‘Behold your Mother’ | Preached in the Holy House at Walsingham

page-3-Holy-House-at-Shrine-of-Our-Lady-of-WalsinghamPreached in the Holy House at Walsingham during the St. Asaph pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. The inspiration for this sermon was the Litany of Loreto (see here).

This is one of the shortest Gospel readings in our lectionary and yet it contains one off the Lord’s most profound commandments, spoken to us in the agony of his final breaths: ’Behold your Mother’. Our pilgrimage, this very shrine, is an attempt to fulfil this command. When I brought a Methodist friend to Walsingham she said to me, playfully, that I was a bit obsessed with Mary and accused me of loving her more than Christ. No no no, I said, Mary is to Christ as the moon is to the sun – she is a reflection of the radiance of Christ. Everything we say about Mary draws our attention to Christ, her Son and Saviour. The fact is, you can barely glimpse at the sun for a half a second, yet you can stare all night at the moon, if you want. This can be true of Christ, whose intensity can overwhelm us and the demands of the Gospel on our life seem too much – yet we can always gaze on Mary, pondering with her the greatness of her Son. In this homily, I want to ponder who Mary is in the story of God’s salvation, using images from the Old Testament.

It is right to find images of Mary in the Old Testament because she is the summing up of the whole people of Israel! Mary is the flowering of faithful Israel – she is the result of God’s resolve, despite everything, to form for himself a people after his own heart, a people who would be a blessing to the world and from whom would come the Messiah. Israel in its totality is like Mary – designed and shaped to give birth to the Messiah. That means that, in Mary, we can read the whole Old Testament! The Old Testament is the story of a long pregnancy – a people whom God was preparing to bring Christ into the world.

Mary, the new Eve. Think back to Genesis 2 – Eve abandons paradise when she seeks to grasp for herself the power of God, she wants to eat the fruit of the tree and appropriate to herself the knowledge of good and evil. Eve wants to be the Lord of her own life, the ultimate judge of right and wrong. This is original sin – passed on in a million different forms to all the children of Eve – the sinful desire to make ourselves like God, we see it everywhere in our culture – but, when we do this, we fall apart, our communities fall apart and we make ourselves alien to God. But, God doesn’t give up. The story of Israel, the story of the Old Testament, is God’s faithful attempt to reverse the momentum of Eve’s sin – he tries over and over again to form a people as his friends, those who would accept his life and law as a gift and flourish under its influence.

Then we come to the Annunciation – where Mary hears the angel she says, ‘let it be with me according to your word’. Eve grasped at being God and became the mother of all sinners. What does Mary do? Mary reverses this original sin – she acquiesces to God – she accepts his will – she allows God to plant his word deep within her. And, in that moment  of acceptance, Mary becomes pregnant with God’s own life. In a similar way, all of us, members of the body of Christ, when we accept God’s will – when we say ‘let it be’ to God’s word, God’s life takes root in us.

Eve’s grasping blocked the flow of grace – blocked the flow of the divine life in the world – but Mary’s acceptance allowed that life to flow again into the world for its salvation. As the Church Fathers say, the AVE of the angel is the reversal of EVA: Mary allows divine grace to rush into the world.

Mary allows divine grace to rush into the world.

Friends, behold your mother! The New Eve, who is the fountain from whom grace flows into the world. That’s why Shrines of Mary are known as places of miracles and holiness, because Mary has unstopped the well of divine grace and given us access to the divine life! This is why it is not just a insignificant detail that the apostles prayed with Mary as they awaited the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – they knew that through Our Lady’s prayer that the grace and power of the Spirit would come!

There is a second way in which Mary sums up and fulfils the Old Testament – she is the new and greater Ark of the Covenant. During the Exodus, Moses places the tablets of the law into the ark as a sign of God’s presence among his people. In the same way, the Word of God is placed within the ark of Mary’s body. She becomes the ark of God’s presence. By extension, Mary is the new and living temple! Think of the temple, with its Holy of Holies, the place where God was pleased to dwell; where people came to commune with him. Mary now, who bears God incarnate in her womb, is herself the new temple!

Sisters and brothers, never grow tired of spending time with Mary – the ark of the covenant. She is able to lead us most powerfully to Christ – when we kneel before her, we kneel before the ark of the covenant, the place where God is pleased to dwell. The most beautiful way this is revealed in Scripture is when the pregnant Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, her pregnant cousin and John the Baptist, in Elizabeth’s womb, dances for joy! The word used here is the same as that used of King David when he dances before the Ark of God in the Book of Kings. Mary is the cause of our joy, because she brings the joy of Christ to us and calls us to rejoice at his presence.

Mary is all the culmination of all those holy women in Israel’s history who became mothers against all odds – we can think of the nameless mother of Samson, who was infertile but became a mother through her prayer. Or Hannah, mother of Samuel, who prayed day and night for a son. Then there’s Sarah, wife of Abraham who, in her extreme old age, gave birth to Isaac, father of Israel. Or even Elizabeth, Mary’s own cousin, who was infertile and advanced in years, yet became pregnant with John the Baptist. The Virgin sums up and gathers up all these women and together they preach a simple message – new life comes from radical trust in the Lord, for whom all things are possible.

Behold your mother who says to us that, when we stand at the end of our strength, at the limits of our hope, God can still act! When we say ‘let it be with me according to you word’ that’s when the divine life can flow and nothing will be impossible.

