Well today is our Patronal festival. Now I always try to be aware that we often use words and phrases in the church and just assume that everybody knows what they mean so just to be clear – that just means that the person the church is named after – so we are St. Mary’s, named after the mother of Jesus – when one of her feast days comes around we push the boat out a bit and really do want to celebrate the person our church is dedicated to. So instead of coffee after the service we have wine for example, and this really should be an occasion to celebrate.
But we do have a tiny problem here in the west for churches that are named after Mary! Because unfortunately Mary is no longer a person that inspires unity but division. We have some Roman Catholic friends with us this morning, and a warm welcome to you, and in the Roman Catholic church the faithful are officially required to believe some specific things about Mary such as she too was born without sin, and when she died her body was assumed whole into heaven, and Mary is venerated in that Catholic tradition. In the reformed traditions in an extreme reaction to the Catholics, the default position is that we routinely ignore Mary as far as possible. The only time she really gets a mention is at Christmas time, when we really can’t avoid it, because if Jesus was born, then he had to have a mother.
But I truly want to celebrate Mary, so how can we do that? To our rescue comes the Orthodox church. As a point of reference if you ever are caught on the horns of a dilemma in any church matters always try and find out what the Orthodox say. Even if you don’t agree with them, you’ll find what they have to say always profound and always interesting.
The first thing to say is that in the East, Mary is routinely referred to, not as the “virgin Mary” but as “God bearer” – a subtle change of emphasis. And in their iconic representation of Mary, another subtle change of emphasis is that she is almost never represented alone but always holding the infant Jesus. Mary and Jesus are inseparable. In icons the way to read the relationship between Mother and child is as a symbolic representation of the relationship between God and humanity.
The default understanding of God in many people’s mind is still that of a bit of an ogre. An old man with a white beard, imperious, detatched and stern with a fierce temper. He might mean well, but you wouldn’t like to cross him.
But when you contemplate Mary and Jesus in an icon that default position is severely tested.
God is not an ogre but a child. Dependent, grasping, frail, needing the nurture and cooperation of Mary (representing humanity) to bring Him to maturity. It is a picture of mutual love and dependence.
Human beings are the Mother, God is the child. The child is often depicted nuzzling up to Mary, grasping her cloak with one hand while the other is raised in a gesture of blessing. Mary supports the child and her eyes invariably stare out at us , the viewer, imploring us to understand, her hand often held in a gesture towards her child. She is saying “Behold, look, understand”.
If anything can add to our understanding of the nature of God and his relationship to mankind, it is in the iconic relationship between Mary and Jesus. If your view of God is one who is distant and fierce, I would invite you to spend a few minutes in front of an icon of Mary holding the infant Jesus and see where it leads you.
Just quickly, another of the sources of division between Catholic and reformed views of Mary is that Catholic veneration often looks like worship. While I don’t support that I do understand it. Because what I believe this is doing is fulfilling a very real need in people for completion. Intellectually we know that God is beyond such categories and is neither male nor female, but people crave a female aspect of God to balance the very male understanding that we mostly all have. This could have been fulfilled by the Holy Spirit, which is a feminine word in both Hebrew and Greek, but we have lost that emphasis in English anyway because we don’t use masculine and feminine words. That role in evening up a very lop-sided view of God has been largely filled by the very concrete figure of Mary.
But there is another equally important aspect of Mary that we truly must celebrate - that Mary is the very symbol of the Christian life, so in a way does represent the church. And when I say the “church” I mean the people of God. I mean what it is to be a Christian.
Mary said “yes” to the Holy Spirit. She said “yes” to God and in the fullness of time she gave birth to God in the world. Mary “God bearer”.
When you think about it, this is the very template of the Christian life, for our Christian walk with God – this is “the way”.
We, each of us, say “yes” to the Holy Spirit and let that Spirit work and grow within us until we too grow to maturity in the faith and give birth to God in the world in the way we act, talk and think and see. We are to become “God bearers” too.
So let us celebrate what Mary has given us today. With Jesus, a symbolic profound insight to the relationship between humanity and God, and also the very template of the Christian life.