All Saints Margaret Street | Christmas 1 – High Mass Sunday 31 December 2017

Sermon for Christmas 1 – High Mass Sunday 31 December 2017

Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie

Christmas 1 (Mary, Mother of God) 

Luke mentions the manger three times in his brief nativity story, so he must want us to notice it. It is, of course, a strange setting, outside any human dwelling, where there are only animals. For him it expresses the contrast between the world-ruler Augustus and the hidden birth of the world-redeemer. It has always been a striking image for Christians, kept before us by the Franciscan custom of building cribs in churches. 

Luke invites us to contemplate such Christmas contradictions. St John unfolds the mystery of the incarnation but Luke insists on its messiness. There are plenty of rough sleepers in his gospel, not least the shepherds, a despised group, among the poorest and least religious people mentioned. They make a quick exit, but Mary stays put: after the angels and the shepherds depart we hear that she treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart

Much is explained about Mary in those words which are unlike anything said of anyone else in the New Testament. 

St Paul has nothing to say about Mary except what we heard from Galatians just now, that Jesus was ‘born of a woman’, alluding to her only to insist on Jesus’ human pedigree, that he was a human being with a specific history, a Jewish male. Our salvation is rooted in what some have called this outrageous particularity, a reminder that Christianity does not deal in generalities or theories, but real people. 

The conundrum of Jesus’ humanity and Divinity took a few centuries to sort out, and of course it has a bearing on Mary’s status in the history of salvation. When the Council of Ephesus gathered, on June 22 431, it was by no means clear which way the bishops would vote in the matter of Mary being called the Mother of God. The Council was primarily interested in whether Jesus was both truly human and truly God. In their deliberations two touchstones were established for orthodox belief: what do people believe, and how do they pray? It was a watershed moment for how theology should be done. The theological instincts of popular Christian belief and the way that ordinary people prayed, especially in the liturgy, were taken to be guiding lights for the bishops. 

The vast majority of the bishops affirmed that their people believed that Jesus was truly God. They also reported that their congregations believed that Jesus was truly human. While Jesus had done miraculous things, taught with authority and been raised from the dead, they knew he also shared in the most important element of being a human being: he was born of a woman, Mary of Nazareth. 

While the Council fathers at Ephesus went on to define the union of divinity and humanity in Jesus, their deliberations did not put the issue to rest in one meeting. It took another Council, at Chalcedon, twenty years later, finally to settle the issue of the two natures in Christ. What caused very little theological debate at Ephesus was describing Mary as the Mother of God. You’ll know that the word they used, Theotokos, is rather more poetic than our English title: it means the God-bearer or God-carrier. This captured the Christian imagination. And after the Council of Ephesus all sorts of hymns and poems were written in honour of the newly-titled Mother of God. 

Sadly, Mary became a battleground at the Reformation, and remains one not only ecumenically, but even within modern Roman Catholicism, where some would say she’s almost disappeared, while others are almost obsessively caught up in visions, apparitions and mystical communications of and by her. 

Pope Paul VI taught that recovering a healthy devotion to Mary that is sane, Catholic, ecumenical and inclusive, requires a return to the scriptures, an approach which has certainly borne fruit at the two shrines in Walsingham. A French Jesuit, Didier Rimaud took the Pope’s teaching to heart and wrote a poem, ‘There is nothing told about this woman’ which a fellow-Jesuit Christopher Willcock, translated and set to music, very much in the post-Ephesus Marian hymn tradition: 

There is nothing told about this woman,
but that she had once become engaged,
and an angel addressed her and said:
“You are blessed among all your kind.” 

There is nothing told about this woman,
but that she had brought into the world,
in the land of Judea, her son;
for some shepherds have passed on this tale.

There is nothing told about this woman,
but that she had searched for three long days
for her child who was busy elsewhere,
and her heart then did not understand.

There is nothing told about this woman,
but that she at Cana was a guest,
and that Jesus changed water to wine,
so that all might believe who he was.

There is nothing told about this woman,
but that she was standing by the cross
when her son stretched his arms out on high,
and met death with a thief on each side.

There is nothing told about this woman,
but that she was one in prayer with those
upon whom tongues of fire did descend,
and the Spirit baptized them with flame.

Rimaud reminds us that while Mary is a quiet, almost invisible, presence, the ‘nothing’ that is told about her is in fact more than remarkable in its implications for us.

The celebrations in this Octave of Christmas, always somewhat mixed up with New Year, have become a little confused. The Holy Family, the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus and a Solemnity of Mary Mother of God all jostle for space and, in our culture, mostly get side-lined by the holiday season. Of all of them, I find the Marian celebration the most apt to the new year. In any and every ordinary, everyday moment in the coming year, like Mary, we can know the faithful love of God and how truly extraordinary that is. The woman who bore God into the world continues to show us how her Son now carries us.

The refrain to that hymn is a good new year’s resolution: 

On this day all earth and all paradise
join in naming you happy and blessed;
Virgin Mary, blessed are you.