could stop him.

And you know, he was always getting up the noses of the high priests, and that snotty lot who think they’re better than the rest of us. He was always going for his dinner with somebody or other they looked down on: the immoral, the indecent, the unwashed, the unsound. They couldn’t wait for him to take a tumble.

We ate with all sorts of people, conmen and frauds, the mad and the bad, taxmen, traitors, tarts. And wherever he went, there was a change: even simple water began to taste of wine, and a little lad’s picnic was a feast of fine food for anyone who wanted it. He filled our veins not just with new wine, new blood: he gave us new life. And I could heal because he did. He let me heal others. (Aeneas. He was one. Funny fellow, but I healed him, just the same)

Now, you know, I’ll tell you something. I’m not a clever man; never was. I was once arrested for preaching because I was “an ordinary and uneducated man.” Good job they’ve dropped that law! I never went to school, and I can neither read nor write, but little by little I began to understand something. And even when I understood nothing, I kept following, always following, because there was never a dull moment. And anyway, I knew that I’d never felt like that before.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d had a good life till I met him. I was a big lad, popular, hard worker, always had a bit of cash for a bottle of wine or a game of dice. I had my fair share of the women as well, till the wife finally put a stop to it.

Yeah, It was a good life, with plenty of storms and scraps and arguments to stop you getting bored. But all that was just me. My life was just filled with me. My story. My life. My concerns.

I realise now that I had nothing till he came along. I needed a lend of his eyes, so that I could begin to see just how staggering, stunning, amazing, unbelievable is the God I’d been brought up to believe in.

And what a Way to believe in… A white-knuckle rollercoaster ride of Faith. Getting it right. Getting it wrong. Getting the wrong end of the stick but sometimes, of course, you’d get the answer to a question right, and then you felt like a million dollars!

Like that day when he asked us who we all thought he was, and I got the right answer. You are the Christ, I said, the Messiah, the Son of God. And he told me I was Blessed. Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah, he said (Jonah was my dad) … Mind you, he also said I couldn’t possibly have worked out the answer for myself, and I think he was probably right.

But there was terrible times, as well, and I mustn’t try to diminish them. Yes, I kept on following him, but the journey has never been without the odd diversion. It was as if the minute I got something right, I immediately got something horribly wrong. Like that time he called me blessed. It was only a few seconds later he was telling me I was worse than the devil. I can’t remember what I’d said, now, but his words didn‘t half hurt, like a knife. I suppose I thought I could do things by myself, do them without him. I’ve always been independent. But it never pays off. He had this thing he could do, this walking on water. I tried it myself once. I knew he was carrying me along, so I tried to do it by myself, without him. I started to sink faster than you could say water wings, crushed under my own weight!

Young John likes the story of the garden. It was the night he was arrested, when that [here Peter struggles not to call Judas by a rude name… when Judas fetched the priests to arrest him. I wasn’t having that. I wasn’t going to be called Satan again … I had my knife out of my belt and started to hack away at one of them. Chopped his ear clean off. Again, bad move, apparently. I though I was doing the right thing. But he wasn’t very happy with me. Keep up your bright swords, he said, for the dew will rust them. His mother landed me a clout to the back of me head I’ll never forget. You’re nothing but a great big eejit who spends too much time talking when he should be listening. That’s what she said. Them Nazareth women can be fiery.

You’ll be wanting to know about the crowing of the cockerel, the most famous alarm clock in the history of the world. Cock a doodle do! Cock a doodle do! … I hadn’t meant to deny that I knew him. It was just that the barmaid had a mouth on her like Solomon’s Portico, and the place was crawling with priests and coppers.

There was no point in getting myself into trouble for it. I mean, there was nothing I could do to help him at that stage. So I said the words I’ve regretted ever since. Jesus? No, love. Never heard of him. Not me. You’ve got the wrong man. I don’t know any Jesuses.

If it’s any consolation, I’ve regretted it ever since. I know the truth, but I get easily distracted, easily put off. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, but I sometimes like to forget that I’ve seen what I’ve seen, that I know what I know. D’you know what I mean?

