Sunday, December 20, 2020
Mary was perplexed… I’m sure she was. In fact, my guess is that her internal reaction might well have been expressed by a pithy "You WHAT?!" Or even WTF? The angel might have been sent by God – but that didn’t mean his arrival was going to make things easy for Mary. Not one little bit. Beyond the immediate dilemma of how to tell Joseph – and her parents too, this perplexity must have been the hall mark of her life from there on in. The Authorised Version talks about the way she “pondered things in her heart” - and that sounds lovely and reflective and very very holy….but I’m not sure it was always like that. I’m sure that on a good day she could and did treasure all the moments of joy…the time when John the Baptist, in utero, recognised Jesus and leapt for joy and Mary’s praise flowered into the prophetic wonder of the Magnificat ever noticed that the first person to recognise Jesus was a baby! What might that suggest to us about how we value the contribution of babies, toddlers, children in our life and theology?) That amazing night when angels sang and shepherds knelt…the day when strange visitors brought stranger gifts… Those were moments to remember and pour over on dark days… But my goodness – the dark days were many… Did she know about the massacre of the innocents? I’m sure she did – and maybe felt that mixture of relief and guilt that we know when someone dear to us has just escaped disaster by missing the train that crashed or staying at home from work because they had a bit of a migraine… Then there was the time when her first born son refused to see her because somehow the woman who had given birth to him was less important than the crowd who’d gathered to hear him teach. “my mother and brothers are those who hear and obey God’s word”… Particularly tough on Mary, whose obedience to God is celebrated… “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be to me as you have said...” But apparently that’s not good enough. WHAT?!?! At that point, I think I might have been tempted to storm in and give Jesus a lesson in basic manners. Oh yes, there were many many moments of perplexity – of that I am convinced. Think, if you would, about the statue of Mary in our Lady Chapel. If you’re a visitor and don’t know it, I’m afraid it’s a bit inaccessible right now – but let me tell you, it’s a statue that is placed facing away from those who come into the chapel. Mary’s eyes are only on her son – but this is not the baby in the manger whom she could cradle and keep safe but her adult son, and she is gazing at him as he hangs dying on the cross. If you follow her eyes – and indeed, if you stand beside her in the space, that is what you see. Just the agony and desolation. “Stabat Mater dolorosa” And you see, here’s the thing. Mary experiences the life of her son Jesus from a completely human perspective. She can do nothing else. She is inextricably involved in God’s plan to reconcile the world to himself – but she can’t see the big picture at all. Just as from the viewpoint of the statue, as it were, you are oblivious to the towering figure of Christ in glory that dominates the cathedral from another perspective, so she, highly favoured though she may be, is no more able to glimpse the overarching sweep of God’s story than any of us are as we travel through this year of storm and challenge. But her ignorance, her perplexity doesn’t matter at all. Her part in the story is to be the God bearer...it is through the Holy Spirit AND the Virgin Mary that Christ comes into the world ...and the fact that she cannot see the way ahead in no way alters her significance in God’s work of love. There’s a song popular in some parts of the church “Mary did you know..” which takes Mary on a guided tour of the life of Christ, asking if she grasped the significance of all that was going on around her stage by stage. It is a bit too redolent of mansplaining for my taste...but it does clarify an important point. Despite the message of the angel, Mary DIDN’T know. Not for sure. She pondered things in her heart...but she dealt in faith, not knowledge. We’re in a different place as far as her story goes. WE know, from the perspective of 2 millennia, what emerged, against any human hope or expectation, from the foreshortened life of Mary’s son. WE are the ones sitting in the nave who can see Christ in glory on the tapestry and know that even the pain of crucifixion is swept up in the triumph of God’s love over sin and death forever. But Mary didn’t know. Mary just had to ponder – and weep and agonise...just as, in this year of challenge and loss and change we have watched and wept and felt utterly utterly helpless and sometimes hopeless It is not a coincidence that I’ve found myself praying the rosary more this year than ever before. It has helped me hugely, as I’ve tried to pray into all the pain and mess around us, to feel that another woman who had experienced times far harder, grief far greater, would pray beside me, with me, for me. As I prayed, each bead became part of a lifebelt, and on a good day I knew that the other end was held secure by God. On bad days, my prayers had more in common with a certain cartoon currently circulating online which shows a figure kneeling in prayer at bedtime. Above their head is a bubble “God. WTF” If that’s where you are today – you’re not alone From the perspective of the here and now, it’s almost impossible to see anything but anxiety, sadness and confusion. We just want the pandemic over and to stagger back to some of the things that seemed so normal only a year ago. But there’s something from Mary’s story for us here too. Regardless of how blinded we may be by tears, how wearied we are by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, there IS another perspective. Mary DOES know now. She sees the glory that was there from the beginning...the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth...and understands that her role as God bearer was essential, even when it seemed to be all folly. And, of course, each of us is to be a God bearer too – in a world that needs us to make God’s love real more than ever before. As to the big picture - We wont see that or understand our part in it very often. We may see very little at all. But we can nonetheless continue, whether in faith and hope, or in doubt and perplexity, rmembering that even in 2020, there IS a bigger picture and that the God who came into the mess and muddle of our world 2000 years ago, incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, will not rest til all is reconciled, all made new. If that’s too much to believe right now – let’s return to the message of the angel. With God, nothing is impossible.
