A SERMON ON OUR LADY
preached by Canon Arthur Middleton
at All Saints' Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, on Sunday 9th September, 2001
Arthur Middleton who spent 10 years in Sunderland and 24 years as Rector of Boldon is an Emeritus Canon of Durham. He was a Tutor at St Chad's College, and served on the College Council being Acting Principal in 1996-97. He is an Honorary Fellow of St Chad's, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a Patron of the Society of King Charles the Martyr. He is on the Church Union Council Standing Committee and Publications Committee. As a prolific writer of books and articles, he has completed three lecture tours in Canada and Australia.
THE BEARER OF GOD
Mary is the bearer of the God who comes and is given the name the Theotokos or God-bearer by the Greek theologians of the early Church. In his poem Gabriel to a girl Unwed, the late Anglican priest and theologian Austin Farrer puts Mary's response to Gabriel in these words:
'My only prayer is to be a handmaiden of heaven.'
We remember that it was to this she was born. It was by no means an easy option and started in the unlikeliest of circumstances, by having to accept an unmarried pregnancy. Mary must have talked about this experience with its accompanying thoughts and problems, joys and anxieties. The ponderings of her heart would focus on that bundle of potentiality she carried within, those hidden purposes of God, as she was kicked awake in the early hours, and her morning sickness would not let her forget it. The unmarried Mary would know the tension in relationships with her parents and the gossip of neighbours, as well as the strained relationship with Joseph who didn't know who the father was. Her imminent marriage was threatened with cancellation. This drastic step was only averted when that same Spirit to whom Mary had pledged her obedience, led Joseph to share her understanding and obedience.
From birth Mary must have been overshadowed by an invisible go-between, stalked by the Spirit of God. A moment of recognition and awareness moved her mind and life of Mary in another direction drawing Joseph with her. This is what it means to have your life sealed by the Spirit of God. He it is who really awakens and helps us to see in a way previously unknown. He it is who gives the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and knowledge.
Julian of Norwich speaks of this kind of experience in chapter 5 of her Revelations. She wrote:
'God showed me too the pleasure it gives him when a simple soul comes to him, openly, sincerely, genuinely. It seems to me when I ponder this revelation that when the Holy Spirit touches the soul it longs for God rather like this; "God of your goodness give me yourself for you are sufficient for me. I cannot properly ask anything less, to be worthy of you. If I were to ask less, I should always be in want. In you alone do I have all". '
Previous to this Julian is given a vision of Our Lady, St. Mary, at the moment of the Annunciation, and tells how at once she understood something profound about Mary which had not been so obvious to her before. In this vision Mary appeared in surprising simplicity. She was not the 'queen of heaven', but a simple peasant girl of humble birth. This was the whole point: Mary's greatness lay in her deep humility and her simplicity. In Julian's vision Mary simply said, 'Behold God's handmaid'. Julian goes on to tell us that two other points were being made to her; first, that God (who is almighty, and maker of all that exists) desires to make himself known to simple creatures; secondly, that he can make himself known to us (as he did to Julian) because of his own self-emptiness or humility. The humility of God deliberately chose to be born of a common woman, in divine humility, and because of this there is now a permanent bond between his own being, and humanity. God is one with us.
Julian learned that God - who is all-powerful - is already with us in this life. Furthermore, she discovered that He, who is all-holy, wants to be known to us in this life in an intimate and personal way, rather than merely through doctrine and rules. She writes in ch. 7:
'For truly it is the greatest joy that could be, as I see it, that he who is highest and mightiest, noblest and worthiest, is also lowest and gentlest, most humble [homely] and courteous. ' In other words, God is not only homely and personable but also friendly. The point of this vision, beginning with the image of Mary at the moment she became the Mother of God, was to show that God is both humble and kind; wanting to communicate with his creatures, and also capable of it. (3)
ATTENTION, STILLNESS AND SILENCE
This kind of knowing, a deep interior, intuitive love-knowledge is the fruit of attention, and attention, is not something that can be compelled. It is an involuntary state of mind, a concentrated gaze towards the object of attention. It requires the art, the ability to be still in silence. One of the most obvious characteristics of Mary is her stillness and silence. The angel's announcement to Mary of her destiny was made to her in the stillness of her room, 'neither companion nor witness there,' wrote St. Ambrose, 'that what passed might not be debased in gossip.' But, he goes on to say, that had it been made to her in the middle of the market-place she would not have been less attentive.
