s204e99 The Blessed Virgin Mary Somerton Park 15/8/99
"When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son ..." Galatians 4.4
I must confess I find this particular set of readings singularly uninspiring. I have no difficulty celebrating Our Lady today. I have no quarrel with the importance of the saints of the Church and their place within the lectionary. It is my own practice to celebrate the "red-letter" days when they fall on a Sunday, displacing the "ordinary" Sunday readings. The only feast I transfer to the Sunday is our Patronal festival - St Philip. We always celebrate this on the Sunday closest to the May the 1st or 3rd.
No, my difficulty is that the readings don't speak to my heart particularly. St Paul's words in Galatians are true enough, but I have often heard the passage: "When the fullness of time had come ..." interpreted simply as magnifying God. "All in good time .." people will say - effectively putting down those who are still frustrated by inaction. It is particularly galling when someone is sick. Far from helping someone who is in pain, to suggest that God is waiting to act, for whatever reason, is to remove God from the personal and caring to the impersonal ogre - a much more accurate reflection of the demons that ail my own personality than our heavenly Father. If God is as sovereign as our tradition makes out, there can be no other reason for non-action except God's intransigence - and we are a long way from a loving and heavenly Father here.
Matthew's account of the birth of Jesus also talks about time, but in a "matter of fact" way. The purpose of his words is to ground the events of Jesus birth in the historical agenda of the world about him. Matthew sentiments come more from the patriarchal society with which he is familiar - focusing on Joseph rather than Mary - noting his descent and lineage in the house of David. I much prefer Luke's accounts, where the women are given particular prominence: Elizabeth, Mary and Anna the prophetess.
I recall waiting for our boys to be born. It was a remarkably similar experience as waiting for a loved one to die. There wasn't much one could do but wait. "Normal" activities - other than the basics - were suspended - and everything and everyone was unbearably focussed on the stricken - or the expectant.
We all share the frustrations of life. Even those born "with a silver spoon" in their mouths rather than a "plastic" one have their trials and tribulations. It is said that the curse of having money is trying to keep it. "Our hearts are restless ..." says St Augustine. We look to the future for better times ahead.
I would take two lessons from these thoughts. The first is that we respond when we see God acting, and until God is seen to have acted, any efforts on our part to thrust God on others are futile and pretentious. God is sovereign and God will act, but that is NOT the message we have to convey. It is easy to talk piously and unhelpfully. It is time consuming to give the real gift, which is the gift of our own presence and patience.
So the second and real lesson is the value of a friend. In the midst of trials and tribulations, it is good to have someone there. It can become as precious as actually having the pain go. There is much we can bear if we bear it with someone beside us. Of course we all choose who we care to allow to become that close to us. It is inappropriate to elect ourselves to such a position.
The Blessed Virgin fulfilled her destiny in life giving birth to a particular individual. It was not especially different from what the majority of those of the female gender do all the time. Having been at the birth of both our boys, I am very grateful not to have been born female. But despite the miraculousness of each and every one, mothers give birth to children with monotonous regularity. We make much of births, going to special wards in hospitals, with specialist midwives and gynaecologists in readiness. Every facility is provided for, and not putting down all this, women in past times and in less affluent countries manage to give birth in homes and fields apparently reasonably successfully. So the Blessed Virgin did not fulfil her destiny in life becoming a great evangelist or perpetually being a virgin, but by doing that which countless other women have done, before and since. Indeed Mary would have been fairly unusual to have lived and not given birth and become a mother.
We too fulfil our destiny in life, not by becoming someone we aren't, trying to exercise gifts and ministries that we haven't been given, or by strenuously and successfully avoiding succumbing to the temptations of life. We fulfil our destinies doing what comes naturally, being the person we are, following the normal instincts of life, like caring for our siblings, and praying that God will be able to work through the mistakes we make. Recently I have been delighted by the pithy Irish saying on TV: "We become people among people".
For the importance of celebrating the lives of the saints is that they stand along side us as ordinary human beings. The saints do not stand between us and God - the legitimate horror of all evangelicals.
The 15th of August is the date that the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, first formulated in orthodox circles by St Gregory of Tours (d 594). It is the teaching that Mary did not die, but after "having completed her earthly life, was in body and soul assumed into heavenly glory" (Cross "Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church" p98). In this she replicates the fate of Enoch (Gen 5.24) and Elijah (2 Kings 2.11) - and there is some ambiguity surrounding the death and burial of Moses also (Deuteronomy 34.6-7).
To quote Richard McBrien ("Catholicism" p 893): "It is less important that one affirms or denies some Marian belief than why one affirms or denies it. Thus on a relative scale at least, one is actually more "orthodox" in denying the Immaculate Conception because it might detract from the universality of redemption (as Thomas Aquinas feared) than in affirming the Immaculate Conception on the grounds that Mary's closeness to God made the redemptive work of Christ unnecessary in her own unique case." Putting that in laypersons language, this means that if we so magnify Mary (or indeed Jesus, the Church, the Bible or even God) to the detriment of ourselves and those around us, for whom Christ died and rose again, then we have failed to hear the gospel or to have seen the light.
McBrien writes that Max Thurian, the Protestant monk and theologian of Taisé wrote: "Neither the Gospel nor past Christian tradition have been able to separate Mary and the Church ... To speak of Mary is to speak of the Church. The two are united in one fundamental vocation - maternity." (ibid p 893) Mothers "create" new life, feeding, encouraging, forgiving, ordering, healing and loving those whom they create. In this, Mary and the Church, us, share in the work of God.
For as our text tells us God sent his Son - so primarily God is in the business of giving - and giving something of himself - to be with us. God is not primarily into judging or fixing or forgiving or demanding. So likewise we are not to be primarily into judging or fixing or forgiving or demanding. God gives Jesus to be with us, and we are bidden to give ourselves to others. Mary played her part in being the vessel for that gift, and we as the Church are bidden to play our part in not denying the possibility of God's presence and blessing in the lives of all sorts and conditions of people, but being with others in their times of joy and and their times of sorrow.
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