December 18, 2011

 

    ON THE MOTHER OF THE CHRIST

  Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
    at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 18 December, 2011 

Reading for the Gospel: Luke 1: 26-38

 

I suppose we all have our favourite saint.  Chances are if you are of Scottish descent that saint might well be Andrew, if your ancestors came from Wales then it might be David, and if you are of Irish extract you will probably be loudly proud of Patrick, even though he was a Welshman and not an Irishman at all!  As an Englishman I suppose I should cry out bravely for St George, but Shakespeare and Henry V’s speech in Act III, Scene 1 notwithstanding – the one about God for Harry, England and Saint George – I am one of those Englishmen who have a special place in his heart for Saint Mary.  And given the number of parishes in England whose place of worship is named for her, I rather think that in times past she was the most favoured of all the saints in England.  During my time of service in the Sacred Ministry I have served as a priest in three parishes named for her, but not one for George. 

Why is she so special?  Well, obviously she is the Mother of the Christ and that in itself might be considered sufficient recommendation for favour and honour.  But there is more to it than that.  Our Gospel reading this morning, so well-known and so well-beloved – and oh so familiar – tells of a very special young woman.  The evangelist does not tell us Mary’s age at the time of her encounter with the strange visitor.  He simply describes her as a “Virgin”, which does not mean quite the same in the Biblical writings as it does today.  She is no longer a child.  She has reached early, very early adulthood.  In the Hebrew society of her day she is of marriageable age, but not yet married.  And in the Hebrew society of her day she would probably have been married shortly after reaching puberty, say at 12 or 13, the time when a Jewish girl undergoes the rite of passage called bath mitzvah. 

Mary had her entire future before her, and it had probably been decided on her behalf what that future would be.  The evangelist tells us that Mary was a close relative of Elizabeth, and he has already told us that Elizabeth is a direct descendant of Aaron the Priest.  So that would make Mary a member of the tribe of Levi, and as such she might have expected to have married a Priest or a Levite.  However, for whatever reason, her parents chose to marry her to a man of the House of David whose name was Joseph.  The vast majority of the family of David were no longer likely to be considered eligible to occupy the throne of their ancestor and most of them had found them some sort of trade.  Joseph went into the building trade and he was probably a stonemason, a business that Jesus referred to a fair number of times once he became a preacherman.  So at the tender age of 12 or 13, Mary’s future looked rosy by the standards of her day. 

And then this stranger comes to town and accosts her and tells her a story which would be perplexing in the least, and Mary was perplexed.  “How can this be?  I am unmarried!”  Mary would have known what would be the consequences of her becoming pregnant outside of marriage.  As is still the case in many parts of the World today, she would have been put to death, and in a very unpleasant manner.  For most young women found in this condition death would have been by stoning, and her own menfolk would have thrown the first stones, as is still the practice.  But she was of the tribe of Levi, and the punishment for a daughter of the tribe of Levi caught in that condition was death by burning in accordance with the Law of Holiness in Leviticus 21: 9. 

“How can this be?  I am unmarried!”  She was being challenged, even before her life had begun, to run the risk of it being brought to an untimely and unpleasant end.  What on Earth was this stranger talking about?  But he sees her hesitation and he understands it.  He knows that what is being asked of her is, to all intents and purposes, impossible – at least in earthly terms.  But there is another dimension to life and the stranger goes on to tell her of another impossibility that has come to pass.  And this affects someone in her own family.  Her close relative, the barren and possibly post-menopausal Elizabeth, is pregnant and has been for six months, “For with God nothing is impossible!”  Of course, Elizabeth is a married woman and has been married for decades, so it is all legal and kosher for her to become pregnant, unlikely though it might seem.  Did Mary know that Elizabeth was pregnant?  Probably not, since the evangelist has just told us that Elizabeth had gone into hiding and had told no-one. 

So here she is, confronted by a stranger who has not even introduced himself and told her who he is, and she is being asked to make an extraordinary choice based on no evidence at all except the word of this stranger.  How would most young women, given her circumstances, respond, even today?  Would any of us be prepared to put everything on the line and risk placing our lives in jeopardy on the word of a total stranger?  Oh, we know how the story ends as it has been around for a couple of thousand years.  But just how would any of us have reacted on that road on that day?  Would any one of us have said, “Here am I.  Let it be as you say!”  And then the stranger disappeared! 

