Monday, 24 January 2022

"Christ's Mission; the Church's Mission": A homily in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

 Preached at St Dominic's Roman Catholic Church, Waddon, on the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Sunday of the Word of God) 23rd January 2022. Readings: Nehemiah 8.2-6, 8-10; Psalm 18 (19) 8-10,15; 1 Corinthians 12.12-30Luke 1.1-4; 4.14-21


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May I begin by thanking Fr Simplicio for his kind invitation to me to come to preach this morning. I bring the greetings of the Anglican Christians of the parish of Croydon, both St John the Baptist, also known as Croydon Minster, and St George’s, Waddon, where my colleague Fr David has pastoral responsibility.

 

This is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and I hope that Fr Simplicio’s invitation, and my presence, says something powerfully about the desire for the followers of Jesus to be one, as Christ and the Father are one.

 

And you are also most welcome to Croydon Minster for Choral Evensong at 6.30pm this evening when our preacher is Monsignor Matthew Dickens, Vicar General for the Archdiocese of Southwark. Another sign of our desire to listen to one another as fellow Christians.

 

And here’s a little secret: Fr Simplicio, Fr David and I have a WhatsApp group that we call ‘Shepherds in Waddon’. That title acknowledges our pastoral responsibility as shepherds of God’s people in this locality, albeit in different churches and shared with our Bishops. I hope we are setting a wider example of commitment to Christian Unity in conversation, fraternity and in prayer.

 

Pope St John Paul II was a passionate and, for me as an Anglican, inspiring advocate of the unity of the Church, dedicating his Encyclical letter, Ut Unum Sint, to the topic in 1995. The Latin phrase, Ut Unum Sint, means ‘may they all be one’ and that is Jesus’ prayer found in St John’s Gospel (John 17.21).

 

‘May they all be one’ and he continues ‘that the world may believe that you have sent me’ .

 

In that prayer Jesus Christ invites us into the mission of the Father and the Son, who in the communion of the Holy Spirit, are totally one.

 

Today’s gospel reading tells us for what Jesus was sent and the nature of his mission. He is the one referred to in Isaiah’s scroll: anointed ‘to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free and to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour’ (Luke 4.18-19).

 

This is the Missio Christi, the mission of Christ, a mission that becomes ours in our baptism. We too are anointed, as prophets, priests and kings: this is our task too.

 

Jesus Christ fulfils this mission in who he is; we fulfil his mission in who we are, God’s pilgrim people, the Church.

 

All that we do as Christians is seek to join the mission of Christ in the world as his Body. St Paul reflects deeply on that reality in his first letter to the Corinthians, our second reading (1 Corinthians 12.12-30). We are a diverse, yet connected, body in gifts and roles. Our connection, and God willing, unity is in his Body. So we receive Christ’s Body at Mass to become more truly his Body, the Church.

 

When we speak of ‘our mission’ that’s only in the sense that we embrace Christ’s mission, to make it our own. ‘Our mission’ is not generated by us, but is the task entrusted to us as Christ’s disciples, led by the successors to the apostles.

 

And that is where the deepest mission of God is to reveal his unity to the world, the unity of God the Holy Trinity, and the unity of you and me, his followers.

 

God reveals his presence in the world, in the cosmos, in creation, without our help. What we can do is make God’s life visible in our lives, in our bodies, in all that we think and speak and do.

 

That means there are concrete acts of reflecting God’s mission in the world. The corporal Acts of Mercy echo Jesus mission declared in the Synagogue of Nazareth: we can feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, comfort the imprisoned,  visit the sick, bury and honour the dead. Basically all those concrete, embodied, acts of mercy are things we can do together now. We don’t need to wait for agreement on Holy Orders, sacraments and authority to do that.

 

What a witness to God’s mission that would be if this church together with St George’s, Waddon, and Croydon Minster were to work together in the corporal acts of mercy: a challenge and opportunity for us all. Let’s do together things we are not obliged to do apart.

 

You know, sixty years ago the parish priest of this church would never have invited the Vicar the Anglican parish church to preach at mass here. And the Vicar of the Anglican parish church would never have accepted the invitation.

