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 read the Da Vinci Code 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 2010 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.
Our first parish pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham this year was a prayerful;, significant part of this parish’s spiritual journey, and pointed the way to a deeper devotion, a richer prayer-life, a more passionate commitment to building the kingdom of God.
Let prayer be our resolution for 2010; 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.