If I had arrived here in Australia, not as a priest, but instead as a sociologist, who had been sent here to report back to England on the way of life of Australians – (there customs and traditions, the way that they spend their days) – there would be plenty of material for me to write home about.
I could describe the strange practice of having beautiful kitchens installed in houses with all of the most modern appliances, only to instead cook on barbecues in the garden. I could report on the religious life of Australians which revolves around meeting in stadiums or in open spaces to watch men running up and down with a football.
Or most strange of all, I could report on the custom in our own Swan Valley, at the Parish Church there, (and I am sure that that is not the only place that it happens) – the custom of celebrating the Christian festival of Christmas, not in December but in July. If you haven’t experienced this you need to sign up for next year! Party hats, Christmas crackers and roast turkey all laid out six months before the actual festival of Christmas! Luisa and I, when I was ministering for a time in the Parish of Swan enjoyed greatly those festivities, strange as they were at the wrong time of year.
Of course the idea of celebrating Christmas in July is not such a strange one when we read the words of some of the Christmas Carols which we sing in the middle of our summer. I remember well being in a Church in Perth a few years ago, when I was visiting (before we moved here) in sweltering heat with all of the electric fans buzzing away, singing the carol “in the bleak mid-winter.”
In many ways the Christmas traditions which grew up in Northern Europe and which have been transplanted here don’t quite fit with our weather pattern. And so if you are wondering this morning whether I am introducing that custom here, by celebrating Christmas on the 21st of August, let me set your mind at rest. We may have heard the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke this morning, but we are not going to be singing any Christmas Carols.
The feast which we focus upon today is not Christmas itself, but the celebration of the life and example of one of the central characters of that first Christmas story, and indeed one of the central figures in the Christian story throughout the ages. The feast of Mary, Mother of God is one of a number of great holy days within our Anglican calendar in which we remember the young girl who bore the son of God in her womb, and who brought him into the world.
In the organisation which I worked for, before I trained for the priesthood, we had a file which we rather unkindly called the “nutters file,” in which we kept copies of correspondence on the most bizarre themes which we frequently received. Sometimes they were anonymous handwritten letters asking us whether we were living our lives according to the ten commandments; one I remember was a letter calling us to be circumcised in order to truly be Christians. But the letter which I was most attached to in that file, was from a woman who lived in a flat in London, informing us that she had just given birth to the Son of God. And she was very matter-of-fact about it all. She told us when it had happened, where she was living, and invited us to send gifts to honour this second Christ-child.
Your response I think was the same as mine. That letter reminds us – if indeed we need reminding – that the Christian conviction that Mary gave birth to the Son of God is an absolutely extraordinary claim for us to make. And on top of that our tradition tells us that she bore this Christ-child even though she was a virgin. Two of the four Gospels provide a basis for that belief. Matthew and Luke, whilst providing slightly different accounts of what happened, are clear that something super-natural took place around the conception of Jesus; that the source of his life, and thus the purpose and character of his life, was set apart as different from our own.
It is in the account which we find in Luke, that we hear the wonderful response of Mary to what God is doing in her. She says to the angel: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.” And as she talks later to Elizabeth, who is to be the mother of John the Baptist we hear those words of her response which we said together a few moments ago: “My soul,” she says, “proclaims the greatness of the Lord… for he has looked with favour on me his lowly servant… the mighty one has done great things for me and holy is his name!” And in those words (which used to be sung every evening in the old order of Evensong), we come right to the heart of why we celebrate the life of Mary.
Scholars tell us that it is likely that she was fourteen of fifteen years old. Our tradition tells us that she was betrothed to a man whom she was to marry. And yet when she is called to serve God in this most unexpected of ways, her response in faith is to give thanks, and to say “yes.” Just as we often forget how extraordinary the claims of our faith tradition about Jesus are, we know too that the response of this young girl to God is absolutely extraordinary as well. Mary’s “yes” to God, points not to her being somehow divine, but to her being truly and wonderfully faithful. You see, we need to read between the lines of the story which we are presented in the Gospel if we are to truly understand the situation which Mary found herself in.
