Jonathan Goodall on the patience of Mary
The scriptures for this celebration focus our thoughts on mothers. Not mothers in general, but mothers in the ancestry of the Church: Eve, the Mother of all Living (in whose posterity there was hope for a life that would defeat death); Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist (who ‘will walk before the Messiah with the spirit and power of Elijah’: Luke 1.17), and Mary, the mother of Jesus (who will manifest himself as ‘Son of the Most High, of whose kingdom there will be no end’; cf. Luke 1.32–33). Three women: more importantly, three divine promises.
The Gospel passage described for us when two of these mothers met. As soon as Mary arrived, three things happened simultaneously to Elizabeth. First, she heard and was elated by Mary’s greeting; second, the six-month-old child in her womb recognized Jesus’s presence and started dancing (that’s what the word means), kicking for joy, as only mothers can recognize; and third, Elizabeth herself burst forth with words of benediction and beatitude towards Mary.
The moment is enough to make you feel completely dizzy in its scriptural implications. The joy of the two mothers – one a virgin, the other sterile – is hugely increased by the encounter of their divinely promised sons. Elizabeth is filled, we are told, with a prophetic spirit that enables her to understand the encounter and the transforming significance of her young cousin’s pregnancy. In the Spirit she exclaims (cf. 1 Ch 15.28; 16.4–5, 42; 2 Ch 5.13 LXX): ‘You, Mary, are blessed among all women: because you are the mother of my Lord, and because you have believed the Lord’s word.’ Mary is the blessed of Israel, and the blessed of the whole earth, because she was bringing forth the world’s salvation, God’s full and definitive blessing on all humanity.
It is as if St Luke seems to want to underline for us that Mary’s appearance, carrying her son in her womb, causes a first Christian Pentecost. The Spirit that descended on her at the time of the Annunciation now, thanks to her presence, descends on Elizabeth and the child in her womb, creating communion between the four of them. The Spirit has overshadowed Mary, creating in her body a relationship with Jesus Christ. Mary shares that relationship as she travels to visit Elizabeth. By receiving a relationship with Jesus Christ, Mary receives also, by the power of the Spirit, the possibility of extending the reality of her relationship to all those around her. Indeed we never hear, ever again in the New Testament, of Mary alone. Jesus’s presence makes her ‘the mother of communion’, the mother of the Church.
St Luke underlines even before Jesus is born that we need always to think about Mary in relation to the Holy Spirit, and that she cannot be separated from the Church of which she is the figure.
And what this insight reveals for us is that the Church is herself a mother; the communion we share in the Spirit is an experience, throughout our lives, of being mothered, and of mothering others. ‘To enter the kingdom of heaven we must be born again, and baptism is the sign and seal of that new birth’ (says CW). Indeed the Church is a place where a whole series of new births happen as faith is awakened, enlarged, and enlightened – new birth into the family of God, into the mind of Christ, into the liberty of the Spirit, into the commonwealth of God’s love and justice. The reality of all this mothering includes constantly feeding, nourishing, and witnessing to our neighbours.
And it takes the time it takes. Any parent knows that the development of a child in the womb, like the performance of a great symphony, cannot be hurried along. My wife and I have two children, both of whom took their time to come into this world. Things cannot be hurried. No mother controls the pace, but simply serves and nourishes it. Nonetheless, like most parents (whether biological parents or parents in some other sense), in the years since our kids were born we’ve wished we could speed things along. The terrible twos seemed like an age (as well as a shock!); and the terrible teens, like eternity! And now (like 3.5 million others in this country), we’re wondering how we get through the pull-me-push-you period where they keep coming back in their twenties and early thirties. But life continues to grow at its own pace.
It is in the nature of the kind of body that the Church is, the kind of body that each of our parishes, the worshipping communities that we belong to, is meant to be, that they are places of patience, where we learn to give time for God and for one another. Anyone who has already grown into a mature faith has learned that such time is immensely precious. Not precious because time is in short supply, but because it’s a gift to be shared. Time for growth in prayer, in knowledge of the scriptures, in freedom and in virtue; for maturing in conscience, and in acts of justice and compassion and service; for learning how to give witness to the Lord, a voice to the needy, and (as the ordination service says of the clergy, but surely it’s not only for the clergy!) ‘to search for God’s children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations’ – on every street, in every home, in every workplace.
Bringing a child to birth is also a time when one body feeds another. And if the Church is indeed a mothering community, that simple giving of ourselves to feed and nourish our neighbour will be at the heart of the discipleship of every one of us. Jesus has called us into his communion so that we can give ourselves, so that our neighbours may live. The simplest thing we are called to do as Christian disciples is to feed others in body and in spirit. We do it to please God, and we do it by becoming ever more and more the person God calls us to be. When St John Henry Newman speaks of God creating him for ‘some definite service’ he is meaning that we each have to share our own unique and personal experience of God’s mercy, grace and hope in our lives. We give each other something to live by – and to live for – by the way we live forgiven lives, hopeful lives, joyful lives.
If we look one last time to Blessed Mary, we also recognize that deep involvement in her son’s life often required of her what we might call vigilant patience. She had been warned that a sword would pierce her soul. Despite all the uncertainties, however, she had the confidence, even at the foot of the cross, to be close to the very depth of his agony and his isolation. That, dear friends, is where the Church’s mothering reaches its culmination. The Spirit gives us courage and hope to be where Christ suffers in his people today, where Christ suffers in the poor, the rejected, the refused, the negated of the world. Being in such places, as Mary was, witnessing, praying, supporting, we can be confident that we will find Christ.
Dear friends, in this celebration let us renew our gratitude that the mother of the Lord is also the mother of his Church. The Church shares her calling in the Spirit to bring other people to birth in Christ, and to bring Christ to birth in them, by giving them the unimaginably precious gift of time and patient attention, nurture and comfort. If each of our parishes, if our Society, if our movement can live and witness in that way, we would live something of the life-transforming closeness that Our Lady has to Christ, that mysterious intimacy which he shares with all who live in the Spirit, and we would lead others into the new world we ourselves are growing into. By such patience and nurture we will grow in faithfulness and perseverance, which are essential for any conceivable future.
The Rt Revd Jonathan Goodall is the Bishop of Ebbsfleet. This Sermon was preached at the Forward in Faith National Assembly Mass in 2019.