So many things are different this year. For one thing,it's tough to have a carol service without singing, and I'm guessing that for some of us even a song in the heart may be very hard to find. A just last when I looked out at the packed congregation for this service, it was like lookung at a colony of glow-worms – I couldn’t see any faces, but each person present was represented by the light of the candles they were holding. I reflected then that Christmas can make the ordinary beautiful – and I think thats no less true today. Even this evening, we are not left in the silent dark. But I cant deny that one way and another it has been a bitch of a year. As we closed the Cathedral and went into Lockdown in March, it felt like the end of so much that was beloved and precious. Would people even remember to come back, when we were allowed to? Would we be able to carry on worshipping together though apart? How would we manage to share and make real the message of God’s love? It all looked overwhelmingly dark and difficult – and yet, we found a way. We discovered the unexpected pleasure of online worship, where we connected not just with our regulars but with many who would not have found their way to the Cathedral in normal times. We made new connections with those living closest to us and took care of one another as best we could through difficult times, learning to share love in new ways, by phone, by zoom, from the bottom of the drive or through the window We adjusted to a simpler life and a slower pace and found ourselves able to hear birdsong in our gardens as the noise of traffic ceased. Of course, all these moments of blessing were set against a backdrop of hard news, of the reality of fear and loneliness, grief and death – but they were blessings all the same… And now we find ourselves confronted with a need to do Christmas in very different ways ...with different people, or altogether alone, in different places, without many treasured aspects of our own personal traditions, the things we always do It's not simply that the mistletoe market has crashed as a quick kiss in passing is strictly taboo Christmas IS going, to be different this year, and for most of us, that's not great news. I guess much was different about the first Christmas too. Though God’s people had been waiting for centuries for a Saviour, a Messiah, his coming was not at all as they’d expected. I’m sure Mary pictured herself giving birth at home, with mum and aunties there to support her – but found herself far away, without much of a roof over her head. Not what she would have chosen. The shepherds, rough, uncouth, were the LAST people to hear most things: they were among the marginalised and overlooked. You wouldn't dream of making them your confidantes – yet the angel brought the world-changing news to them. It was only common sense that those wise men from the east went first to the palace – where else would you expect to find a king…but he wasn’t there. Nothing looked quite right for the arrival of a Saviour – and yet nonetheless, there he was. God as a baby, born miles from home in a grubby corner of an occupied country. There he was – and here he is – Here among us, bringing light and hope into the darkest corners of our world...to the fear-laden loneliness of the covid wards, where exhausted medics do all that they can to fight against disease and death to the families kept apart, and those weeping as they see an empty space at their Christmas table, to those collecting the basics of their Christmas meal from the Foodbank and those facing the cold reality of unemployment when furlough ends. God with us. Emmanuel. With us now as we come together in this holy place – but with us too as we go on our way, no matter what disappointment, what sadness we are going out to Whatever is different, unexpected, unwelcome this year – God’s love is unchanging...and though you may not carry a candle in your hand tonight , you can, and you should shine with the light of his love . That love is here as surely as it has ever been. Here to strengthen and support you Here to be shared so that each of us can make the ordinary beautiful – in our homes and on our streets, online and in person…. Because God is with us And that changes everything for the light shines ieven in our deepest darkness and the darkness has never put it out And it never ever will. Thanks be to God