 

Over time we are growing in responding to Jesus’s prayer Ut Unum Sint, ‘may they all be one , just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (John 17.21)

 

Sunday, 16 January 2022

The Wedding Feast: Life, joy, belonging

 

A sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany: John 2.1-11

 

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What would the life of the Church look like if we were hosting the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee?

 

It may sound like an odd question, but I think it is one that holds a huge amount of potential when we consider our life and mission at this moment in time.

 

The pandemic has really shaken things down. We have to be honest. For many the pandemic made them reassess what was important.

 

I rejoice, and I hope you do too, that we are here today because we have found that our faith, and sense of belonging to Christ in this place, has sustained us and brought us through.

 

I rejoice, and I hope that you do too, that this morning, as has been the case through the pandemic, people have been drawn to Christ for the first time through what this church offers in worship, prayer and pastoral care. There is new growth in this church!

 

I lament, as I imagine you do to, that some people have fallen away. Perhaps they are out of the habit of coming to church or sadly, perhaps, they didn’t find that the nourishment, hope and life of the Gospel sustained them. It is also true that some have found new places where they connect with God, and we wish them well and bless them in that.

 

After that shaking down, the krisis time, what does today’s gospel give us?

 

It seems to me that some words from our Church Vision Day in June 2019 are powerful today as they were then, before the pandemic, when we said together that we wanted this church to be known as church that is ‘welcoming and open, where people find life and joy and feel they belong’.

 

That sounds a little like the answer to my opening question, ‘what would the life of the Church look like if we were hosting the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee?’ If we were a ‘wedding feast church’ we would be a church that is ‘welcoming and open, where people find life and joy and feel they belong’.

 

Let’s explore that thought through the lens of today’s gospel.

 

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Weddings in the days of Jesus were whole community affairs. They were not just for select friends or close family like now; the whole locality would turn out and be welcomed and feel they belong at the feast.

 

Modern churches have become a bit like modern weddings: the select few are expected; the select few are welcomed. Being a wedding feast church means that we throw open our doors, not just physically but in who we are and how we are, in our DNA, in our bones, in our culture.  

 

A wedding feast church says that what happens here is for everyone and it’s about finding life and joy. It’s where you belong. ‘Fling wide the gates’ as a psalm puts it, to let in Christ, the King of Glory, and those who come seeking him (Psalm 24). We invite, expect and welcome the unexpected guest!

 

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At the wedding feast in Cana they famously ran out of wine and it was the Mother of the Lord, Mary, who noticed this.

 

To be a wedding feast church means that we have to acknowledge when the wine of our own effort and imagination has run out.  That’s when we learn to be the church properly. It’s when we recall that our sure foundation is Christ.

 

At Cana the servants panicked when they realised the wine had run out. We are the servants on whose watch this pandemic has happened, but it is no time to panic or beat ourselves up about it. After all, the wine in Cana ran out because people were drinking it; and that’s good!

 

This church has served good wine, to be sure, for more than a thousand years, wine that is replenished in each new season.

 

A wedding feast church knows that new wine needs serving. A wedding feast church asks Blessed Mary to help us notice the texture and detail of the life of our church. Is the wine flowing? Is the wine souring? Is the wine running out?

 

Mary is the Mother of the Church, and through her prayers, she longs that her children are renewed, encouraged and drink deeply of the wells of salvation.

 

So she surely says to us today - as she said to the servants in Cana – present all this to Jesus and do whatever he tells you.

 

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Now is the time to turn for us to Christ and to be renewed in the life and mission of the church. The good wine is to be served as Christ’s hour comes. A wedding feast church is ready to drink of that wine, for it brings life; it brings joy.

 

The life is the depth of living that the Gospel beings. ‘I came that you may have life and have it abundantly’ says Jesus (John 10.10). St Paul echoes this, ‘take hold of the life that really is life (2 Timothy NN).

 

The joy is the experience of taking hold of life and finding it in every day of our lives. Many things weigh us down in life, but joy awakens us to the fulness of life through our daily existence and the challenges and threats to happiness.

