Some of you know that I’ve just moved house. One of the many things I unearthed in the preparation for my move was a Rosary. Now the fact that I unearthed it tells you that it’s not something that has been in regular use. I think it would be fair to say that it’s been occasionally used. I actually quite like the concept of using prayer beads, having something tactile to help me focus on prayer, but if I’m honest it’s never become a regular habit for me. However I do like the words that are prayed with the Rosary, known as the Hail Mary.
The words that form the traditional Rosary prayer come directly from Scripture. Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you. The words of the angel Gabriel, the direct blessing of a young woman whose life was about to change. She is full of grace and the Lord is with her. So it’s an intimation of her existing situation and a pointer towards the future. If the Lord is with her, we can conclude that the Lord will continue to be with her. And then the words of her cousin Elizabeth: blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
So Mary’s place in our history is established and then confirmed – established by Gabriel and confirmed by Elizabeth. And then the final sentence is an additional confirmation – holy Mary mother of God, it’s also a reminder that her role as a mother is what will now define her. Mary is full of grace, God is with her and she’s holy. We’re reminded of the ways in which she has been blessed and then we get an indication of who she will become.
In a Cathedral that’s dedicated to Mary, her story is hugely important to us. Our Incarnational theology is absolutely clear – Jesus was fully human. It’s fundamental to our understanding that his mother was also fully human. So although we’re told little about her, we can speculate that she was a bit like us: sometimes she had sore feet, sometimes she was hungry, sometimes she was too tired to care, sometimes she was filled with joy and pride, sometimes she was fearful. She was a fully human woman who shared much of the experience of being human that we know about. For her, as for any of us who have children, becoming a mother changed her.
Whatever her priorities had been, there was a small human who was totally dependent on her. And we read in the Gospels that she and Joseph nurtured him until he was old enough to stand up and speak in the synagogue. And then she leaves the centre stage, making a few cameo appearances, until things take a dramatic turn and she appears at the foot of the cross. It seems to me that she had a very normal experience of parenthood. Babies and young children are totally dependent and then young people go their own way, make their own mistakes, find opportunities to work out who they are, seek ways to make their own mark in the world. And this child made a very particular mark, this child changed the world. Simeon’s words must have resonated on many occasions as Mary observed her child fulfilling the ministry for which he had been born.
And through it all, Mary was there in the background. Watching, listening, feeling that mixture of pride and concern that is a feature of parenthood. She learned what she could change and influence and when she needed to step out of the way and allow a situation to unfold.
She knew, perhaps better than any of us ever knows, that she didn’t have the power to change the story, to unwind the final scenes.
I’m standing here in St Mary’s Cathedral, the mother church of our Diocese. This cathedral is dedicated to the mother of Jesus, committed to honouring who she was and to learning from her as we work out who we are and what we can and can’t change.
As a place of worship we would hope to offer a space where people are touched by grace, are blessed and have an encounter with all that is holy. That’s what we would like people to find here, but it’s a starting place not an end point. Few of us would question the impact of being in a space like this, but it’s also important to recognise that we are grounded in the real world. In the same way that we did a bit of a reality check about Mary, recognising the impact of day to day living, a living building like this is impacted by the years, changed by the different ways that it has been used, and is constantly evolving and hopefully becoming something even more than it was.
So I want to think a bit about who we are, rather than what we are like. You’ll all have done those groupwork exercises where you’re encouraged to use your imagination to expand your thinking. If I were to ask: if the Cathedral were a tree, what would it be? Would it be a majestic beech or a well established oak or a random Buddleia? Offering shelter and inspiration, reminding us of something bigger than itself or growing where it was planted and finding its place within the area?
Historically, one of the ways that we were pointed towards an understanding of who Mary was, is contained within our artistic heritage. I’m not thinking about the pious looking young woman who all too often dominates religious settings, but the significant works of art that attempt to show something deeper and more human, something of a woman who was filled with grace and was holy and chosen and at the same time was a mother and a wife and fully functioning human being.
These are not portraits, they are works of devotional imagination, works that seek to witness to something beyond themselves, something that’s more about heart than head. They tell us what Mary was like and they invite us imagine who she was.
When we think about being a Cathedral in this city and this Diocese, we also need to reflect on what we are like and to imagine who we are and who we might become. Thinking about the Cathedral through an artist’s lens, what might we attempt to portray? The starting place will clearly be the majestic and imposing presence that we have at the West End of our city. We may want to add in a sense of the fragility and vulnerability. And what would we want to say about ourselves as we go deeper? How does the heart respond to what the head perceives?
No one of us has all the answers to these questions, no one of us has the authority to state categorically who we are and what it means to be us. But together that is a journey we can embark upon. Together we can find ways to encounter grace and holiness, both for ourselves and for our Cathedral.