Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 23 July 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Ave Maria Gratia Plena
I’m sure you will understand. I just could not follow Mendelssohn’s Ave Maria with a discussion about the bisecting of a baby reported in our first lesson to illustrate Solomon’s wisdom. Nor, on a summer evening, could I face the noisy arguments of the elders and scribes in our second lesson from Acts. So Ave Maria it is.
The angelus, when prayed slowly and reflectively, requires us to slow down and stop what we’re doing. It should have a calming effect, because you can not be angry and opinionated as you pray the Angelus. Religion can be gentle. Here is the maternal side of the Christian church, calming her fretful children. And in our calmed state, and only when we have settled down, we are able to understand what really matters, God’s love, God at work in the world. Ave Maria, Hail Mary. This records God’s unexpected action in a human life. Nobody set it up. Hail Mary is the precursor of the surprise visit God pays to each of us through his many messengers. Many of Jesus’s parables are about God’s unexpected action, the discovery that, as we say in the Angelus, “the Lord is with thee”. Sometimes the surprise is a delight, the treasure is revealed in its hiding place in the field. Sometimes there is a less welcome or less comprehensible demand or challenge, which threatens to alter our world, as the birth of Jesus altered Mary’s world. Do not look for easy answers, because there aren’t any. The Angelus takes us into a situation we know only too well, wanting to do God’s will, but not knowing what it is, not really sure where good and evil lie in our lives, unable to decide what is for the best. How can this be, says Mary? These double binds can become so searching of the soul, that even experienced souls deep in a spiritual journey can be thrown into turmoil, a sort of vocational crisis, what should I do next? The Angelus helps us to stop and listen. Hail Mary, full of grace. All that Jesus was to preach about the coming of the Kingdom is about being full of grace like Mary, willing to allow God to enter our lives in any way he pleases and at any moment, and that means now. We accept what happens. We do not have to understand and argue every point. Behold the handmaid of the Lord.
Who says the angelus? Lurking at the back of every Anglo-Catholic or High Church mind is a nineteenth century Obadiah Slope played by Alan Rickman saying, Are you sure this Mary business is for you? Isn’t it a bit continental? Isn’t this a bit of a cult? But the angelus and other Marian devotions are not focussed inwards, like a cult, but rather take us forward to welcome Jesus into our lives again. The central sentence of the Angelus is “And the Word was made flesh”. When we say the angelus, we do so from three points of view. Hail Mary, full of grace. We are God’s messengers when we say that. The Word was made flesh. We are speaking for the church, declaring our faith. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God. Pray for us sinners, now and at the time of our death. We are ourselves, our stance is one of supplication, inviting God to make himself present in our lives. We prepare ourselves for Him. Those who object to Marian devotions are usually not objecting to their content, but to their manifestation in popular devotion, in all their wondrous soupiness and tackiness and Fatima joyfulness and operatic piety, and the curious images of the Sacred Heart of Mary. But objectors to what they would call Mariolatry don’t really like popular devotion in any form. What we do is more important than how we do it. We need to be alert to Christian symbolism and its power. For example, in Christian art, Mary is often shown reading a book. Why? Because she is the model of every Christian into whom the Word enters. In every Christian, the Word becomes enfleshed. In every Christian the Word grows to maturity as we turn each page of our lives. Mary reads a book, calm, settled, receptive of divine knowledge. What an example to us!
As Anglican Catholics we have work to do. We have a relationship to repair. What I would suggest is that we see Mary as a long lost friend we need to get to know again, slowly, on our terms as well as hers, because there can be no pretence in this friendship. We change, our experience of life deepens, but she is always there to be a trusted friend, one who in her turn smoothes our way into the divine life. Hail Mary, full of grace. As that friendship develops, we might come to see her significance in the church. She is the Mother of all Christians; all generations shall call thee blessed. So we come to see our significance as loved and valued members of that family. She was there at the beginning of it all, she was at the Cross, she was with the disciples at Jerusalem awaiting the coming of the Spirit. We can join her at any point. She understands how we feel at the birth of Christ in our souls, what goes on at the crucifixions in our lives, she also feels the breath of the Holy Spirit. All this remains to be explored. The best friendships never end. For myself the Angelus shows me the necessary simplicity of a holy life. For in the end, like Teresa of Avila, we long only for a simple presence before God. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, Be it unto me according to thy Word. Nothing more, nothing less.