 

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This coming week the priests and licensed lay workers of this church are going to reflect on the aspiration to be a church that is ‘welcoming and open, where people find life and joy and feel they belong’.

 

What will that look like for me and for my colleagues? What will that look like for the members of the church council, the PCC? What will that look like for you?

 

A wedding feast church is a church that is welcoming and open, where people find life and joy and feel they belong.

 

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A wedding feast church has a banquet at its heart: what the Book of Revelation calls the ‘marriage feast of the Lamb’. The marriage feast of the Lamb of God is the fulfilment of all things in heaven, of which we have a foretaste in the Eucharist.

 

In marriage bride and groom meet to become one flesh; in Christ divinity and humanity meet and become one in his flesh.

 

As wine is prepared at the Eucharist water is added and a prayer spoken by the priest which says, ‘by the mystery of this water and this wine may we share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity’. That is an intimate union.

 

At the wedding feast of the Lamb we become one with Christ, in our bodies, minds and spirits. In this mystical way we are welcoming into his open love and we find life and joy and the deepest place of belonging we can find, because we are at home with the Lover of our Souls.

 

The Baptism of Christ: Expectation, Fulfilment, Revelation

 A sermon for the Baptism of the Lord


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Today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord is all about expectation, fulfilment and revelation in Christ.

 

The expectation we read about first is, in hearts of the people who made up the crowds, and actually concerned John the Baptist.

 

There’s a real ‘could this be?’ feeling in the crowds gathering around John at the River Jordan. Could he be the one our hearts have been yearning for, the one promised, the one whom we expect?

 

Expectations can, of course, be misplaced. Expectations can be met, but they can also be dashed. ‘I had high expectations for so and so’. ‘Well, that wasn’t what I expected’. And then when expectations are met we can sound really quite disappointed. ‘Yes, well that’s what I expected’.

 

Perhaps all too aware of that, both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ do not pander to expectations.

 

John reframes the peoples’ expectations by demonstrating that he is not the Messiah, that is someone else. And if the crowds harboured hopes that John would be a crowd pleaser as well as a crowd drawer, they could not be more wrong: ‘you brood of vipers’ he calls them in St Mark’s gospel, and today is about sorting people out with winnowing forks.

 

And Jesus too does not behave to expectations. He will not collude with what people want, and expect, him to be. He will not be pinned down to human expectation, whether that’s by eating with the disgusting people other exclude, or kneeling down and washing feet like the lowliest servant. They call him king, but his thrown is a cross and crown made of thorns. Not what’s expected of the Anointed One of God.

 

In that knowledge, then, the expectation we have today is about the fulfilment of the hope we have in Christ. It is always right and good to approach worship, to approach prayer, to approach reading your Bible, to approach receiving Christ in the sacrament with a glad and expectant heart. That expectant heart is the heart that desires fulfilment, not on its own terms but on Christ’s.

 

Fulfilment in its truest sense is not about human expectation being met or satisfied, but about an expectation that sets aside self so as to be filled, fully – fulfilled – with the presence of God.

 

The expectant person is like an empty vessel ready to be filled, fully, with the water of life drawn from the wells of salvation. ‘With you O Lord is the well of life and in your light do we see light’ (Psalm 36).

 

In this morning’s gospel John points away from himself and to the coming Lamb of God, for in Christ will all expectations will be both disrupted and fulfilled.

 

The Messiah, the Anointed One, is not going to be a better version of political, moral or spiritual leadership than the crowds are used to.

 

The Messiah, the Anointed One, is the very presence of God in human form, as revealed in Bethlehem - the Word Made Flesh – and now manifest to the whole people of Israel and all the nations.

 

At the Baptism of the Lord expectation and fulfilment collide in the revelation of what is before the people. The fullness of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is fully present, as from all eternity, and the Father declares, as the Spirit descends: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’. (Luke 3.22)

 

The Creation began with the Spirit brooding over the swirling waters from which order came and God gratuitously, and without any expectation on the creation’s part, brought creation into being.