One more minute, and then they’ll be here. I won’t get a chance to say much more. I’ll be freed from all that, from the need to be like the Pope and have an opinion on everything.

And what would I say to you, my dear friend, as you continue your life and I end mine? Just this: trust in God, and dare to imagine that there’s more to life than trips to IKEA and cars with vavavoom … There is joy to be had from stuff which doesn’t plug into the mains. The secret is to try to see everything through his eyes, and then it all looks very different.

You know, I never told Mark this when he wrote the story down, but I really didn’t know what Jesus meant by Follow me. I suppose I just knew that somehow, some distant day, I would discover what life had been leading up to. I think I’m about to find out.

Itchy palms. Itchy feet. Follow me.


Sermon: Ordinary 2, Year B

Sermon: 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Text: John 1:35-42

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen

“This is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”

John the Baptist uses the metaphor of the Lamb of God. It is an odd metaphor when one considers the traditional view of the Messiah of God as a powerful military leader who would free Israel from oppression.

The Lamb of God is the sacrificial lamb, the willing victim, the man of sorrows. John the Evangelist makes this connection clear by telling us that Christ is arrested and is given up late on Maundy Thursday – at the same time as the Passover Lambs were being slaughtered in preparation for the Passover. In the Gospel of John, the Last Supper is not the Passover meal, but the one that precedes it – look closely at the text and you will see this.

When I raise the consecrated elements at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, I always echo these words of John the Baptist directly: “This is the Lamb of God”, not “This is something that reminds me of the Lamb of God…” but “This is…”

As you can tell from my girth: in the past I have been very fond of wine. As the Scriptures say, it “gladdens our hearts” and has been a wonderful source of joy in my life.

The process of making wine is ancient: when Noah found dry land again, he planted a vineyard and got drunk (it’s in Genesis 9:20-21). However, one does not simply plant grapes and get wine, something has to happen to it to make it into that wonderful substance.

The action of fermentation, the work of yeast, to convert sugar into alcohol happens almost invisibly. It happens as it must in the dark, in the warm, and out of sight, and for most of us, how it does it is a mystery.

We start with grape juice and we end with champagne. A transformation in substance.

In the same way, the words and the actions of the priest and the responses of the congregation works on ordinary things: simple bread and wine, and there is another transformation in substance.

In a way that is also mysterious, that cannot be satisfactorily explained, nor indeed should be explained, there is a change in the ordinary and it becomes extraordinary, as God enters into these elements and simple bread and wine become the blessed sacrament and precious blood.

“This is the Lamb of God…” is literally true, it is not a metaphor or an illustration, but a statement of fact. In these changed elements we find God. We find the real presence of Him “hiding” as St Francis of Assisi wonderfully said “under an ordinary piece of bread”. When Jesus took the bread and wine of a meal, he said “This is my body”, “This is my blood”. It was not a metaphor, not an illustration, but the institution of a sacrament. We believe Christ when he admits that he is the Son of God, so I fail to understand why some would wish to deny the reality of Christ in these most sacred mysteries.

We start with bread and wine and we end with the body and blood of Christ. We need not look for God in the molecules of the wine, or the atoms of the bread, look not for the change to the elements but look for the change in the people of receive it – the comfort derived from the sacrament. Look not for the wind, but for the action the wind has on the trees.

God takes the ordinary: people like you and like me, and he transforms us into something extraordinary – into the saved. God does this is subtle ways, hidden, in the dark. How he does this is a mystery. We are transformed by the power of God, transformed by Christ’s body and blood.

This is why I have the highest possible regard for the sacraments.

This is why the Mass is the cornerstone of our worship and why it is at the heart of our missionary activity in this place.

This is why we come together not just on a Sunday but at other times during the week to worship God, and why you should come also.

This is why we keep the blessed sacrament safely in that Aumbrey behind the altar and we revere it with a bow or a genuflection, for God is really present here in these blessed sacraments and his holy presence is signified by the candle that always burns above the Aumbrey.

That is why we have the opportunity to pray before the blessed sacrament when it is exposed. This is why is taken to those too unwell to come to Church to receive the sacrament of salvation.