PAY ATTENTION TO GOD
The Ancren Riwle, written in the 12th century for anchoresses would have been used by Julian of Norwich. It is full of wise discretion and spiritual insight. In it the author says:
'Sit ye with Mary, stone still at God's feet and listen to him alone. '
In other words, Pay attention to God. That was the angel's message to Mary. There is no need to be afraid just pay attention to God. It was Mary's message to Joseph, when in confusion and perplexity he wanted to cancel the wedding. It must have been their joint parental message to the child Jesus otherwise he would not have been able to rebuke her in the typical style of a twelve year old. When he is actually paying attention to God he is 'ticked-off for getting lost. Sometimes we parents get it wrong.
Pay attention to God - is a message for today in a world pervaded by fear, in which the greatest menace of our times is the present psychological crisis through which the human race seems to be passing. This voiding of the human spirit threatens to destroy more completely than an IRA bomb or Energy crisis, inflation or Middle East instability. Television cannot blind us to the ugliness, squalor, cruelty or sheer stupidity that darkens life today. Even more horrible is its unreality, as brittle as the egg shells from battery hens. Such a situation can create gloomy and uncreative fears, make us forget God and in the end give us a part in bringing disaster nearer. Despair is the will to death, its opposite which destroys it is the will to life in faith, hope, and love, in a willingness to pay due attention to God and like Mary being prepared to sit still at God's feet and listening to him alone.
We will learn from Mary, who from the beginning was told to 'Fear not', and discover from her, that fear, is something from which we cannot escape. It is to be faced, understood and transformed. When her destiny was announced to her, a great dread must have overwhelmed her. There would be more dread, when in the contemplation of her heart she entered more deeply into it's meaning and saw what redemption meant for herself and her son. Nevertheless, there was no timid shrinking away or being overcome in desperation and confusion. Rather do we see a courage, a strength and a joy, the joy of a soul magnifying her Lord in whom her spirit rejoiced. It is a joy hard to understand and easier to sentimentalize in one for whom joy is the prime characteristic of her life. It is for today in a world pervaded by fear, in which the greatest menace of our times is the present psychological crisis through which the human race seems to be passing. This voiding of the human spirit threatens to destroy more completely than an IRA bomb or Energy crisis, inflation or Middle East instability. Television cannot blind us to the ugliness, squalor, cruelty or sheer stupidity that darkens life today. Even more horrible is its unreality, as brittle as the egg shells from battery hens. Such a situation can create gloomy and uncreative fears, make us forget God and in the end give us a part in bringing disaster nearer. Despair is the will to death, its opposite which destroys it is the will to life in faith, hope, and love, in a willingness to pay due attention to God and like Mary being prepared to sit still at God's feet and listening to him alone.
We will learn from Mary, who from the beginning was told to 'Fear not', and discover from her, that fear, is something from which we cannot escape. It is to be faced, understood and transformed. When her destiny was announced to her, a great dread must have overwhelmed her. There would be more dread, when in the contemplation of her heart she entered more deeply into it's meaning and saw what redemption meant for herself and her son. Nevertheless, there was no timid shrinking away or being overcome in desperation and confusion. Rather do we see a courage, a strength and a joy, the joy of a soul magnifying her Lord in whom her spirit rejoiced. It is a joy hard to understand and easier to sentimentalize in one for whom joy is the prime characteristic of her life. It is the joy of the song in the presence of the sword, but whose secret lies in the singer not the song. ' So sit with Mary, stone still at God 's feet and listen to him alone.'
