Mary, mother of Jesus, whose life resonates with ours

Peter Seal, 24 March 2019, Winchester Cathedral

Luke 1: 26–38

This afternoon we anticipate tomorrow. 25th March is the Feast of the Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary. At tomorrow’s Eucharist we will hear those evocative words from St Luke, chapter one, verses 26 to 38. They recount the story of the angel Gabriel telling Mary that she is to conceive and will give birth to a son, whom she is to name Jesus.

Here in Winchester, we are grateful to Canon Mark Byford for his book titled The Annunciation, published a year ago. It has led so many of us to a deeper understanding of how God became human in the womb of Mary. Several of those Mark interviewed described the Annunciation as ‘the most important event in human history’.

I have tried, and struggled, to imagine what it must have felt like to be Mary. And, as an extension of this, what it must feel like for any woman to know that a new life has been conceived within her.

The Iona Community are known for their gift of putting into words the deep things that we feel. This short poem has the title, ‘Mary, pondering’.

What is this seed that God has planted,
unasked, uncompromised, unseen?
Unknown to everyone but angels
this gift has been.

And who am I to be the mother,
to give my womb at heaven’s behest,
to let my body be the hospice
and God the guest?

Oh what a risk in such a nation,
in such a place, at such a time,
to come to people in transition
and yet in prime.

What if the baby I embody
should enter life deformed or strange,
unable to be known as normal,
to thrive or change?

What if the world, for spite, ignores him,
and friends keep back and parents scorn,
and every fear of every woman
in me is born?

Still, I will want and love and hold him,
his cry attend, his smile applaud.
I’ll mother him as any mortal,
and just like God.

Every mother-to-be must at times find herself wondering about her unborn child, hoping that she or he will have a fulfilled life and asking, among other things, what sort of person will my baby grow up to be? We know, from what we have experienced or observed, that being a parent – a mother or father – is both glorious and at times terrible.

According to Jewish custom, Mary and Joseph take their baby to present him in the Temple. Just a few weeks ago we heard again the aged Simeon’s words to Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too’.

God the majestic creator has come to live as a human being. Mary, that young slip of a teenage girl, has become his mother. Wise old Simeon foretells the pain that is to come.

God the majestic creator has come to live as a human being. Mary, that young slip of a teenage girl, has become his mother.

Strange perhaps to say, but next Sunday millions of people will experience some of the pain associated with motherhood on what we call Mothering Sunday. A day that is filled with flowers and cards and lunches and home visits and deep gratitude, along with hugs and tears of joy and thankfulness, carries significant pain too. It’s good to be prepared for next Sunday, one of those days of deep, mixed emotions.

In any congregation, Mother Church seeks to hold it all together: alongside the joy, there are the tears of those who have never had children, or who have lost a baby or a child; those whose mother died too young; mothers estranged from their children of whatever age, and then the grieving that comes to us all when our mother dies.

At its best, Mother Church is a truly wondrous place, where every sort of tear can flow and find its bigger context in God, whose human life in Jesus, son of Mary, embraces and holds us.

This last week we heard these words: ‘He will, when I speak, be nameless’. There was something magnificent about the response of Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, to the outrageous murders in Christchurch. ‘I implore you: speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing, not even his name.’ She was magnificent, compassionate, empathetic and steely too.

Ardern was speaking into the rawest of grief caused by a man who murdered in cold blood. She helps us realise the significance of the name each of us lives our lives by – the Christian names our parents gave us, which most people continue to be known by for their whole lives.

Gabriel told Mary the name of her baby: Jesus, the Greek form of the Hebrew Joshua, meaning ‘saviour’. He is the one who has the name above all names – the one whose name we are proud to use, the one we proclaim as Son of God, our Lord and Saviour.

Simeon’s prophecy comes to pass. Jesus dies, killed a criminal’s death. Mary his mother is there. John comforts her. Jesus entrusts them to one another. Together, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus care for the dead body.

And Mary, mother of Jesus, what does she do now? In our imaginations we can picture her doing what mothers are so good at doing – she thinks of others. Maybe what Mary does is go and find Judas’ mother; maybe those two bereaved mothers are able to comfort one another?

Today, this first Evensong of the Feast of the Annunciation, we can have another picture: that of Mary in heaven, in the nearest presence of God, still saying her prayers. Just as we might ask a trusted friend to pray for us, so too I believe we can ask Mary to do the same. Mary, mother of Jesus, mother of God, please pray for us. Mary prays as only a mother can.