2013-09-08 Nativity of the BVM St Mary’s Primrose Hill Patronal Festival
Thank you so much for asking me to your Patronal Festival. I was last here on Palm Sunday, the coldest Palm Sunday I can ever remember, colder than some Christmases. But that was more than made up for by your kind welcome. I know everyone at St Mark’s really enjoyed coming and being with you. Thank you. We are very much look forward to welcoming you next year in return, praying that being that bit later, the weather may be more clement as we walk if not slip down the Hill in the other direction!
It is a great privilege to share this celebration with you, the day that you reflect on the name you have been given; this wonderful name which defines you and holds so much of both the history of this place: the name St Mary’s Primrose Hill rather echoes around the Church of England, so it has multiple resonances across the wider church. We have a friend in France, where my wife comes from, they are inclined to give lots of names at baptism and then more at confirmation; she is called just Marie. Her father said what other name do you need?
St Mary the Virgin, Bishops Lydeard, in West Somerset where I was baptised, took my first communion and was married 20 years ago on Wednesday is a church in Percy Dearmer tradition, with an English Altar, a fine rood screen, and an exquisite Comper Lady Chapel, The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary was our Patronal Festival too; our wedding flowers were deliberately left so they would lend further dignity to the celebrations then. Despite my good Anglo-Catholic credentials, my parents were good English Protestants at heart, never more at home than at Mattins in the church in the neighbouring parish singing the Jubilate and the Benedictus to an organ that always sounded as though it would not make it to the end of the service. Drear I always thought; but they were a bit dubious about lighting candles in front of statues. When we were children we went round Notre Dame in Paris, which is beautiful but rather gloomy, so the thousands of candles alight there make an arresting display. My mother would not let me put my 1 franc in the box and light the candle, because “we don’t believe the same thing as they do.”
You will know of the Anglican-Roman-Catholic-International-Commission, otherwise known as ARCIC. Over the last 47 years its remit has been in the light of ecumenical convergence to explore the points of coming together and remaining difference between our communions. It has been painstaking, and some of what has been produced over the years may occasionally seem obscure, and possibly irrelevant, but, a great deal has been ground-breaking; reviewing old sores and enmities and finding new and unexpected points in common when a rigorously critical method is brought to bear on seemingly controversial texts and deeply held points of principle.
As well as several statements on the Eucharist and Ministry, the Commission has studied in depth the question of Authority, and after previous discussions about Saints in general, in 2004 the Commission published an Agreed Statement entitled “Mary: Grace and Hope in the Church”. The collywobbles my dear family expressed in front of a Marian shrine in Paris in 1981 could even be answered by what was agreed in this text. I would like to take you through what I think are the most interesting Biblical observations, but just one word first on the principles involved in this process which are also important. Ecumenical texts of this kind are not difficult to bury, hide or obscure. They don’t fizz with contemporary relevance; they look like a minority interest game, without them, would life be any different?
Well, just let’s consider aspects of the complexity in Syria for a moment. Ghastly and unresolved the whole situation is. Apart from the international mayhem hovering around what to do next, there is the reality that this is war of religion. The factions are deeply divided sects within Islam, with radical agendas on both sides. The conflict there is not different from the period of the European Wars of Religion from the late 16th – late 17th c in most of Europe. Crudely speaking, Catholics and Protestants jockeyed for power and laid claim to who would take what. The Reformation was the just the beginning of a reshaped Europe. The Shia-Sunni divide in the Arab world remains confusing even to many Muslims; add oil money, a hint of national socialism on the part of the Barthists and a hint of Marxism on the part of Muslim Brotherhood, you have a post-modern sectarian conflict with very nasty weapons in each of their arsenals.
In the Christian world, debating old enmities is not just achieving a bit of jolly consensus. It is endeavouring in peace and love to extinguish the source of deadly wars and to hear the still small voice instead of the roar of jets and the explosion of poison gas. So if cynicism or boredom ever gets in the way of ecumenical hard graft, spare a thought for the alternative.
Apart from perhaps the obvious discomfort engendered in European reformers by images and statues; what made has made Mary the cause of such division? I would suggest that the Infallible Statements regarding Mary’s birth (today’s feast) and her bodily assumption, or as the Orthodox say her Dormition have intensified feelings about Mary.
The Commission decided to take these doctrines or Dogmas, by the scruff of the neck and examine the motivation for them, and interrogate them from Scripture. A bold task you might say for teachings which have no testimony in Scripture at all. Ah ah!, but the post Conciliar Roman Catholic Church has spearheaded Biblical Studies, even though they were late joiners to the party, and on their side, they realised they could not begin to substantiate these teachings without a thorough Biblical analysis.