 

Now the human John pours the waters over the Christ – fully human, fully divine – and what has been from the beginning is revealed in history and time: human expectation and divine fulfilment meet in the revelation of the Messiah, the Anointed One.

 

This is a scene of utter, transcendent beauty, wholly of God and impossible to have imagined or dreamt up by a human mind. Our expectation cannot match the capacity of God’s fulfilment.

 

And the, literally, wonderful thing is that we have access to this wonder and mystery. In the sacraments channels of God’s grace are opened to humanity.

 

In our own baptism we become son’s and daughters, also beloved of the Most High, of God, and in the Eucharist, we feed on his Body to become more deeply his Body.

Friday, 7 January 2022

Following the star that leads to Christ: An Epiphany Sermon

Croydon Minster on the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, 6th January 2022.


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Just before Christmas I said something during a school Christmas assembly that I have since come deeply to regret.

 

A politician might say I ‘misspoke’, but that feels like a copout. I was fully conscious of what I was saying but as I said it I regretted it.

 

And this feast of the Epiphany gives me a chance to put it right!

 

So what was this dreadful thing that I said in front of a hall full of young people? What could be so bad? Did I swear? No! Did I get party political? No! Did I commit the heinous crime of denying the existence of Santa Claus? No!

 

It was something that might strike you as less obvious, but is really significant.

 

Here’s the context. You may know the blessing:

 

May the joy of the angels,

the eagerness of the shepherds,

the perseverance of the wise men,

the obedience of Joseph and Mary,

and the peace of the Christ-child

be yours this Christmas;

 

I was trying to connect the features of the Nativity to basic human desires and characteristics: joy, eagerness, perseverance, obedience, peace.

 

So I suggested that the young people always be open to joy to navigate dark and confusing times. Be eager both in life and in learning. Persevere! I suggested that the word ‘perseverance’ might be better rendered in our culture as ‘resilience’. Obedience I related to the root of the word meaning ‘to listen’; we should listen carefully so as to make good decisions and choices. Peace. We all seek out peace and shalom, that sense of wellbeing and inner peace.

 

So far, so inoffensive. And that’s the problem!

 

First, I depersonalised joy, eagerness, perseverance, obedience, peace. In the Nativity story these things are not just vague ‘values’ but connect to the personal experience of angels, shepherds, Magi, Joseph and Mary. Secondly, I glossed over the dramatic message of Christmas, that God, the creator of all that is, took human flesh in order to raise our humanity to what he always intended it to be, and that he does it through Christ.

 

And the worst thing I said in that Christmas assembly was… ‘follow your star’. I was effectively saying ‘follow your own dream’, ‘pursue what works for you’. And in doing so I am saying nice, motivational, uncontentious things. But I am not speaking the Gospel.

 

I was erasing the biblical and Gospel significance of what it means to be a disciple - a searcher for, and follower of, Jesus Christ. I was commending self-absorption not immersion in the life of the Living God.

 

The star the Magi followed wasn’t their own wish-fulfilment, it was quite the contrary. It took them away from themselves.

 

The message of the star the Magi followed is, ‘this is not about you’. It’s about Jesus Christ, who you are called to worship and be in relationship with. Joy, eagerness, perseverance, obedience, peace are great, but are invested with a new meaning for the person who turns and follows the Christ-star.

 

The call of the star of Bethlehem that led the Magi is a call to places where our culture doesn’t normally go; it is a call away from self to encounter the mystery of God.

 

That’s at the heart of the Epiphany. We are led away from ourselves, from all that is comfortable and just where we want it, and we are led back into the mystery of who we really are, in Christ.

 

So, my ‘misspeak’, my ‘faux-pas’, my error was to fail to say that at the heart of Christmas is Christ, the one to whom the star leads.

 

Of course, I was trying to be sensitive. Not everyone is Christian. Not everyone wants to follow the Christ-star. People should make up their own mind. Pursue your goals. These are the working assumptions of our culture. But the Christ-star still shines outside the Church too.

 

The feast of the Epiphany is known in the Book of Common Prayer as the ‘Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles’. Today tells us that this message is Good News to people of all nations, and tribes, and languages, and cultures. Of course we are sensitive about how we say things, but that should never blunt the proclamation of the Gospel.

