The Right Reverend Michael Colclough Honorary Assistant Bishop, Diocese of London
Friday, 21st July 2017 at 6.30 PM
We naturally read and picture Biblical events and stories with the hindsight of history and interpretation along with our own devotional imaginings. As we read about the heroes and heroines of the Old and New Testaments it is easy to forget their everyday humanity and the surprise, confusion, fear that often went hand in hand with their response and relationship to God. So Sarah laughed in unbelief at the thought of bearing a child in her old age; at the burning bush Moses covered his face and said, “Who am I?” Jeremiah claimed he was too young; Jonah caught a ferry in the opposite direction, trying to dodge God’s request – and as we heard in today’s Gospel reading, even Our Lady queried the angel’s message: “How can this be?”
And all too quickly we move to Mary’s "Here am I" - but her initial response was no different to that of Sarah, Moses, Jeremiah or Jonah: impossible! In her own words, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary questions and queries, like we invariably do when God seeks to widen our horizons, nugde us into new adventures in faith, new commitments. What Mary gets is the assurance that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, that the child to be born will be holy … and be called the Son of God”. A wonderful message, more than hinting at a moment of great privilege for Mary: but a privilege that goes hand in hand with a great challenge for that young woman of Nazareth to take on board.
Mary lived at a time of great longing and expectation. The people of Israel had returned from exile in Babylon several hundred years earlier, but Israel was still not free. People longed for God to act but (like us) they had already decided how God should act; people longed for a Messiah – but they had decided what the Messiah must look like and do. They wanted redemption according to their own imaginings, on their own terms.
Amidst all the plotting and scheming that went hand in hand with this expectation in first century Israel, God found Mary. Like others she longed for God’s kingdom, His reign to be established. But, unlike others, Mary was still, she listened: and, after that first wondering, she was receptive. Then there were no conditions, no limitations, no restrictions – simply “Here I am the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”. And that was not a passive reception but a bold embracing of God’s will, God’s Word. Mary is no longer an observer but an actor as she embraces her important role in the drama of salvation.
Yet it was only a moment, and it was a very personal moment, but it was the most important moment in the history of humankind. It’s a moment that has fascinated and inspired the work of writers and artists throughout the Christian ages. In one of his homilies St Bernard of Clairvaux says:
“Open, Blessed Virgin, your heart to faith, your lips to compliance, your bosom to your Creator. Behold, the desired of all nations stands at the gate and knocks. Oh, suppose He were to pass by while you delay! How would you begin again with sorrow to seek Him whom your soul loveth! Arise, run, open! Arise by faith, run by devotion, open by acceptance”.
And, of course, she did: and Mary, the Virgin of Palestine, becomes Theotokos, the God bearer, and rightly earns, embraces. the title Mother of God as she sets out on her journey to give birth to Jesus, God the Son, the Word made flesh.
When I was training for the priesthood I was sent a Christmas card from a friend at another theological college, Chichester. On the front of the card was prinyed a prayer that had been written by the then Principal, Cheslyn Jones. It’s a prayer to the Holy Spirit and to Our Lady that has equipped and enriched my praying for nearly fifty years and begins with the petition,
Holy Spirit, Lord and giver of life,
Who didst overshadow Mary that she might become
The Mother of Jesus our Saviour;
Do thou likewise work silently in my heart
To form within me the fullness of His redeemed
And redeeming humanity;
Later it leads us on to pray to Our Lady in these words:
“And may Mary, blessed among women,
Mother of our saviour, pray for me:
That Christ may be formed in me;
That I may live in union with heart and will
With Jesus Christ, her Son,
Our Lord and Saviour”.
You will find it in tonight’s order of service and I encourage you to take it home and use it daily. Note that important petition, “That Christ may be formed in me” – again, privilege and challenge combined in our vocation as disciples of Jesus. Mary of the Annunciation invites you and me, after perhaps, our initial wonderings and hesitations, to embrace fully the daily call of our Living God to take our part in the history of salvation. You and I have our role to play for, as Origen asked in those early days of our Faith, “what's the point of Christ being born of the Virgin yet not in me?” and it is St Paul who tells us that, by our living the baptismal life, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). We join Our Lady of Pew in giving thanks to God for the joy of that vocation. Amen.