That is why you should all come to this holy altar to partake in these blessed sacraments; for he was prepared to make himself available to all of us.

As we continue in this year of prayer for 2006, we are called into the presence of the sacrament, of the Lamb of God, for here, at this altar, in the midst of these powerful prayers, we are forgiven, reconciled, renewed, anointed.

“This is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”. Not the sins of a few, or the sins of those who are already good, but the sins of the whole world, the sins of you, the sins of me, the sins of all of us, past, present and future.

We behold Christ on the altar, making the holy sacrifice, we witness the transformation, we ourselves are transformed.

…and it is something far finer than the finest champagne, for this is the taste of salvation.

Amen.


Sermon: Feast of the Epiphany Year B

Sermon: Feast of the Epiphany Year B
Text: Matthew 2:1-12

It’s not easy being a man these days… we take quite a bit of stick. I read recently that if the wise men had been women, things would have been different and much better.

Firstly, if the wise men had been women, they would not have arrived many months after Jesus’ birth because they would have stopped to ask for directions.

If the wise men had been women, they would have been there to clean up the mess so Jesus wouldn’t have had to be born in a barn.

And finally, had the wise men been women, they would have brought much more practical gifts including a stew so the family would have something to eat.

What do we really know about the wise men? Not much when you examine the scriptures. Where did they come from? “The east” you say. But where in the east? How far east? Pompey? Brighton? China? We know they came from the east and they came from a long way away, but we don’t really know where they came from.

How many of them were there and what kind of men were they? Again, we don’t know. In the second century, the church father Tertullian suggested that these men were kings because the Old Testament had predicted that kings would come to worship him: hence “We three Kings of Orient Are”. He also concluded that there were three kings based on the number of gifts mentioned, gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Bible doesn’t tell us who they were or how many of them came.

In the sixth century, someone decided that their names were Melchior, Balthazar and Kaspar. And so operas have been written ascribing these names to them. But no one really knows what their names were.

We don’t even really know that they were wise. In the original manuscripts they are called the “magi” from an ancient Iranian word, “magoi” which was used to describe people who acted in very strange ways, were captivated by astrology, spells and incantation and dressed in a very bizarre manner. The Latin word is “magi” from which we get words like “magician.”

So we don’t know who they were, where they came from or even how many of them there were. Why doesn’t Matthew the Evangelist tell us any of this information?

I would suggest that all of this detail is left out of the picture in order that the full emphasis may be placed on the one thing that is central to this story: their statement, “we have come to worship.”

The gifts of the wise men are not merely the forerunner of the large credit card bills which many have run up in the battle to deliver the biggest, the best, the most sought after present this year, but are part of the revelation of Jesus Christ to the world.

A good gift says “I thought of you as I bought this. It would be appropriate for you”. The gifts of the wise men show this consideration, and in their symbolism they predict the Messiahship of the Child Jesus.

Gold
Signifies Kingship. King Herod was threatened by Christ, not merely because he was a shallow, cruel and insecure tyrant, but because he feared the true authority of the rightful King of the Jews. Herod was a puppet ruler in power on behalf of the Romans, empowered to keep the peace and collect the taxes. Jesus Christ, of the House of David, the ruling house, had temporal claims to authority as well as Spiritual.

Too often we try to divorce our spiritual and our temporal lives: the life explored in the Mass split from the life lived in the workplace. The Gold presented the child represents his authority on earth as well as in heaven; his authority over us for the whole seven days, not just the Sunday morning.
Frankincense
Symbolises Christ’s Divinity. Incense is burned to signify prayer and holiness: altars, gospel books and statues are censed to set them apart. The psalmist in Psalm 141 says:

“Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice”

The Christ-child, both fully human and fully divine is recognised as being both of this earth, in his incarnation, and not of this earth. The media and the secular world it panders to wants to bring down Our God to earth and keep him there – they are only interested in the historical Jesus, whether his mother was all the Holy Church cracks her up to be, and whether in this scientific and reductionist age we should believe in the “supernatural”. God is supernatural, for he is above and beyond all creation, and in this sad little earth which has nothing left to cling to, I rejoice in the worship of an all-transcendant God who overcomes the boundaries of our trivial science and the limitations of our little minds. We should resist the temptation to bring God down to our level, when he belongs on our altar and in our hearts in worship.

