Posted: Tuesday 10th September 2019
The Blessed Virgin Mary
Feast of the Virgin Mary with Admission of Churchwardens.
8th September 2019.
Whilst Mary, the mother of our Lord does get a special mention on one of the Sundays in Advent it struck me that we hadn’t routinely observed an annual feast in her memory here at St Anne’s. We’ve given Jesus’ granny about whom there is no scriptural information more prominence over his own mother for whom there is plenty. Of course, whilst some Christians swoon in adoration of her, others get twitchy at the mention of her name.
But the Book of common prayer provides for today, 8th September, as her principle feast day- The Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and it seems to me the better date on which to pause and honour her than the 15th August which has rather overtaken it. That day is usually called the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is when, some denominations believe, like our Lord she ascended body and soul into heaven, but is called in the Orthodox tradition, the Dormition of Mary – her falling asleep. So whilst Christians may be divided about how her life on earth ended, we can be united in celebration that it began. We can be sure she was born!
And having been born, what titles she has accumulated over the years: Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, Star of the Sea, Mystic Rose (which does make her sound like an astrologer in the Daily Mirror), Morning Star, Queen of Heaven, Mother of the Church…. She seems to have held every title other than Churchwarden.
And yet…. And yet… it strikes me that on a day when we formally admit Mark and John as our Churchwardens at St Anne’s – one of them thankfully having got here without falling off his bike again- there is something about Mary which provides them and us with a model for what it means to be a church warden and indeed for all of us to be members of the church.
The first is perhaps an obvious one: Just as God had a plan for which he needed human co-operation and was reliant on Mary saying ‘yes’ to God, so Mark and John have responded to the call to serve God and this church through the particular ministry of being Church warden. And, of course, like Mary, thoughts went through their mind about being honoured to be asked by me to take on this role (probably the only time I’d compare myself to the Angel Gabriel!) and perplexed as to why they should be asked and whether they were good enough. In John’s case too, like Mary there was the thought of “how am I going to I break this to my other half?”. But both, like Mary, said “yes, I’ll give it a go, I’ll give it all that I can”. For all of us our relationship with God begins with us saying ‘yes’:
- ‘Yes’ in spite of all that seemingly points to the opposite I believe that God exists.
- ‘Yes’ there is something about the person of Jesus that makes me want to try and follow him even though I’ve a feeling I won’t do it very well and I’m not even quite sure where following him will lead.
- ‘yes’ I am going to set my alarm to get up for church on Sunday morning.
- ‘Yes’ I can see there’s a need and a job to be done and so I’ll step up for the sake of others.
- And perhaps most importantly ‘yes’ I believe my life does have a purpose, and often it is others who can identify that purpose for us, better than we can for ourselves.
The angel didn’t call Mary ‘full of grace’ as a compliment or accolade for responding positively to God’s call, but because he recognised God’s grace within her from the start: her divine potential to be uniquely useful to God. Well, Mark, John, you and me… do we not have some God-given unique potential? The question is whether is whether like Mary, we’re prepared to take a deep breath, say ‘yes’ and find God’s meaning for our lives.
The second thing is that Mary occupied a critical and central position in the life of Christ and yet one that never sought to be centre stage. Her humble ministry was one of support and encouragement to Jesus, of unwavering faithfulness but also not without a willingness to be a questioning presence when needed. Mary courageously stuck with Jesus right through his ministry and the one who catholic piety often shows with dewy eyed tenderness (along with the palest skin, bluest eyes and blondest hair ever seen on a Middle-Eastern Jewish mother) when in reality she was a gutsy woman of steel who stood by her son as he hung on the cross when all the men, bar one, couldn’t be seen for dust. Mary models for churchwardens and for us all what our saying ‘yes’ to God should look like. What making a commitment and sticking to it means: not for personal glory, prestige or power but as a servant of Christ and his church. Yes, the churchwardens are given staves of office, topped with royal and episcopal insignia, to represent the authority they carry as officers of the bishop, but they do so as servants who will spend vastly more time dealing with the unglamorous work of ensuring the building is functioning, maintaining the fabric and to quote my favourite one of the declarations they will make “co-operating with the incumbent”. That’s the role they’ve said ‘yes’ to and for which the staff with which they will escort dignitaries into church is not a reward but an honour. The highest place at God’s banquet always being the place of service. Mary invites us to consider whether our place in the church is one in which we seek to serve or be served, where we must each ask “if God has a purpose for me, what might it be here?” Just being here as part of the body of Christ is crucial, but we must always ask whether we are fully playing our part.
And whilst we may think that Mary was spared the work of looking after a church building and contents, which is so often viewed as the primary responsibility of churchwardens, she undoubtedly had a pivotal role in holding the church- the Christian community- together. At the cross Jesus put the disciple he loved into the care of his mother and her into the care of the disciple, and Mary –that most faithful of disciples- was there with the eleven, praying on the day of Pentecost when the spirit descended. She is like the backbone of the early church, just as Peter was the mouthpiece. And there is something about being churchwarden that is about being the backbone of this church. John and Mark will accept their duty of representing the laity, of encouraging the rest of you in your faith and ‘promote unity and peace among you’ as the declaration says. You might think that’s my job description, or Father Keith’s job, and to a large extent it is. But whilst I have absolutely no plans to leave St Anne’s, we all know I won’t be here forever, and that’s fine. Because this is your church and when the time does come for me to leave, move on, retire or just go doo-lally, it is the churchwardens (whoever they will be) who will be the ones who will remain as the core leaders of this church community. Churchwardens are the Mary-like backbone, when the Peter like mouthpiece (which is the incumbent) goes. And really if someone wants to know what St Anne’s – your church – is like they shouldn’t look to me, but to you and principally to the churchwardens who are those you elected as your representatives. The Christ-mandated exchange of care we see at the foot of the cross between Mary and John, the beloved disciple, is something that the church wardens should exemplify but one that we are all called to imitate. So, the other question that Mary poses to all of us is “do I accept my duty of care for the other members of the whole body of Christ: of which I am a part?”.
- Saying yes to God’s purpose.
- Being faithful in service.
- Caring and holding one another together as the Body of Christ here.
This was Mary’s calling. It is the Churchwardens’ calling. It is the calling of us all. It is a high calling and so it is unsurprising that many Christians call upon her in prayer to help them fulfil that calling in the same way that she undoubtedly did. Today we give thanks for her example, we give thanks that Mark and John will follow her example, but we remember too that – and this is probably one of the best churches to say this in – what are we called to be here…. is ‘a great big bunch of Marys’!
May we all find our potential and purpose and fulfil it in the service of God and of one another.
To God be the glory, this day and for ever. Amen.