THE WOMAN WHO SAID NO
We need to see in Mary what Kitty Ryan saw. Kitty was ill in bed and chatted to her priest after he had taken her Holy Communion. A picture of Our Lady kneeling in prayer hung over the bed and she asked the meaning of the Latin word ~fiat' written underneath. Her priest explained that it was Mary's way of saying 'Yes' to God. Kitty replied that she did not think Mary's life was a continual 'Yes', because she must have had to say 'No' lots of times. Kitty said it was difficult for her to express it, 'but I think she was really the woman who said "No"'
This set her priest thinking and he began to draw out some thoughts on Kitty's, the woman who said 'No'. If we think about it 'Yes' hasn't much meaning without 'No'. It is the choice that makes the difference. Life and growth is about choices, saying 'Yes' to one thing and 'No' to something else. Redemption was needed because sin had distorted the original pattern of grace and blessing, and Mary was born out of God's 'No' to evil and death and his determination not to accept defeat. She stands with the great women of promise who lived in hope and said 'No' to failure and defeat. Sarah, who said 'No' to barrenness and infertility, Ruth, the Moabitess and foreigner who refused to go home, and found herself part of David's line from which came Jesus. Queen Esther, who defied the rules of King and Emperor to save the life of her people.
Mary stands for the contradiction of redemption in the face of evil and death, the peasant girl who was told to have no fear and pay attention to God. That would be her compass along a path no one before her had walked. As the second Eve her heart crushed the serpent's questions, as, freed from fear she rediscovered Eden, our paradise lost.
All that happened to her, around her, and in her, she pondered in her heart as she followed that guiding compass, because his thoughts were higher than hers and his ways of acting different from hers. It gave her the insight to see the emptiness of riches and the power of the lowly. To build life on privilege and influence without justice, truth and mercy is to build without foundation, on sand. We must stand up and say 'No', says Mary, to sinful living in all its various forms - injustice, immorality, exploitation, oppression. Say 'No' to everything that is false and dehumanizes with the poisons of contemporary life fragmentation, dehumanization, uncontrolled technology, the loss of nature and the natural world, the War machine, violence, vandalism, racism, materialism, physical and spiritual poverty.
While Mary knew how to say 'No', she also knew what it was to suffer from those who never said anything but 'Yes' to their own privileges, those afraid to say 'No'. There is a symbolic realism about being shut out of Bethlehem, in which is mirrored all those who never want to see, know or listen. It is much harder to say 'Yes' to redemption than to selfishness, much easier to swim with the tide than against it. Bethlehem mirrors for us those shut out of today's life - in poverty, homelessness, unemployment, racism, loneliness and despair.
We get glimpses of Mary's agonies when in the temple she expresses every mother's agony, the thought that something terrible could have happened to her lost child, but again, the agony of having to realise that a child has to mature and find his or her own way. She did not really understand, but in pondering it in her heart she realizes with every mother that not only have they to be given back to God, they have to be given back to themselves. It was a hard lesson.
At the Cross the lesson stood her in good stead, where heart-broken in seeing evil do its worst she still said no. Despite the scoffers, in the stillness of her heart she waited, sharing as victim and sufferer, just being there. She makes it possible for others to stand with her and say 'No' to evil and sin, that she may say 'Yes' to our redemption from it, if we will contribute to the price. Sooner or later every victim of oppression, injustice and hatred, the victims of the 'Yes' of others to sin, find their way to the Cross. The shape of what stands there with Mary may have changed somewhat, in the victims of the poisons of contemporary life, but the reality is the same. There is no way of dodging the Cross; there never has been and never will be. The only way is through it.
Watch and learn how she ponders these things in her heart, knowing how He that is mighty has done great things in her. She knows too the overshadowing of God's Spirit and the unfolding self-revelation of his Son. Because she knows these things she could see the Resurrection through the Cross, the joy through the pain, the triumph through the apparent failure. That is where she found the courage to meet the sword and continue to say:
'My only prayer is, to be the handmaiden of heaven.'
Whatever will come of it, all will be well, echoing the intuition of that other great lady, Julian of Norwich, who in the great sufferings of her own times could say - All will be well, all will be well, all manner of things shall be well - because love is his meaning.
So sit with Mary, stone still at God 's feet and listen to Him alone.