The Bishop of Exeter explains that by following Mary’s example, we will come to comprehend more fully the meaning of the words ‘Do not be afraid… The Lord is with you’
Love, lack of fear, hope, the assurance of God’s presence – these things are also announced to us, and we, as with Mary, are invited to embrace them and let them become realized, made real in us. ‘Do not be afraid… The Lord is with you.’
Yet this can be difficult, even at the best of times; and for Christians in general, and for faithful Anglican catholics in particular, these may not always seem the best of times. But here again we may look to Mary, the mother of our Lord, as our mentor and our guide.
Need for a response
Because for this Good News, that is announced to Mary, in that little house in Bethlehem, to be fully realized and embodied in human life, it required a response. And that response was one that Mary was ready and willing to make: ‘Here am I… let it be with me according to your word.’ But that availability and assent of Mary to the divine will does not stop there. It is then further fleshed out, and developed in three complementary ways.
First, through an act of humility. ‘Here am I, the servant, or a handmaid, of the Lord,’ she says. She makes no reference to wealth or possessions as a pre-requisite for embracing the word of God; she lays no claim to her intelligence or her education, for opening herself soul and body to the outworking of God’s will; she feels no need to rehearse her experiences or achievements to justify her acceptance of God’s invitation to her.
She knows that she does not need to be near the seat of power among the people of God, in order to be an instrument of God. It is sufficient that he wishes to use her as she is, and not as someone or something she is not. It is enough that she is simply ‘Mary, whom he has called by name, and whom he has made his own.’ Just as is said to each of us in the Confirmation of our discipleship. And it is sufficient that she as Mary, as who she is and what she is, simply and humbly responds.
I cannot remember where it comes from but I like that saying that ‘Just as Jesus was born in a humble stable, so Christ today is only born in humble hearts.’ But of course, the Annunciation takes us to a deeper truth still; even before he could be born in a humble stable, Jesus had to be conceived in a humble life. And so it is today that the life and salvation of the world conceived in Mary’s womb, is given life today in the humble hearts of men and women who, like her, are ready and willing to say ‘Here am I… let it be with me according to your word.’
Proud people, or more accurately, the proud bits of all of us, so frequently think they have no need of Christ, whatever their lips may say; but those who humbly cry out to God, who know their need of God’s presence to heal, guide and forgive, who want him ‘to come, cast out their sin, and enter in, to be born in them today’ – these are those who do find themselves able to say with Mary: ‘he has looked with favour on the lowliness of this servant’ that it may be to me according to his Word.
Aspiring to obedience
But this act of humility on Mary’s part is but a prelude to the next aspect of her ‘Amen’ to God’s word: ‘Let it be’. In those three words her act of humility becomes an aspiration to obedience, and I use the word ‘aspiration’, for it is quite clear that it was no easier for her to be constant in her obedience, than it is for you or I. Twice in the temple, in the early years of her Son’s life, how her patience and fortitude as
a devoted mother were tested against the claims of the divine Father. On the presentation of the child in the Temple, the prophetic word that he was to be a light to the world, yet that this sign would be opposed and would be divisive, is likened to a sword piercing her soul.
And then when Jesus was twelve years old, Mary, fraught with anxiety when he goes missing, and struggling to comprehend the meaning for her own life of his need to be about the Father’s business, is then offered a lesson by her own child in those astonishing words which tell that, even so, ‘he went down with Mary and Joseph to Nazareth and was obedient to them.’ And so we could go on through the Gospels – that moment at the wedding at Cana in Galilee, when she has to learn to share her own obedience to the Word with others: ‘Do whatever he tells you’. And then that profound moment when in the midst of Jesus’ ministry, Mary comes, wishing to speak to him, only to hear him say: ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven that is my brother and sister and mother.’ The life of obedience to the purposes of God is not easy, and involves constant challenges, and even deep and profound pain as with Mary as she stood at the foot of the cross. How easy then to say: ‘Let it be – according to your word’?