 

As a disciple of Christ I set out day by day to follow the Christ-star, to lead me to encounter the mystery of the Living God revealed in Jesus Christ, made known in his sacraments.

 

This is the pearl of great price, this is the treasure of the Kingdom of God, for which we should be prepared to give everything in return. And if you and I have received that treasure, then who on earth are we to deprive others of the chance of knowing it for themselves too? That’s why we should say, why I should have said to those young people, ‘this star will lead you to the source of life and the fullness of life, Jesus Christ’. Follow it!

 

The star is shining now, calling us onwards to encounter again Jesus Christ the Word made Flesh. Let us come to him joyfully, eagerly and obediently and, persevering, may we know that peace that can only come from him.

Sunday, 26 December 2021

Christmas Morning - Getting Our Priorities Right

Preached on Christmas Day at Croydon Minster.  Readings, Isaiah 52.7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14


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I wonder what your greatest priority is today? The turkey, the presents, the Queen’s speech, seeing family?

 

A few days ago the message from the Chief Medical Office was clear: this Christmas decide on your priorities. What a good question at Christmas!

 

So what’s your priority then?

 

Priorities are about what we put first. By being here today what we have put first is to come to worship God in Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh.

 

For Christians the number one priority at Christmas is Christ. We come to worship him now, as many did during the middle of the night too.

 

All other priorities flow from that. For it is God who created the world ‘in the beginning’, who gives us breath and life through his Holy Spirit, and who shows us the way to be the people he made us to be, sons and daughters of the Most High.

 

Our faith tells us that when all is stripped away we discover something deeply precious; this is what we call hope, the bedrock, the priority of our lives.

 

God’s priority at Christmas, is God’s priority every day: his priority is that we, his creatures, make him [God] our priority. The Church Fathers speak of this ‘Royal Exchange’: Christ humbled himself to share in our humanity, that we might share in his divinity.

 

The grandeur and majesty of God is revealed in a totally new way. God is made known in the child of Bethlehem.

 

Mary’s child, God’s child, is born like you and me, born naked into the world, vulnerable and entirely dependent on others; first of all his mother, Mary, and also his guardian, Joseph.

 

For now the naked child is wrapped in swaddling bands, and he starts calling, drawing and wrapping people around himself to become a community of willing response, obedience, love and adoration: his Church.

 

We gather today in the footsteps of shepherds and Magi, of countless men, women and children who have heard the call of the Child of Bethlehem, and made their response to that call their priority in life.

 

What Mary and Joseph gazed on was the fullness of God; the normal, expected trappings of divinity stripped away. They beheld the Word Made Flesh, and saw his glory. His glory would be seen again on the cross when all his garments are stripped away and we see his saving love.

 

Light shines out of darkness, hope and blessing abounds and, however gloomy things get, the darkness will not overcome it. As St Paul reminds again:

 

‘It is the God who said let light shine out of darkness”, who has shone in our hearts to give the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 4.6)

 

As our top priority every day, let us direct our gaze back to the Christchild, the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ, for he is known as Emmanuel, meaning ‘God is with us’.

 

Midnight Mass - Christ at the Centre

 Preached at Midnight Mass, Croydon Minster 2021, readings Isaiah 9.2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-14


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In the birth of Jesus Christ human history has a new trajectory.

 

In the birth of Jesus Christ, the inevitability of human estrangement from God is halted.

 

In the birth of Jesus Christ, and our new birth in baptism, we can now see ourselves, and our fellow men and women, as sons and daughters of the Most High.

 

Without Christ we find ourselves wrapped up in our own ego-dramas, the stories we narrate about ourselves with ‘me’ at the centre.

 

With Christ we are drawn into the Theo-drama, the unfolding mystery and wonder of God – with Christ at the centre - in which we have a precious place and cherished part.

 

If you connect in anyway with the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus Christ, you have joined the Theo-drama, a movement described by Isaiah: ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined’. (Isaiah 9.2).

 

In embracing our place in the wonder and mystery of Jesus Christ we are walking out of the darkness, into Christ’s marvellous light.