Cont.
The last gift,
Myrrh
Fortells Christ’s death, for Myrrh is the sweet spices and perfumes that a body is covered with after death. The same Myrrh that Mary Magdalene brought to the tomb that Easter morning to complete the burial rites of the crucified Lord.

Expensive and rare, certainly, and reserved for a special purpose, this gift is a prophecy of Christ’s death, and shows that none of these gifts, none of the birth narratives told in the Gospels of Luke or Matthew happen by accident. Certainly, there are discrepancies in the scriptural accounts, but Scripture is more than a newspaper account – it is a revelation by God, and each feature in this story is significant – nothing is wasted. For this reason, we should not be prepared to gloss over the bible, and especially the birth story of Christ: “Oh we‘ve heard that a thousand times”, I suggest that we should never take these scriptures for granted, return to them often and pore over the details, for they are rich in God’s revelation to us.

The wise men were significant to the birth narratives because they represent the wider revelation of the Christ to the world. The word was made flesh in an obscure backwater of a town, in a stable to a young girl of insignificant birth and her artisan husband. The Saviour of the World was revealed to the Jews not in the glory of the temple, although he would be known there at his presentation, witnessed by Simeon and Anna, or the splendour of the royal palace, but in a stable before working men from the hillsides rather than the great and the good of the Jewish state.

The Shepherds were considered to be less than worthy Jews because the task of looking after the sheep would require them to work on the Sabbath: they were perpetually ritually unclean, and yet they were the first Jews to whom the Lord was revealed.

Similarly, the fact that the wise men came at all is significant, for they were Gentiles; beyond even ritual uncleanliness; they were, for all their finery and precious gifts, just like us: the great unwashed. The Christ is revealed to be the Christ of both the Jews and the Gentiles, it is because of this revelation that we gather in this church this morning.

The wise men brought gifts, significant and expensive, but the gifts were for all their symbolism merely an extension of the traditions of middle-eastern hospitality: the real significance of the Epiphany was coming to worship the Christ-child – to acknowledge the Saviour of the World in human form, to keel before a tiny child and, as representatives of us all, to recognise Jesus as Lord.

It does not matter whether we can aspire to the income, the wisdom or the gift-giving capabilities of the wise men, we are all called to the crib, we are all called to come and worship.

Amen.


Sermon: Christmas 2, Year B

Sermon: Christmas 2 Mary, Mother of God
Text: Luke 2:16-21

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

It has been a busy time. Food to be prepared, guests to be accommodated, tensions to be calmed, space to be made, and probably this morning, hangovers to be nursed.

And now, they have gone back: back to the hillsides and their sheep, for those crazy Shepherds who descended into the town of Bethlehem with bizarre stories of lights and sound have left the exhausted and somewhat bewildered Holy Family in some semblance of peace.

Today we celebrate Our Lady, the Mother of God. In the Eastern Church she bears the holy title of Theotokos – God bearer; and she is for us, a model of faith.

As you can all tell, my devotion to Our Lady is a major part of my own spiritual quest; devotion to the Mother of God has helped me in my faith, and has, I know, helped many others. I want to take this opportunity to explain why we, as Anglicans should keep a special place for Our Lady in our hearts.

The Church of England has always shown special devotion to Our Lady: witness the number of Churches dedicated to her – we even have two of them in the deanery of Gosport (St Mary’s Alverstoke and St Mary the Virgin, Rowner).

The rose, the symbol of England is taken from the sign of the Mystical Rose – an emblem of Our Lady, you may recall the Hymn Crown him with Many Crowns (number 147 in Ancient and Modern) Christ is described as the ‘fruit of the mystic rose’ and there is always a little footnote from the editors of A&M saying that it is ‘a mediaeval title for the Blessed Virgin’.