What we see in this scene is the first episode in a life of total commitment on the part of this young woman, a commitment that was to continue throughout the rest of her recorded life.  She was a woman, a young woman, but still a woman.  We men forget the commitment that is demanded of a woman when she finds herself to be pregnant.  The father-to-be can take time off and have an evening with the boys, or lose himself in his work.  The mother-to-be can take no time off.  That child is growing within her, and she can’t pop it out and go off for an evening with the girls.  She has to take that unborn child with her.  She cannot simply lose herself in her work, because that child is going to make it increasingly uncomfortable to do that work.  There is a 24/7 commitment that a woman makes when she finds herself pregnant.

But Mary’s commitment was not just to the child in her womb.  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord!”  Mary’s initial act of commitment was to the Lord God of her forebears, to the Lord God of the Universe.  And it was a commitment she would maintain all her life from then on, no matter where it took her and no matter what it might cost.  She was prepared to run the risk of becoming pregnant and to carry that child to full term, and then to raise him and then let him go off and live the life he was called to live, even though at times that might mean that he said things that she might regard as hurtful.  And when he was at the height of his fame, she was to see him struck down, and she stood at the foot of his gallows and watched him die, to die the death of one, who, according to the Scriptures that she knew so well, was rejected by the same Lord God to whom she had committed herself that day when she was still unmarried and had had that encounter with the stranger.  This son, for whom she had risked everything, was in the end rejected and accursed by her God, at least as it is written in Deuteronomy 21: 22 and 23.  The spear of the Roman soldier might have pierced his heart, but as the aged prophet Simeon had once told her in the Temple, a sword had metaphorically pierced her heart too. 

How did she feel on that day outside Jerusalem?  Was that commitment that she had made outside of Nazareth all those years before truly what she had been called to make?   It is another evangelist who describes the scene as she walked away from Calvary, accompanied by her daughter Mary and her youngest son Jude.  Oh yes!  She went on and had six more children after Jesus and she brought them all up to become leaders in the community that Jesus created.  But that late afternoon, she walked away leaving his dead body there to be looked after, in accordance with the Scriptures, by two of his other brothers, James (whom this evangelist calls Nicodemus) and Joseph, who had a home in Aramathea.  And meanwhile her other son, Simon, the one we call Lazarus, was recovering from his more than near-death experience in his home at Bethany being nursed by his always worrying sister, Martha.

Commitment: that is what we learn from the story of Mary.  It is not a sometime commitment, or a someday commitment.  It is a 24/7/365 commitment, and next year it will 24/7/366.  You cannot be a part-time follower of Jesus.  You are either utterly with him, and that means all the time, or you are not.  She volunteered to do the will of the Lord God, and if you know anything at all about words, you should know that volunteer is just a big word for one who does the will of someone else, and that someone else has the right to exercise his will – the Spanish word is voluntad – over you all the time.  You cannot choose when you will do the will of the Lord.  By volunteering you make the same kind of commitment, a total commitment, as did Mary.  

And then comes the day when it all seems to have been a total misunderstanding as you see that to which you think you have committed yourself be totally destroyed.  In Mary’s case, it was the child for whom she had risked so much as he is slain before her eyes, rejected by his people and, according to the Scriptures of his people, rejected by God.  And in that total rejection of all that she held dear and to which she had committed herself was there to be total despair?  How could the Lord God have allowed this to happen?  Had she been wrong all along?  Had that stranger tricked her, back there in Nazareth all those years before?  It could not be.  It could not be.  Despite what her eyes told her at Calvary it could not be.  And so she continued to believe, against all the evidence, and we read in Acts of the Apostles 1: 13 and 14 how she, along with three of her sons and with her daughters and female companions, continued to meet in prayer until a few days later, at 9.00 on a Sunday morning, she and they were enwrapped in the grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, and she knew that the light and the life and the love of the one she had borne as a result of her act of total commitment all those decades before was still at work in her world and in the world around her and so throughout the entire World and the Universe. 

Here am I, the servant of the Lord.  Let it be as you say.