 

That’s the Gospel! Gospel means ‘good news’.

 

It’s the message too of our second reading, from the letter of St Paul to Titus.

 

Paul’s is saying that, because of Christ, it is not inevitable that we get caught up in a self-centred play of the power games and manipulations of the world, and the assumptions that there is no God, no hope, no heaven. Rather, we find ourselves looking beyond ourselves to the source of all that is good and pure and true. It’s the move from darkness to light.

 

We have come here tonight, in the darkness, to rejoice in the light of Christ.

 

‘That’s great’ some might say, ‘but look at the world two thousand years on from the birth of Jesus: will things ever change? There’s lots of darkness’

 

Just look at the gospel reading tonight. There are parallels with our own day:

 

In the diktats of Quirinius, Governor of Syria under Augustus, the Roman Emperor, we see overbearing government regulating the movements and lives of the people: tyrants abound in the world today.

 

In the shepherds we see underpaid labourers, working what we now call ‘zero hours’ contracts, doing anti-social hours in dangerous conditions: oppressive labour systems still exist, not least in the form of modern slavery.

 

In Mary and Joseph unable to find decent shelter, we see a vulnerable family excluded from the warmth, comfort and acceptance of society: in the ‘global village’ today, people are excluded from having a voice and agency and live in grinding poverty.

 

We find that all shocking: now as then.

 

But it is only shocking because of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  

 

It has not always been taken as read in human history that we care for the weak and sick and frail, the unborn and the young, the excluded and isolated. In past times, and in some dark places today, all those groups of people are tossed aside as inconvenient and getting in the way of the ego-dramas of the privileged.

 

When you worship God and see God in Jesus Christ - the very presence of God, the Word Made Flesh, as a tiny vulnerable infant, worshipped by shepherds in a cattle shed - then you get an insight into how the world cannot be the same anymore for creation is renewed.

 

The birth of Jesus, as our gospel reading showed, connects the whole renewed creation: angels representing heaven and what is beyond us; shepherds, representing the poor and the exploited; the animals, representing all God’s creatures; the coming of the Magi, representing those outside God’s first-chosen people - all now gather around the Prince of Peace.

 

Before Christ, ‘peace’ had come to mean something like the imperialist imposed truce of the ‘Pax Romana’ of Caesar Augustus, rather than the shalom of God, that deep well-being of life in God. After Christ we are drawn into the peace of God which passes all understanding.

 

At Christmas we can’t go about our lives in the same old way. We walk now in the light.

 

Mary, the Mother of our Lord and God, pondered all these things in her heart.

 

Tonight, this Christmas, may we ponder just who this child is. May we all continue to walk in the light and rejoice that we now share the divinity of Christ and he humbled himself to share our humanity. For when we ponder Christ, life and the world can never be the same again.

Tuesday, 21 December 2021

Mother of the Lord: Ark of the New Covenant

 Preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster on the fourth Sunday of Advent, 2021. Gospel: Luke 1.39-45


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In our gospel today we see a most beautiful scene. It combines energy and serenity. It is a thumbnail illustration of some really important aspects of the Christian spiritual life. Spiritual energy combined with spiritual serenity.

 

The energy is that of Mary who sets out with haste from her encounter with the archangel Gabriel to share this wonderful mystery! It is of John the Baptist, the child in his mother’s womb, who leaps for joy in the presence of Mary and her child! It is of Elizabeth who exclaims a loud cry of proclamation, and becomes the first to articulate that Mary is Mother of the Lord!

 

And what of the serenity? It is the serenity of Jesus Christ, the still centre of the presence of the Most High in a tumultuous world. This is the serenity of Jesus who sleeps in the storm on the Sea of Galilee, and embodies the peace, the Shalom, of God.

 

So where do we go with this gospel scene? What does it speak to us of our lives?

 

First it has to take us to Christ. He is the heart of this scene even though no action or utterance of his is described, merely his presence; that is enough.

 

The energy of the scene draws solely from Christ’s presence and serenity. This might help us see the need to pay attention to Christ, to orientate our lives to notice his presence in our midst and recognise those who bear his light and life.