Even our mild expletives – bloody comes from By Our Lady. Even the puritan backlash that overtook the reformation could not remove the special place of Our Lady from our public consciousness: the original statue of Our Lady of Walsingham (a copy of which sits on our Lady Chapel altar) may have been burnt at Tyburn (Marble Arch) in London, but her devotion continues. And why?

…because it is deeply rooted in Scripture and in the tradition of the Church.

The title I refered to earlier: Theotokos (God-bearer) was given to Our Lady after the council of Ephesus in 431. As with all devotion to Our Lady, as a title, it has less to do with Mary herself, than it has to do with Christ.

Before the council of Ephesus, there were some who sought to deny the humanity of Christ, to emphasise only his divinity (a heresy known as Nestorianism). To do this, removes the power of the incarnation, reduces the meaning of the cross, subverts the glory of the resurrection – for only the word made flesh could undertake these three essential acts for our salvation.

Ephesus made explicit the connection between Christ’s two natures: fully human and fully divine, born (as we heard in St Paul’s letter to the Galatians) of a woman, the word made flesh. Our Lady therefore is fully human, not a supernatural being, not part of the Godhead, or the missing part of the trinity; nor is she (as those who might have been reading the Da Vinci Code over the holidays may have thought) some reflection of the Goddess myth in ancient religion.

She is one of us.

One of us, made special by the grace of God. Her titles (of which there are many) ‘Blessed Virgin’ ‘Theotokos’ ‘Queen of Heaven’, are titles of grace, not of right. Because she did what the Angel asked of her, because she kept the faith, right through and beyond the end, because she showed us how to be a disciple of Christ, and took on a role for which she was not prepared; for all these reasons, she wins favour with God.

And that, my dear friends, shows us the way. If we have the faith to follow God’s call, to venture out of our comfort zones to live the Gospel, then we can be similarly blessed, filled with grace as the angel said. The opportunity to be lifted up with such grace is available to all who have faith, and we can learn from her example how to become true disciples of faith.

Our Blesséd Lady points to her son, saying listen to him, presenting him to us (and I suggest you have a close look at our statue for this) and praying. Praying is indeed the heart of what makes Our Lady blesséd and what will make us similarly blessed.

Here in today’s Gospel text, we see why Our Lady is a model of faith for all of us: her response to the shepherds – indeed her response to the wise men, to the Angel Gabriel, to the presentation in the temple, in fact to all that God reveals to her is to treasure these things in her heart, to ponder, to reflect, to draw upon them; perhaps over many years. It is the prayerful, contemplative response to God that Our Lady makes, which should be our mark as Christians, and which I want to set as our challenge for this coming year – to make 2006 a praying year, a year where we draw closer to the heart of God in prayer and seek to do God’s will, both as a parish and as individuals.

Prayers in this church are never offered to Mary. When we pray, we pray only to God, but we do not pray alone. We pray with the whole company of heaven, we pray with the patriarchs, the prophets, the apostles, martyrs and saints as well as the company gathered here today. We ask Blessed Mary to pray with us to God Almighty, and we pray using words of Holy Scripture. The Hail Mary is a deeply scriptural prayer, and praying with scripture is one of the true marks of anglocatholicism.

Those who criticise such prayer do so, therefore, either out of ignorance or of a misreading of holy scripture.

Prayer is not necessarily of the hands together, eyes closed way that we had drummed into us in Infants, although it can be. It can be a moment of quiet, a long walk on the beach, a pause in the middle of a busy day, the lighting of a candle, the repetition of a much-loved piece of scripture or words of a saint.

Prayer is time spent in the presence of God. It may be joyous, and thankful, it can be angry, bitter, questioning (think of Psalm 77), it can be out loud, or silent, it can be wordless or wordy.

But what it isn’t is by rote. If you pray without meaning, then it is meaningless. If you pray without thinking, then it is thoughtless.

The Advent Course, I am sure those who came will agree, showed us the power of drawing into the presence of God. As we gathered around lighted candles and thought of the advent of God, we were drawn into prayer.

Let prayer be our resolution for 2006; let us do as Our Lady did, and ponder these things in our hearts and through prayer, let us drawn ever closer to the heart of the God who is always here. Amen.