The Blessed Virgin Mary – John McLuckie, Vice-Provost – 18 August 2019

There is one word that stands out in the church’s celebration of the place of the Blessed Virgin Mary in its understanding of the central mysteries of our faith. That word is often obscured in our Anglican tradition for two reasons. One is that we have inherited a degree of squeamishness about the place of Our Lady in our devotional life, the other is that the prayers we do have slightly obscure the word I have in mind. The word is ‘rejoice’. It is obscured in the greeting of Gabriel to Mary – hail Mary – which might just as easily be translated, rejoice, Mary. And as for that squeamishness, well I want to encourage you today to set it aside in order to see some true reasons for joy in our Christian faith, a joy which is rooted in the unique place that Mary has in the strange and wonderful work of transformation that lies at the heart of our faith.

One of the loveliest but least-appreciated Anglican writings about the Blessed Virgin Mary in the last couple of generations was by a quiet mystic with a uniquely ecumenical take on all things religious. Donald Allchin’s book about Mary is called ‘The Joy of all Creation’ and even in that title we begin to sense something of his appreciation of the mother of our Lord. Here are some words from his book:

The human is capable of the divine. Through the gift of God, the divine life is rooted in the human, the human in the divine. And here precisely is the cause of great joy and amazement. For precisely in ‘our animal exigencies’ the ultimate glory is revealed, just where we had least expected it. Hence everywhere in the Christian world where she is known, Mary’s name is associated with joy. She is the joy of joys, the cause of our joy, the joy of all creation. In her there is a meeting of opposites, of God and humanity, of flesh and spirit, of time and eternity, which causes an explosion of joy, of a kind of ecstasy. It is the joy which is known in human life, ‘when the opposites come together, and the genuinely new is born.’

We know this explosion of joy when opposites meet in the words of today’s Gospel, the Magnificat. In these words uttered by Mary when her cousin Elizabeth recognises in Mary the presence of the Lord, we hear of a lowliness that is also a blessing and of a hunger that is also a deep satisfaction. In Mary, opposites do indeed coincide and we find our way to a new wholeness of humanity, a new integration of all that makes for our flourishing. For in her, heaven and earth, divine and human, sorrow and joy, death and life are brought together. In her, the tiny confines of a mother’s womb become nothing less than the spaciousness of heaven.

In the early Christian centuries, these rich paradoxes became a central expression of that most vital of all Christian paradoxes – the uniting of the divine and the human in the person of Christ. There was no way for this unity to happen other than through the completely free choice of a uniquely free human being to the invitation of God. Mary was that perfectly free person who was able to give an answer on behalf of all creation to the desire of God to make his home among us in the fragility of human flesh. In other words, there is no way to affirm the humanity of Christ and his divine and human natures other than by rejoicing in Mary as the God-bearer, the Theotokos, the Mother of God. What an extraordinary paradox that is! The uncreated God becomes flesh in the same way that every single one of us does – through the slow, hidden gestation of brittle human life in the womb of a woman, nourished by her own nourishment, enclosed in her own body, the Creator of all things contracted to a tiny space, unseen except to those with the eyes of faith and the longings of human hopefulness.

This movement of integration is utterly vital in our understanding of the salvation that God works in Jesus. We are diminished when our lives are marked by fragmentation, healed when our lives are marked by integration. We are not at ease when we are distanced from any aspect of ourselves, complete when all of our life experiences are made whole. We become violent when we separate ourselves one from the other, peaceful when we learn how to realise that we belong to one another. We are blighted when we discriminate, blessed when we integrate.

There is a way of being that lies at the heart of Mary, the God-bearer, which opens this world of integration to us. It is hinted at in an ancient Greek hymn which sees in her a unique kind of boundless openness. It opens with that word of rejoicing once more – all creation rejoices in you – and then goes on to say that, in making his home within the temple of her body, God has made her more spacious than the heavens. Another one of these poetic paradoxes that try to get as close as possible to the unsayable mystery of God’s presence among us. Mary’s spaciousness is, I think, the same thing as her lowliness of which she sings in the Magnificat. This is not some kind of docile self-effacement but a strong and daring letting go of self-concern that opens the way for God to appear. Mary’s humility is her strength, her humanity is her gift to God, her courageous openness is her permission for the boundless possibilities of life to flourish. For we do not find our integrated wholeness while we hold on to the smaller things we imagine constitute our true selves – status, identity, achievement, appearance, intelligence. This only comes when we make space, when we open up, when we let go, when we say ‘yes, let it be’ as Mary did when Gabriel appeared to her.

There is much cause for rejoicing when we honour Mary as the chosen Mother of our Lord. There is rejoicing because the ultimate purpose of our lives is brought very near to us. There is rejoicing when we let go of our false sense of what it is that makes us truly fulfilled and when we embrace, instead the boundless openness of Mary. There is rejoicing when we realise that alienation, estrangement and division are not the final word in our human story. That final word is not a word at all. It is a person. Here is how Thomas Merton wrote of his coming:

Mary’s consent opens the door of created nature, of time, of history, to the Word of God. God enters into his creation. Through her wise answer, through her obedient understanding, through the sweet, yielding consent of Sophia, God enters without publicity into the city of rapacious men. She crowns Him not with what is glorious, but with what is greater than glory: the one thing greater than glory is weakness, nothingness, poverty, she sends the infinitely Rich and Powerful One forth as poor and helpless, in His mission of inexpressible mercy, to die for us on the Cross.