Prayer and thanksgiving
I think of a conversation with someone in my diocese who had struggled for decades with the meaning, the point, of praying the daily office, but she had still done so faithfully year after year. And now in old age she told me she thought she had begun to grasp the point. She said to me: ‘My morning prayer is, I suppose, me saying to God: ‘Whatever!’. And in the evening, I think it is just ‘Ah well.’ And I am sure that she had grasped the point, finding that still centre in which to say as honestly as possible: ‘Whatever’ …‘Ah, well… just let it be with me according to your word.’
But in such a prayer of obedience, another prayer begins to grow too, and with it the humility and the obedience are strengthened in turn. It is the prayer of thanksgiving and so an act of humility and an aspiration to obedience begin to shape an attitude of praise. ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.’ Ascriptive prayer, rehearsing the great deeds of God, reminding ourselves, individually and together, of all that God has done, of his faithfulness and grace, his righteousness and power to heal, singing of his grace at work in the life of his people through time and space, is such an encouragement to our own willingness to embrace the love of God, the assurance of God’s presence in our own place and time.
Kn owing the Father
I am struck by how many medieval paintings of Mary show her with both a smile playing on her lips, whilst at the same time she is kneeling at a small table saying her prayers, reading from a prayer-book open before her. This is not surprising as early church traditions say that Mary spent much time in the temple at Jerusalem as a young girl. Perhaps she was like the prophet Anna whom she then met in there when she brought her newborn son to be presented to God. I think that one of the things that we may say is that Mary’s great ‘Amen’, ‘Let it be to me according to your Word’, could only be uttered because of all the little ‘Amens’ of her daily prayers uttered faithfully over weeks, and months and years before that; but little ‘Amens’ firmly set within, and enabled by, a Litany of praise, a cycle of thanksgiving and a recitation of the creating and saving acts of God. If any of us is to really be able to submit ourselves to the Father, we first have to know the Father, if we are to embrace and receive the word, we first must be attentive to the word, and where best to know him but in prayer and praise, in the quiet disciplines of contemplative thanksgiving and prayer, day by day.
A workshop for the Lord
The theme of this Pilgrim Year is with Mary, to be a workshop for the Lord. It is a concept taken from the writings of Basil of Ceasarea who thought of Mary’s womb as a workshop in which was fashioned the physical formation of Christ. But I think we may say that what Mary offered was not merely a workshop for physical formation, but for spiritual and human formation too. And, as such, she offers both a guide and a template for the formation of Christ in us, and a summons and an invitation that we should be such a workshop too. It is a workshop in which is formed in us those acts of humility, those aspirations to obedience, that attitude of prayer, which enables Christ to be formed in us too, little by little, day by day, as we come like Mary to know more fully what it is to not be afraid because the Lord is with you.
Exemplar and guide
In such a way for us is Mary, the mother of our Lord, an exemplar and guide. But she is so too in a way that is utterly special to her – indeed is unique. Mary is the only human being recorded as being present at every stage of Christ’s
life, at every point in the narrative of our redemption. In his conception and birth, at his presentation in the temple and at his coming of age, she is present; at the first of his signs or miracles she is there; as the disciples and the crowds hear his teaching, she is among them. She is there at the crucifixion, she is a witness with the other women to the empty tomb, she is numbered among the apostles as witness to the resurrection and she is present on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit is gifted to the Church.
As exemplar she points us to the lifelong task of discipleship formation, a formation that is grounded in the whole mystery of Christ, in all the joyful, glorious, luminous and sorrowful mysteries that make up the mystery of salvation as a whole. Our lives, like hers, are to be workshops in which the fullness of Christ is constantly being sought in order that it may be known in human flesh; in order that we too may fully comprehend the Good News that ‘The Lord is with you… Do not be afraid’.
But as exemplar and witness to this she is also unique in that completeness of the witness which is hers. She, who alone knew the whole Christ in the mystery of his incarnation, is thus able to point us and summon us and urge us to aspire to know the whole Christ too. ND
A version of this text was used as the sermon
at the National Pilgrimage to the
Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham 2012