Finally, in her Magnificat, Mary is the greatest prophet – she is the new Ezekiel, the new Isaiah, the new Daniel, the new Amos!

He has shown strength with his arm
and has scattered the proud in their conceit,
Casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
to remember his promise of mercy.

Neither Isaiah, nor David, nor Amos, nor Malachi ever spoke so eloquently of the coming of the Messiah – Mary sums up all the prophets of Israel and sings this great Biblical truth, which has been sung by the Church every evening from the beginning!

My friends, Jesus used his dying breath to give the holy Mother to us as our example and source of unfailing help. Draw nearer to her in our final days here, learn from her and ask her prayers – discover in her the reflection of her Son and the unsealed fountain of all grace. Gaze at Mary, for she is the reflection of all Israel and the perfect image of her Son,

to whom be glory and praise for ever.
Amen.

To Be a Pilgrim | Homily 1 at Shrine of OLW

Homily given at the beginning of the St. Asaph Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham (11th July, St. Benedict’s Day)

I wanted to spend this first homily reflecting a little on what it means to go on pilgrimage – what makes this different from your average holiday to lovely Norfolk? It might seem simple, but profoundly important, that the difference is God. We have set out on a journey with a divine purpose – a journey transformed by God’s purpose for us. God has brought you to Walsingham, Jesus has led you, as he promised, to the streams of living water that flow gently through this unassuming village.

page-3-Holy-House-at-Shrine-of-Our-Lady-of-Walsingham.jpgAs we set out on this pilgrimage, the great Christian writers of the tradition remind us that, in a sense, our whole identity as Christians is as a pilgrim people. In our hearts, the follower of Christ is always a pilgrim – a stranger, a sojourner on the earth, always seeking after a more than earthly homeland, yearning for an heavenly country. In coming to Walsingham, we enact this journey in miniature – we glimpse our heavenly homeland and receive fresh vision and strength for the journey onwards. The importance of pilgrimage can be traced back all the way through the Scriptures – think of the Exodus: Israel’s journey out of slavery, pursued by the Egyptians, down through the Red Sea and coming up into the wilderness. Think of that extraordinary time in the wilderness, led by Moses, together a community with God before them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night – before, at last, they reach the Promised Land.

I’m constantly amazed how closely this seems to resemble our own life’s pilgrimage and what we encounter on our way to the heavenly homeland. That first call of Moses who dares the Israelites to break free and dream of a new future – this is the point of stirring, repenting, yearning to follow Christ and become more fully alive. The Israelites follow this desire but they are pursued – whenever we seek to follow Christ, our guilt and sin and failing follow us down the Way – but then, water. Water which looks like death but they come through it and see their sins drowned. This is the type of a Christian baptism – even today, the priest at a baptism says:

Through water you led the children of Israel
from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.
In water your Son Jesus received the baptism of John
and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ,
to lead us from the death of sin to newness of life.

But our baptism, momentous as it is, is not the end of the story – we don’t come up from the water into glory! Baptism instils in us a yearning for the kingdom, but we are still in the wilderness – led by God! All this is there in that great hymn, Guide Me O thou great  Redeemer. What better hymn for being in Walsingham – ‘Open now the crystal fountain, whence the healing stream doth flow’. Think back to the Exodus – the very rock which impeded the Israelites journey is struck and through it they find water. The same is true for us – bring to the shrine the rocks that prevent your journey with Christ – bring your sins, your doubts, your dilemmas about the future, bring your loved ones and those you struggle to love – bring them here and pray that for them, in them and through them, the crystal fountain might be opened.

We ought to think of the Christian life as a pilgrimage – a journey made together, following the Lord, with so great a promise beyond it. This counterbalances the image of the Christian as arrogantly presuming to be better than others; an image of static perfection that says to the outside world, ‘now I’ve made it, I can look down on you and tell you what to do because I’ve made it’. This is not Christian, this is false. As the young man in our reading discovers, there are always new depths and new adventures – even for those who have followed the commandments from their youth. As pilgrims, we have know in our hearts how much we have to learn – Christians can never stop growing, discovering, changing, repenting and entering more and more into the mystery of the divine life. Christian faith is an invitation to adventure – travelling – pilgrimage. There’s a reason we baptise with scallop shells, the symbol of pilgrimage.

I pray that our time in Walsingham may be a true pilgrimage – filled with laughter and love – a time to reflect on the rocks which weigh us down and to pray for discernment for the future. God has dreams for you – he longs for you to draw near to him, to learn from Mary and say yes to the next stage of your pilgrimage. Here, in this shrine, in which, for 1000 years, Mary has brought people closer to her Son; where God’s grace has been tangible and prayer valid – here, in England’s Nazareth – discover God afresh and be transformed.

To help in your reflections, I have printed off a sonnet from Malcolm Guite for you to meditate on. I will read it now and hopefully we will then have a moment to meditate on it.

Come, dip a scallop shell into the font
For birth and blessings as a child of God.
The living water rises from that fount
Whence all things come, that you may bathe and wade
And find the flow, and learn at last to follow
The course of Love upstream towards your home.
The day is done and all the fields lie fallow
One thing is needful, one voice calls your name.

Take the true compass now, be compassed round
By clouds of witness, chords of love unbound.
Turn to the Son, begin your pilgrimage,
Take time with Him to find your true direction.
He travels with you through this darkened age
And wakes you everyday to resurrection.
by Malcolm Guite (see his website here)