If I had arrived here in Australia as a sociologist who had been sent here to report back to a far distant place on the way of life of Australians – their customs and traditions, the way that they spend their days – there would be plenty of material for me to write about, reporting on our strange ways.
I could describe, for example, the practice in many Australian households of having beautiful kitchens installed in homes 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, for many of them, around meeting in stadiums or in open spaces to worship men running up and down with a football. Or most strange of all, I could report on the custom lived out in many parts of Australia of celebrating the festival of Christmas, not only in December but also in July.
My wife and I and our sons became Australian citizens in January, and I have to say that for me this idea of celebrating Christmas in July is one of the strangest phenomenon that I have had to come to terms with since we have been living here in Australia.
I don’t know if this happens in Merriwa or not, but it is widespread around New South Wales. Party hats, Christmas crackers and roast turkey all laid out six months before – or six months after the actual festival of Christmas!
Of course the idea of celebrating Christmas in July is not so very strange when we read the words of some of the Christmas Carols which we sing in the middle of our Australian summer in December.
I can well remember being in a Church in Newcastle a few years ago 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. Hence, I think, the hankering for the celebration of Christmas to take place for us in July, during our winter months.
Despite the Gospel reading that we have just heard, we are not celebrating Christmas in August here this morning. But our minds are focused by that reading to once again become a part of the great Christmas narrative, the story of the incarnation. 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 tradition throughout the ages.
The feast of Mary Mother of our Lord is one of a number of great holy days within our Anglican calendar in which we remember and honour the young girl who was the Mother of the Son of God.
In the theological institution in which I worked, 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. For some reason people were attracted to sending us all manner of bizarre communications. 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. 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 to a letter like that may well have been the same as mine.
As I was remembering that particular letter a few days ago, it was a reminder to me that the Christian conviction that Mary gave birth to the Son of God is an absolutely extraordinary claim for the Church through the centuries to make. On top of that our tradition tells us that Mary bore this Christ-child even though she was a virgin. I do not think that there is a person here this morning that would have been easily persuaded that Mary was in fact carrying the Son of God in her womb had we met her two thousand years ago on the road to Bethlehem.
Yet we now hold on to this belief that God came to dwell among us in Jesus, through Mary, as if it were an entirely normal occurrence. This morning as we gives thanks for the witness of Mary we are reminded not only of the extraordinary nature of this Christian claim, but also of Mary’s central part within it. For us the good news is that because God has been here on earth every aspect of our own lives is now touched by the presence of God (what we call the ‘incarnation’).
Far more significant than any miracle story in the Gospels, or fantastic account in the Old Testament – our belief that God, through Mary became human in Jesus is the heart of the good news that we celebrate today and every day as Christians.
Two of the four Gospels provide a foundation for that belief. Matthew and Luke, whilst offering 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 familiar words: “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!” 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, the young girl who bore Jesus in her womb.
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. Yet when she is called to serve God in this most unexpected of ways, her response in faith is to simply give thanks, and to say “yes.” Just as we often forget how extraordinary the claims of our faith tradition about Jesus are, we also overlook the fact 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.
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, Mary visiting Elizabeth, 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.
Today is the anniversary of the day that I was ordained to the priesthood. Some years ago, in St George’s Cathedral in Perth, my family and friends and other members of the Diocese gathered in the Cathedral to pray for me as the Archbishop of Perth laid hands on me and set me apart for ministry as a priest in God’s Church.
Today is also the anniversary of the day that I first made my profession of vows within a religious community of men committed to serving the Church and the world as religious brothers. Two years ago, in a monastic chapel outside of New York, my brothers gathered with me to pray for me as I made those vows to God and to them, which I have just recently renewed, to live as a sign and servant in the world as a member of that religious community.
Not too far in the distant past those were the two primary pathways for people who wanted, like Mary, to say ‘yes’ to God. Men made a commitment to follow Christ, to say yes to his call, by making themselves available to serve as priests in his Church. Men and women sought to follow Christ by joining a religious community as monks and nuns, or by serving God in the special ministries of nursing and teaching. That was really the normal understanding of responding to a call until relatively recently.
In some places the very word ‘ministry’ had become synonymous with one of those professional roles so that we talked of people who were ‘in the ministry’ as if it referred to priests and deacons, monks and nuns, but not to the rest of us. Ironically it was not a Church in which Mary or the disciples, or probably even Jesus would have been allowed to minister.
All of this began to change most significantly in the 1960s. The Second Vatican Council in the Roman Catholic Church provided the forum for the re-discovery, from deep within our Christian tradition, that it is our baptism, and not ordination which sets us all apart as ministers of the Gospel. What began to be a central reality in the Roman Catholic Church has, over time, trickled into our own Church as well. The vision of Becoming Ministering Communities in Mission which we have made a commitment to here, and which is visualised in the work of our Parish Ministry Team, is the latest attempt in this Diocese to help us all to respond as Mary did, by saying “yes” to God.
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 theological student. Mary is uncovering the baby Jesus, she is pulling back a shawl under which he has been sleeping. The sculpture is entitled, “Mary reveals the Light of the World.”
It is 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.
As Anglican we have often been a little puzzled about the place of Mary in our tradition and our piety. But if we find ourselves looking at the example of Mary, and not being pointed by her life to Jesus, then we have misunderstood her place in the pilgrimage of salvation.
Mary’s significance for us, and the reason for us keeping this feast today, and the other festivals in her honour during the year, 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 Mary we find the model for responding to God’s call upon our lives: as we look at her we are pointed to the life of Christ. Surely that is how it should be for each one of us as well. As we celebrate her today, we pray that we will respond to God as she did. So we say with her, on this her feast day, ‘Yes God! You have looked with favour on your lowly servant. Let it be to us according to your word.’