And so to Mary, with all the church today we say; ‘All creation rejoices in you, full of grace. Glory to you.’

 

Easter VI – John McLuckie – 26th May 2019

As that well-known floppy-haired American philosopher, Emo Philips, once said, ‘I used to think that the brain was the most fascinating part of the human body. Then I thought, wait a minute, look what’s telling me that!’ In our modern imagination, we tend to see our brains as the centre of who we are, sometimes using the metaphor of a sort of computer which controls our body’s actions and makes decisions. We might go so far as to see the brain as the centre of our identity, a centre which holds all our defining memories and characteristics. We are human because we think. There are, however, some counter-movements in this set of cultural assumptions. When we want to indicate ‘me’, we point not to the head where our brain resides, but to our heart. However, in this metaphorical scheme, the heart is a less reliable organ. Whereas the brain is rational and coolly in control, the heart is all passion, colour and, above all, emotion.

In biblical terms, however, it is the heart that is at the centre of the human person, but not the heart as merely the seat of emotion. For the biblical writers, as for the theological traditions which followed them, the heart is nothing less than the place of encounter between God and the human person. It is the centre of spiritual intelligence, insight and discernment. It is a temple for the inward dwelling of God. It is a sort of shorthand for the whole human person and offers a far richer notion of the centre of who we are than a sense of the brain as a squishy computing machine. For in the bible, the human heart is fundamentally disposed towards a quest for the God who made it. It is the basic driving force in human life which refuses to be reduced to functions and data and is turned, instead, towards its primary goal of union with the God of Life.

In our Gospel today, we have many references to that heart. The first is a little hidden for it does not use the word, but it is there in the promise that God will come and make his home in the one who keeps his word. Let’s slow down and hear that verse again. First, this is a matter of home-making. God’s natural locus is within us. We come home to ourselves when God comes home to us. We return to the fullness of our true selves when our hearts are open to receive the guest who is none other than our creator. Our fulfilment does not occur through achievement of great things in the eyes of the world, but when our hearts are receptive to the gift of God’s life-giving presence. This is good news. Every single one of us has the capacity to say yes to the quiet request of our creator to come and abide in us. Not a single one is excluded. Not one. Next, this home-making of God in us requires that we ‘keep his word’. I do not think this is a question of observing commands but of keeping close to us, of cherishing, the greatest word that can ever be spoken within us, and that is the Word made flesh, Jesus, the Son of God. And his words are reinforced every time we open the Gospels. They are words that say, ‘you are forgiven’, ‘your faith has made you well’, ‘you are all clean’, ‘you are children together of the one Father’.

Keeping the word also has another dimension, and that is the dimension of keeping guard over our hearts. The early church mothers and fathers were clear that our hearts are not only a place of encounter and holiness – they are also a place of contest and trial. We all know very well our ability to be distracted from the course we set out to maintain. We are beset by calls on our attention and affection which, though they may not be bad in themselves, nonetheless distract us from the primary sense of who we are as those called to follow a path of love and forgiveness. Mostly, our distractions are unspectacular. They consist in endless lists of ‘things to do’ or, worse, ‘what we should be’. That, I think, is why the heart of today’s gospel rests in these words of Jesus: ‘Do not let our hearts be troubled’. And this brings me to the main thing I want to say this morning. Jesus offers peace for our hearts. Where do we find it? We find it in prayer. We find it in the simplest and most important form of prayer that is available to us and that is the prayer of the heart – the prayer of attention and watchfulness, the prayer of simplicity and fullness of life, the prayer of quiet. You see, we don’t need to conjure up God in our prayers – he is already there, there in the heart he created with a longing for him. All we need to do is not to let our hearts be troubled so that our heart’s created impulse for God may be set free. Our deepest prayer is not a matter of adding virtues to our life but of subtracting all that impedes these virtues, and that is mostly our frantic self-concern.

On Thursday this week, we will begin 10 days of prayer in the Cathedral as we respond to a global movement of prayer through these days before Pentecost. I invite you most sincerely to join us in whatever way you can to spend some time in simple prayer, in the prayer of the heart. We are made for great things. We are made for complete union with God, the supreme Good, and it is only in our praying that we begin to explore the depths of that union. Let’s be clear – this focus on inward prayer, on the prayer of the heart, is not a selfish or individualistic thing. It is the means we are given to transcend our self-absorption so that we may be free to love all as God loves us. When we pray this prayer of the heart, the prayer of communion with God, we pray the prayer of communion with all that God has created. There is, quite simply, no separation between these things.

So how is this done? How do we not let our hearts be troubled? We do so by learning the slow, patient practice of stillness. We sit or stand still. We breathe. We let go of our desires to control our thoughts. We let our minds descend to the heart, the place where we encounter God in the depths of our being. We repeat a word of scripture or simply trust that God is closer than the very breath we take. Come and try it out and find that God will give you peace, not as the world gives, but a peace of heart that remains still even when the troubles of the world threaten to unsettle us. This is a life’s journey of discovery and joy, a journey that leads us home, home to the heart where God resides.