At the end of the day our daughter Annabel only has eyes for one person – her mother. Her brothers and I can distract her and attract her for a time, but in the end it is her mother that she wants. Fathers here today know what I am talking about, and so do those of you who are mothers.
From the moment of conception, for all mothers, down through the ages, something utterly altering takes place in the identity of a woman. As that new baby grows within her, joined to her, part of her, so grows the reality that an expectant mother will no longer now ever be able to speak or talk or think of herself alone, she will from that moment onwards always be a mother, always be part of a ‘two’ and never again a ‘one’.
It seems to me – as a father somewhat away from the centre of the stage – that there is never a baby on his or her own, never a mother on her own, there is always a mother and a child, whether they are physically together, or whether later they are separated by distance or estrangement or death. Nevertheless, there is always a mother and her child. And that is not quite the same experience that binds fathers to their children, and children to their fathers.
Here is the young girl Mary, preparing to have her first son, engaged but not married to Joseph, who is her partner and protector. Here is Joseph, aware of all of these things, perhaps feeling at some distance from it all, not just because he is not having any of the experiences of a pregnant mother, but because he is not the father either. All of the possibilities of the future lie ahead for Mary and Joseph as they travel to Bethlehem for the census, as it approaches the time for Mary to give birth; and finding no room in a hotel or guest house, she gives birth to the Saviour of the world and places him in a feeding trough amongst the animals in a stable.
This is the story – so familiar to us all – that the writers of the Gospel of Luke paint for us, and that we hear again today as we honour and celebrate the obedient discipleship of Mary. You might well ask, why we are focusing on the Christmas story today in the middle of August, before even the shops have begun their countdown to Christmas! Today we hear this story in order to notice the other character alongside the baby Jesus, as we give thanks for the witness of Mary his mother.
Following the Reformation, the Anglican tradition for a long period focused its celebrations of the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the date of her birthday, 8th September. That Feast Day remains in our Anglican calendar here in Australia, as one of a number of days throughout the year when the Church stops to give thanks for Mary’s part in the story of our salvation. But gradually in recent years, the annual focus for our celebration of Mary has moved from her birthday to the date of her passing from this life to the glory of Heaven, which is the normal date on which we celebrate the lives of other saints (on the date of their death rather than the date of their birth).
It has been a shift that has taken place in the Anglican Church around the world, bringing us more closely into the same cycle as our Orthodox and Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. Even though Anglicans have always celebrated Mary as an example of holiness, there has also been a sense of ambiguity and perhaps even uncomfortableness about saying too much about the Mother of Jesus in Church. In fact, it would be true to say that in some churches it is easier to celebrate ourselves as mothers on Mother’s Day, than it is to celebrate the Mother of our Saviour on her Feast Day.
The problem with Mary is that most Anglicans think that she is a Roman Catholic!
I don’t know how it came to be normal to push Mary off to the side-line in some Christian traditions. I can only imagine that it happened because there weren’t any mothers sitting around the table when people were talking about faith. Somehow, in some Christian circles, Mary is thought of as being an incubating vessel who was used for nine months in order for God’s purposes to be fulfilled. As I say, there cannot have been any mothers involved in those conversations, because any mother can tell you that motherhood is not a nine month process!
To side-line Mary in the story of our salvation is to side-line the humanity of Jesus as well, to say that somehow he was not as truly human as we proclaim, that he wasn’t in need of a mother as we have been in our own lives.
So here she is, the mother of Jesus, giving birth in a stable. She will never again only be Mary, she will always be Mary, the mother of her son. Whilst we rightly spend more of our time focusing our attention on Jesus’ father, whilst we rejoice that at the heart of our faith, this baby is God, come to us to fulfill his heavenly father’s purpose, Jesus can never only have a father, he is the child of his mother, the woman who bore him, and nurtured him and loved him. Whatever else we proclaim about Jesus, he is always the son of Mary.
As I have said to us before, when we have celebrated this Feast together, Jesus’ human genes came from his mother, there was no other human source for them. When he looked in the mirror he did not see his adopted father Joseph, he saw the facial impression of his mother. Of course he learnt mannerisms and skills from his adopted father as well, but when he looked in the mirror he would have seen his mother, just as each of us do to some extent when we look in the mirror and see a likeness to our own parents.
As the writer to the Church in Galatia declares it, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman so that we might receive adoption as heirs of God.”
Have you ever thought about it this way? God takes Mary’s flesh in order to be born into humanity in Jesus. That is why as Anglicans we honour Mary above all human beings. That is why we also celebrate today the ongoing work of the Mothers’ Union, who in Mary’s footsteps seek to support the ministry of mothers who nurture the life of Christian families around the world.
Way back at the Council of Ephesus over 1,500 years ago the Church proclaimed and continues to proclaim Mary as ‘Theotokos’ the God-bearer, the Mother of God. Not somehow just the mother of the human bit of Jesus, as if his divinity is separable from his humanity, not just a temporary incubator for nine months, but the whole time – for all time, mother, of Jesus, the Son of the living God. In celebrating and honouring the Blessed Virgin Mary we celebrate the incarnation of her son, because whenever we look at Mary she always points us to her son, God’s son, our saviour.
There is a story about a young man who is preparing to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. He meets with the Bishop in the vestry before the service, and the Bishop begins to quiz him to check that he has been properly prepared. “Tell me,” says the Bishop, what prayers do you know. “Our Father who art in heaven…” responds the young man, and then he recites the prayers that he has been taught to say when he enters the Church and after he has received Holy Communion. And then he begins to say the Angelus, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you…”. The Bishop stops him before he finishes, “young man,” he says to him, “you don’t need to learn prayers about Mary.” The conversation continues.
A little later the Bishop asks the young man, “and have you learnt the Creeds?” “Yes,” says the young man, “I believe in God, the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the…” “Go on,” says the Bishop, “do you know what comes next?” “Yes,” says the young man, “but I am not sure that I am able to mention her name!” You get the point. It is right there in the Creed.
It is only through Jesus that we know Mary, without him we would not know about her at all, her significance for us only comes through Jesus. But it is also true to say that it is only through Mary that we know Jesus. Her obedient part in God’s plan, her yes to God’s calling, ushered in God’s great work of salvation, through Jesus, God made man amongst us. Without him, Mary is unimportant, without her we would not have Jesus.
And so with the Church around the world, we are pleased to honour her today, as we seek to follow in her footsteps as disciples of her son, not only in her great “yes” to God when the angel visits her and announces God’s plan, but in her instructions to the servants at the Wedding in Cana in Galilee, “do whatever he tells you to do.” Today we affirm all that the Creeds say about our Lord, and we re-commit ourselves to say “yes” to his plan for our lives, and to do and to be whatever he asks of us.
As we do so we echo the angelic greeting, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus.”