Thursday, September 8, 2022

Mary's birthday!

This was my first sermon after a period of 5 months off work with stress.

It’s Mary’s birthday!  This festival of the birth of the mother of our Lord is celebrated on this day in both the eastern and the western Churches. It’s a traditional feast, without any specific biblical reference to consider – but we can certainly infer that Mary must have been born!  So marking her traditional birthday as a significant moment in human history is certainly worth doing.  What, however, is its true significance?

Falling nine months after the feast of the Conception of Mary on December the 8th, this feast stands, as Andrew of Crete says, ‘on the boundary between the old and the new covenants and ushers in the new dispensation of grace. Today is built a shrine for the creator of the universe.’  Which is a rather theological statement!  So let me unpack it a little bit.

As you know, I’m sure, the bible is separated into two sections – commonly referred to as the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Testaments.  Another word for ‘testament’ is ‘covenant’ – and this refers to the Covenants established by God with his people.  The ‘Old’ covenant can be thought of as the Covenant of Law.  Essentially, prior to the arrival of Jesus, God was believed to have set his Laws for humanity in motion.  To gain God’s favour, humanity was required to keep God’s laws.  The problem, however, is that time and again, humanity failed.  We are not capable of keeping all the Laws of God.  We are just too distracted by our own needs, dreams, and aspirations.  Time and again, we sin.  Our behaviour and choices cause separation between us the perfection of God, and prevent us from becoming all that we could become by ever closer union with God.

So, in response, God established a New Covenant, a New Testament, which we can think of as the Covenant of Grace.  Through Jesus, God frees us from the strict requirements of the Law, and offers us his graceful forgiveness and new life.  Now, we are able to find peace with God, and connection to God, not by our own efforts at keeping the Law, but because of God’s loving grace.

According to tradition, the moment when this New Covenant of Grace begins is the moment of Mary’s birth.  Her conception, nine months earlier, is another significant moment – but it is more of a moment of potential.  During her gestation, inside her own mother, Anne’s womb, Mary is not yet independent.  The day of Mary’s birth is the moment when she who will bear the Christ-child takes her first breath. Her independent life from her mother begins.  This is when, in the words of Andrew of Crete, ‘today is built a shrine for the creator of the universe’.

Mary’s birthday reminds us of something we sometimes overlook – the simple fact of her humanity.  She was one of us.  Conceived like one of us.  Born like one of us. She would make mistakes, just like us – such as time she accidentally left the boy Jesus in the Temple, without realising it for about a day!   Or the time when she, with her other sons and daughters, tried to interrupt Jesus’ ministry – no doubt out of fear of what would happen to him.  Mary is one of us.  Fragile, like us.  Not perfect, like us.  But she is also ‘full of Grace’ (as the Archangel describes her).  The Lord is with her.  Mary is a human being who has opened herself fully to God’s Covenant of Grace.  And in doing so, she obtains the privilege of bearing the creator of the universe into the human world.

What does this mean for us? 

As you all know, I’ve been off work for the past several months, due to stress.  Over the time I’ve had to study, and to pray, I’ve learned much about myself and about my own humanity.  I’ve had to admit to myself that I no longer have the energy that I had 20 (or even 5) years ago.  I’ve had to come to terms with my humanity – and to the fact that like all of us, there are limits to what I can cope with.  It’s not been an easy lesson to learn.  When we are young, we believe that we can take on the world, don’t we?  We have the mental and physical energy to burn the candle at both ends, working from before dawn to after dusk to make a difference in our chosen profession.  We take pride in our accomplishments – for the campaigns we’ve led, and the difference we’ve made.  But pride comes before a fall. 

Mary, born like us, human like us, failed too.  But she also opened herself to God’s grace – to God’s healing and saving activity in the world.  She learned, and to an extent was taught, to ‘F.R.O.G.’ – that is, to ‘Fully Rely On God’.  She understood that God was intimately and personally engaged in the salvation of the world.  She learned to trust, to rely, on God’s plan for the future – not hers, not her husband’s, not her religious leader’s plans.  God’s plan. 

So, that’s the journey on which I am now embarking.  As I ease back into parish ministry, I intend to let go of some of many plates I’ve tried to spin in my own strength.  I plan to ‘let go, and to let God’ – as the old saying goes.  I want to be more watchful, more open, to the paths that God lays out before us, and to rely on Christ’s promise that he, not I, will build his church.  I want to embrace the Covenant of Grace first inaugurated at the birth of Mary.  And I hope you’ll accompany me on such an exciting journey.  Amen.

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