Monday, 9 December 2019

'Grace & Hope in Christ' A Sermon on the Immaculate Conception of Mary

First preached as a sermon at St Michael & All Angels, Croydon, with members of the Cells of the Society of Our Lady of Walsingham in Croydon (St Alban’s, South Norwood, St Michael’s, Croydon & Croydon Minster). Readings: Genesis 3.9-15,20; Ephesians 1.3-6,11-12; Luke 1.26-38.


The Immaculate Conception of Mary is a great gift to the Church and, indeed, to all humanity. It is the most optimistic of dogmas, because it says that by God’s grace human beings can be freed from the grip of sin, through our sharing in the life of the Word Made Flesh: Jesus Christ - Son of God, Son of Mary - the incarnate, crucified, risen and ascended Lord. This possibility of God’s grace first moved as Mary was conceived and knit together in the womb of her mother St Anne.

Our gospel reading today is St Luke’s account of the Annunciation, which is not to be confused with the Immaculate Conception of Mary, although it often is: the Annunciation is about Christ being incarnate within the womb of Mary, the unborn Saviour, the Word Made Flesh, resting in the immaculate shrine that is Mary’s body. And you will recall that when the pregnant Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy as the Mother of the Lord entered into her presence (Luke 1.39-45). That dance of the unborn John the Baptist echoes the unrestrained dance of David before the Ark of the Covenant in the Second Book of Samuel (2 Samuel 6, esp 6.14). David danced before the presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant; John dances before the presence of God, in Christ, in the shrine of Mary’s body.

The Immaculate Conception of Mary is about preparing the shrine in which the Christ will gestate and from which he will be born; for which all generations will call her blessed (Luke 1.48)

For some the Immaculate Conception makes them queasy. Isn’t it too much about Mary? Doesn’t it make out that somehow she’s not quite human, just a bit too perfect? Isn’t all a bit Roman Catholic?

Too much about Mary? On one level it’s nothing to do with Mary! It’s about God’s grace, of which she is described as being full of: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace’, the archangel’s greeting. On another level it is everything to do with Mary; she is the person, the woman, chosen to be the mother of the Saviour.

The initiative is with God in choosing this particular daughter of Zion. That is why Mary is an exemplar of being a Christian, one who is open to the movements of God’s grace, saying yes, not no. After all, Eve – the mother of all the living, as her name means (Genesis 3.20) - was created without sin, placed in the Garden of Eden and yet, with her husband, said ‘no’ to God and ‘yes’ to the serpent. As we see in statues of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, she tramples down the serpent, reversing the transgression of Eve and bearing in her womb the New Adam.

Doesn’t it make out that somehow Mary’s not quite human, just a bit too perfect? There have been aspects of Marian devotion that have seemed to disconnect Mary from being human. This is often seen in art, but not in the New Testament or in the dogmas of the Church. Jesus was ‘born of a woman, born under the Law’ (Galatians 4.4); scripture and dogma insist on the humanity of Mary (otherwise how would we claim Christ’s humanity as well as his divinity?) Mary was a woman living in a broken world, but one who was freed by grace to act in a different way from Eve so that the bitter reality of human sin could be reversed.

What is more, the Immaculate Conception is not about Mary being conceived in a way that had no human agency. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is not saying that the act of physical love is wrong, dirty or deficient. Anne and Joachim, as husband and wife, conceived their daughter in the way that any one of us is conceived; they slept together, they procreated, or whatever nice way we want to put it. Mary was human in her DNA; a woman in her chromosomes; and a child of God by grace.

Too Roman Catholic? The understanding that Mary, daughter of Anna and Joachim, was immaculately conceived is long held in Christianity, drawing from the gospels, of which more anon, and wider early tradition. Orthodox Christians don’t like defining things, but they still celebrate Mary’s conception as marking out her unique vocation to be the Theotokos, translated literally God-bearer, or Mother of God. Similarly, for Anglicans The Book of Common Prayer (1662) may not use the word ‘Immaculate’ but it still marks in the Calendar the observance of the ‘Conception of the BV Mary’ on 8th December each year, and that predates the Marian Dogma of 1854 in which Pope Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception.