 

That’s what Elizabeth and John saw. Elizabeth found herself overcome by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit which inspired her to ‘exclaim with a loud cry’, ‘Blessed are you, Mary, among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. These Spirit given words, form the bedrock of the great and ancient prayer the Hail Mary, which combines the Archangel’s greeting and Elizabeth’s words: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus’.

 

It’s Elizabeth, not a Pope or Church Council, who makes the first dogmatic statement of who Mary is: Mary is the mother of the Lord.

 

The unborn, yet totally spiritually attuned, John makes this recognition too. This clearly isn’t a run of the mill foetal kick. Elizabeth the pregnant mother knows it is more. She connects her child’s leap for joy with Mary’s arrival.

 

And this takes us into rich and fertile Biblical territory.

 

In the second book of Samuel there is an intriguing episode. The ark of the covenant was being taken from a town called Obed-edom to the city of David, Jerusalem. King David, the shepherd king (from Bethlehem, remember), offered sacrifices before the Ark and then ‘David danced before the LORD with all his might. And David was wearing a linen ephod (2 Samuel 6.14).

 

So what of the Ark and the linen ephod?

 

The Ark of the Covenant was the vessel, the box, effectively, that contained the stone tablets of the commandments, Aaron’s rod (a miraculous wooden staff) and manna from the wilderness, the bread shown to the people. For the Israelites the Ark contained the most holy of things, the presence of the Most High.

 

The linen ephod is the vestment, the robe, of the high priest. David was claiming priesthood. By heritage John the Baptist was a priest as was his father Zechariah.

 

Yet John knows that all that is contained in the Ark of the Covenant – Law, the wooden rod that buds, the Bread – everything in the Ark before which David danced is fulfilled in the true High Priest, Jesus Christ himself: John knows that Jesus is the New Covenant; John knows that just as the wood of Aaron’s rod budded into life, so the wood of the cross becomes the source of life and salvation; John knows that the Bread of Life is not the manna that goes stale, but Jesus Christ who calls men and women into abundant life.

 

Now if that is who Jesus is, the Holy Presence in the Ark, what, or rather who, is the Ark of the New Covenant?

 

The answer is Mary. This is an answer from the earliest times, for example St. Hippolytus (c. 170 - c. 236), who writes:

 

At that time, the Saviour coming from the Virgin, the Ark, brought forth His own Body into the world from that Ark, which was gilded with pure gold within by the Word, and without by the Holy Ghost.

 

Mary’s body is the bearer of the fulness of the presence of God. She is rightly the Ark of the New Covenant because within her body is the fullness of the Divine Presence, the Incarnate Lord.

 

Elizabeth knew that and declared it. John the Baptist knew that and danced before her and her unborn Son.

 

Where do we go with all this?

 

First, to acknowledge Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant and proclaim her ‘Mother of our Lord and God’ places us with Christians through the millennia, from Elizabeth and John onwards. What we say of Mary is always in relation to Christ. Devotion to Mary always takes us to Christ, in moments of salvation: his Incarnation; Christ’s miracles; his passion on the cross; his Resurrection; his Ascension; the descent of the Holy Spirit; the promise of heaven.

 

Secondly, it acknowledges the human body to be worthy of bearing Christ. Our culture seems intent on splitting human identity in two: the pure me, my spirit or mind, and the less than ideal me, my body, my physicality with all its limitations and distortions. There is a lot of talk today about being ‘body-affirming’: the Incarnation of Christ which is at the heart of the Christmas proclamation is body, mind and spirit together-affirming. Christ the redeems the whole person. That’s why our expression of faith is embodied. We don’t just think our way to salvation, we speak it, we enact it in acts of devotion and service to God and neighbour.

 

Finally, we find Christ to be at the heart of all things, the serene presence who dwells in Mary’s body. We place ourselves in his presence now to receive his presence now in the way he promises to be with us in his Body, in this sacrament. We make Mary’s ‘yes’ her ‘let it be to me according to your word’ our own. We become bearers of Christ, who give birth to him in the world, having received him and welcomed him into our lives.