Our Gospel writers, remind us of the best parts – the angel visiting, Mary’s response, the birth with shepherds and angels and kings, but those accounts leave out as superfluous the pain and anxiety which Mary and then Joseph must have endured. Saying “yes” to God, in her situation, was a costly decision which could have led to the termination of her marriage agreement and to her expulsion from the community. But that “yes” begins the trickle flowing, which becomes a stream, then a river, then a tidal wave of love, as the Kingdom of God is inaugurated through the birth and ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus here on earth.
In our first reading this morning we heard about the birth of Moses, the beginning of the story of the one who will lead the people of Israel out of slavery into the promised land. In Moses we will find a man of God who is willing to stand against the oppression of the Pharaoh and to lead the Israelites into liberation. And the birth of Jesus sets the ultimate seal on that freedom. Through Christ we are not only offered the promised land, we are brought into a new and different relationship with God. When we look at Mary she points us not to herself, but to the possibility of that life through her son. Mary’s “yes” to God begins the final liberation for us all. Some of us run towards a call, and find out only on the way that we will only succeed with the help of God, and the community around us. And others of us, like Mary, are surprised by God breaking into the poverty of our lives, and beginning something new. Something totally and wonderfully different.
There is a wonderful statue in the courtyard of one of the Anglican Benedictine monasteries which I used to visit in England when I was a student. Mary is uncovering the baby Jesus, she is pulling back a shawl under which he has been sleeping. And the sculpture is entitled, “Mary reveals the Light of the World.” Its an image which is worth remembering. Mary reveals Christ to the world – the light of the world, and of course Mary also reveals the world to Christ – God is born through her, in human form. Through Mary God lives in Christ as one of us.
Now as Anglicans we have sometimes been a little apprehensive about what we do with Mary, and a group of Anglicans and Roman Catholics have spent the last few years trying to come to an agreement on the beliefs which we hold in common about her. Our former Archbishop has been the co-Chair of that committee, which has produced its report, “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ.” And on this her Feast day, I commend that report to you for study (it is available on our website), and I would be more than happy, if any of you would like to, to spend a couple of sessions studying that document in a group here, to see what we can learn from it. But what I am certain of is this: if we find ourselves looking at the example of Mary, and not being pointed by her life to Christ then we have misunderstood her place in the pilgrimage of salvation. Mary’s significance for us, and the reason for us keeping her Feast today, is the testimony which she gives us through the story of her life, that when in faith we say “yes” to God, incredible things are possible.
In the reading that we heard from Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, we heard Paul teaching his fellow believers about the variety of gifts which God has given to the Church – as varied as we ourselves are varied. God offered to Mary both the incredible gift and the awesome responsibility of giving birth to Jesus – and she said “yes.” And I believe that God has great gifts in store for each one of us. We are all pregnant with the ministry which God has given to the Church. I’m no angel Gabriel, but I’m announcing to you today, if you haven’t heard it already, that you are pregnant, with good things from God, which are for you, and for the whole community.
Indeed, the whole of creation is pregnant with the love of God, and that includes you, and it includes me, and it includes all those around us. We are pregnant with God, as Mary was pregnant with Jesus, and if we feel deep within us the call of God, impressing on our lives, we have the opportunity each day to respond to that call as Mary did.
Not knowing where it will lead us, not fully knowing the consequences. So I say to you this morning, just like Mary you and I are pregnant with God, we’re pregnant with God’s love for this world.
And we can either keep it bottled up, or we can say “yes” with Mary – who we honour today – we can say “yes” my life will be one which points others not to me but to Christ.
In Mary we find the model for responding to God’s call upon our lives; in her life we find the life of Christ. And as we celebrate her today, let us pray that we will respond to God as she did.
So we say with her, on this her feast day, Yes God! “Let it be to me, according to your word.”