Sermon at St Asaph Cathedral: “Mary, the first believer”

Sermon St Asaph 30/8/16

Solemn Votive Mass of Our Lady of Walsingham

Reception of Aspirants and Members of the Sodality of Mary, Mother of  Priests

Acts 1:12-14
Magnifact

John 19:25-27

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

If Lloyd Grossman was still making his ‘Through The Keyhole’ programme for television and if he were to visit my parents’ home it would not take more than a few seconds before anyone who had met me would know exactly who the house belonged to. There are pictures of me (and of my brothers and sister) everywhere. If I watch the television when I am there, I try to sit underneath the portrait size photograph on the wall of the sitting room, so I don’t have to look at that enthusiastic young priest in Mass vestments carrying the chalice and paten that mum and dad gave me. But that still means I have to look at the very ropey picture of me in sunglasses and a strange fishermen’s cap that is on top of the television. Or the baby pictures on the window sill or the graduation picture on the mantelpiece. There are further portrait size pictures of me going up the stairs and on the wall above the stairs; in the spare room and in their bedroom. There is a picture of me meeting the Archbishop of York in the dining room and on holiday in my camper van in the kitchen.

Well, you get the picture – so to speak!

I am just about to begin almost the first job of my adult life not working with young people in schools. Having been both a Primary and Secondary teacher I know that Primary teachers are far more likely to be showered with gifts at the end of the academic year. But sometimes in secondary school life the things that pupils say – particularly when they leave school – are a gift beyond price.

There is something very precious that pupils sometimes say and two pupils said it to me after they left school last week with their exam results:

“Thank you for believing in me.”

Thank you for believing in me.

That’s what I know my parents did for me when I see all those photographs in their house. 

I have never doubted their total faith in me.

The three readings we have heard today are a bit of a mash up in terms of chronology; the first from the Acts of the Apostles should come last, the middle reading should come first, the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise from Luke’s Gospel and the Gospel reading should be in the middle, Jesus, dying on the cross entrusting his mother to the beloved disciple.

The Magnificat, Mary’s wonderful song of praise which the church bids us pray daily at Evening Prayer is a response by Mary to her cousin Elizabeth’s greeting:

“Blessed is she who believed…” Elizabeth exclaims and Mary sings: My soul glorifies the Lord.

Mary is the first believer; the first to believe that God is becoming human in Jesus. The first to know that this name Jesus, is the saving name, the salvation of all.

We are used, particularly as Catholic Christians, to making much of Mary’s virginity; we all know that she is the ‘BVM’ the Blessed Virgin Mary, and we think of Mary’s virginity as about sex, she had not had sex. But I wonder if obsessing too much about sex (as human beings tend to do) means we miss something else about Mary’s virginity?

yesterday on Thought for the Day the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines spoke about the forthcoming 500th anniversary celebrations of of Martin Luther and the beginning of the Protestant reformation.

I had called this sermon Mary: the first believer; but hearing that broadcast I immediately wanted to call it ‘Mary: the first Protestant’.

Luther had come to the conclusion that all the spiritual practices he had been brought up to engage in could not bring him the salvation, the holiness, the righteousness he so earnestly sought. He recognised that there is nothing we can do to earn the love of God, and by the same token nothing we can do to lose the love of God.

Isn’t this what is so significant about the Virgin Mary?

She was barely an adult; she had done nothing. She was virgin territory. Mary did not ‘deserve’ God’s choice; she had not earn it, let alone sought it. But she did believe.

It is sometimes difficult to remember that when Mary believed she did not know the Nicene Creed, had not been taught her catechism and was as unaware of theories of the atonement or the doctrine of transubstantiation as virgin snow.

Mary’s belief was like my parents’ belief in me; like the belief that teachers have in their pupils; it was a commitment, a relationship a trust. A trust whose price and reward are completely irrelevant. Just a few verses in Luke’s Gospel before she meets Elizabeth, before the Magnifact, the Angel says to Mary that she is ‘full of grace’. 

Mary reminds us of the primacy of grace, she is the first Protestant. And yet her sexual virginity is important too because in Jesus heaven and earth, God and Humanity are united. Jesus comes to abolish all false binary oppositions; in him there is no longer a sacred or a profane not even Catholic or Protestant. There are only those who believe, who put their trust in him.

In our troubled world, it is sometimes somehow claimed that faith, of any sort is restricting; that it limits life. But when young people say to teachers: thank you for believing in me. When I look at those pictures on my parents wall I know that faith is immensely liberating and empowering.
When Mary said her ‘yes’ to the Angel she would never have guessed what the future held; she could never have imagined the content of our other two readings today; seeing her child die on a cross, being entrusted to John his beloved friend; praying with his followers and seeing her son ascend to heaven and, with them, receiving the Holy Spirit. 

In a few moments these priests and seminarians will be received as aspirants of our little community of priests. 

To each of you I say, ‘thank you for believing in us’ and ‘we believe in you.’

I have been a priest for almost a quarter of a century and when I made my ordination vows I could never have guessed what the future would hold or where I would be today. It bring me a very great joy, those who of you who are just beginning your formation at St Padarn’s to receive you as aspirants. In 60 years time what will the church be like? Where will you be?

Well, none of us know, but if you say ‘yes’ with your whole heart to Jesus, if you believe in him totally you will, like Mary, the first believer, stand with those who suffer; you will pray with so many people, you will make so many beloved companions and in all of this you will receive the Holy Spirit.

Belief is not one way. When we believe, we are believed in. When we trust we are trusted.

This is the immense liberation, the total freedom of faith in Jesus.

In the 1970s Quentin Crisp wrote a wonderful book ‘How to Become a Virgin’.

Well, this freedom of trusting in Jesus is how we do that, how we become like virgin snow. Free to love and pray and stand with those who suffer; free to receive the Holy Spirit.

Blessed is she who believed.

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