Let’s go on a brief canter through the process:
“We have found ourselves meditating with wonder and gratitude on the whole sweep of salvation history: creation, election, the Incarnation, passion and resurrection of Christ.” This gives a sense of the context those involved in the report wanted to give to their discussions and teaching about Mary.
- The report then explores the OT witness to God’s creation of men and women in the divine image and God’s loving call to covenant relationship with himself.
- It then explored a key theme of the covenant is several times described as a love affair between God and Israel.
- As the Commission grappled with the New Testament they are bold in working with a key text from Romans chapter 8. “The Scripture speak of the calling by God of particular persons….. They bear witness to the gift of the Spirit or the presence of God enabling them to accomplish God’s will and purpose. This sense of wonder at prevenient grace of God is similarly attested in the NT, especially in the writings of St Paul, when he speaks of those whom God ‘foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…and those whom he predestined he also called and those who he called he also justified and those whom he justified he also glorified (Rom 8: 28-30 cf II Tim 1:19).
- Following through the trajectory of the grace of God and the hope for a perfect human response the report declares that Christians have, in line with the New Testament writers, seen its culmination in the obedience of Christ. Within this Christological context, they have discerned a similar pattern in the one who would receive the Word in her heart and in her body, be overshadowed by the Spirit and give birth to the Son of God The birth of Mary’s son is the fulfilment of God’s will for Israel, and Mary’s part in that fulfilment is that of free and unqualified consent in utter self-giving and trust: “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38; cf. Psalm 123:2).
- The Report was concerned to explore Biblically the question of Mary’s being without sin: “Within this biblical framework we have considered afresh the distinctive place of the Virgin Mary in the economy of grace, as the one who bore Christ, the elect of God. The word of God delivered by Gabriel addresses her as already ‘graced’, inviting her to respond in faith and freedom to God’s call (Luke 1:28,38,45). The Spirit is operative within her in the conception of the Saviour, and this “blessed among women” is inspired to sing “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:42,48). Viewed eschatologically, Mary thus embodies the ‘elect Israel’ of whom Paul speaks – glorified, justified, called, predestined. This is the pattern of grace and hope which we see at work in the life of Mary, who holds a distinctive place in the common destiny of the Church as the one who bore in her own flesh ‘the Lord of glory’. Mary is marked out from the beginning as the one chosen, called and graced by God through the Holy Spirit for the task that lay ahead of her.” paragraph 54
- We are reminded that all Christians are intended, pre-destined even for a glorious redemption. “We can thus see that God was at work in Mary from her earliest beginnings, preparing her for the unique vocation of bearing in her own flesh the new Adam, in whom all things in heaven and earth hold together (cf. Colossians 1:16-17). Of Mary, both personally and as a representative figure, we can say she is “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand” (Ephesians 2:10).” paragraph 55
- And so the report turns to the end of Mary’ life “There is no direct testimony in Scripture concerning the end of Mary’s life. ….but, the biblical pattern of anticipated eschatology appears in the account of Stephen, the first martyr (Acts 7:54-60). At the moment of his death, which conforms to that of his Lord, he sees “the glory of God, and Jesus” the “Son of Man” not seated in judgement, but “standing at the right hand of God” to welcome his faithful servant. Similarly, the penitent thief who calls on the crucified Christ is accorded the special promise of being with Christ immediately in Paradise (Luke 23:43). God’s faithful servant Elijah is taken up by a whirlwind into heaven (2 Kings 2:11), and of Enoch it is written, “he was attested as having pleased God” as a man of faith, and was therefore “taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found because God had taken him” (Hebrews 11:5, cf. Genesis 5:24). Within such a pattern of anticipated eschatology, Mary can also be seen as the faithful disciple fully present with God in Christ. In this way, she is a sign of hope for all humanity.” 56
- The concluding section in the Biblical chapter of the Report is a fitting end to ponder and celebrate, for those who bear Mary’s name in this place: “The pattern of hope and grace already foreshadowed in Mary will be fulfilled in the new creation in Christ when all the redeemed will participate in the full glory of the Lord (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18). Christian experience of communion with God in this present life is a sign and foretaste of divine grace and glory, a hope shared with the whole of creation (Romans 8:18-23). The individual believer and the Church find their consummation in the new Jerusalem, the holy bride of Christ (cf. Revelation 21:2, Ephesians 5:27). When Christians from East and West through the generations have pondered God’s work in Mary, they have discerned in faith (cf. Gift 29) that it is fitting that the Lord gathered her wholly to himself: in Christ, she is already a new creation in whom “the old has passed away and the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Viewed from such an eschatological perspective, Mary may be seen both as a type of the Church, and as a disciple with a special place in the economy of salvation.” paragraph 57
William Gulliford, quoting in large part: Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