So there is an ecumenical consensus that Mary matters and that she is a pattern for Grace and Hope in Christ, as the document of that name from the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) put it in 2005. That document shows a remarkable convergence of Marian teaching - perhaps ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’ - between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. We shouldn’t ignore that not all Anglicans would assent to ARCIC, and, we shouldn’t gloss over differences, but we could all agree, I hope, with Pope St John XXIII, that ‘the Madonna is not pleased when she is put above her Son’. ARCIC acknowledges that there are deep and important roots to what we celebrate, today, in the Immaculate Conception of Mary:

In view of her vocation to be the mother of the Holy One (Luke 1.35), we can affirm together that Christ’s redeeming work reached ‘back’ in Mary to the depths of her being, and to her earliest beginnings. This is not contrary to scripture, and can only be understood in the light of scripture. Roman Catholics can recognise this in what is affirmed by the dogma – namely ‘preserved from all stain of original sin’ and ‘from the first moment of her conception.’ (Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ: An Agreed Statement. ARCIC. p. 57-8)

So what? So this teaching is agreed by Anglicans, with Roman Catholics, to be consistent with scripture and understood in the light of scripture. Perhaps then we should ask, ‘so what’? What does this dogma of the Immaculate Conception mean for us today?

The Immaculate Conception of Mary is about salvation, preparation and the human body as the dwelling of the Most High. It tells us that the journey of holiness is precisely to restore in us the image and likeness of Christ.

Mary’s conception, without sin, points to us the possibility of the redemption of human flesh as the dwelling place of God. Indeed in the Mass we receive the Body of Christ into our bodies, such that they become shrines of God’s presence. We are, as it were, a monstrance, a vessel that carries Christ, reveals Christ to the world and imparts Christ’s blessing to all creation.

In this season of Advent may we be prepared to receive Christ afresh in his coming again in glory, as surely as he came into our midst born of Mary, Mother immaculate, Mother of the Saviour, Mother of God. Amen.

Monday, 2 December 2019

'Wake up to the Coming Christ!'

Isaiah 2.1-5; Romans 13.11-14; Matthew 24.36-44


The season of Advent
            which starts today
                        is a wakeup call!

As St Paul puts it:

‘Brothers and sisters, you know what time it is,
how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep’. (Romans 13.11)

Wake up,
            Paul says,
to what it means      
            to live
as those who have put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

What that way of life
            looks like:
                        is honourable living;
                                    not living       
                        loose, aimless, lives
            that have no purpose
                        or meaning
            and that are not
                        caught up
                                    in squabbles and envying.

Wake up!

The wakeup call of Advent
            means we live
                        with our eyes open:
                                    open to God,
                                                in worship;
                                    open to our neighbours
                                                in kindness;
                                    open to the needs of the world
                                                - of justice and peace -
                                                in vigilance;
                                    open to the signs of the kingdom,
                                                in eagerness;
                                                and open
                                    to Christ’s coming again in glory
                                                in faithful attention:

With the call
            to be awake
comes the call of many peoples,
            which Isaiah describes.

What an invitation that is:

            let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
            that he may teach us his ways
and that we
            may walk in his paths.’

Going up a mountain
puts us on
a vantage point.

From a vantage point
            you can see all round
                        – a 360 view –
            you can survey what lies below,
                        and gaze up
                        to the heights, to the heavens.

The vantage point is where
            the sentinel,
                        the lookout,

The sentinel, the lookout,
            is the one who stays awake
                        while others sleep.

In the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids (Matthew 25.1-11)
            - which follows on, in St Matthew’s Gospel, from today’s reading -
            all the bridesmaids all fall asleep
                        and all wake
                                    when they hear
                                                the sentinel’s cry.
Yet only five wake prepared,
to meet the bridegroom
when he comes.

That parable fleshes out
what we have heard
this morning.

The message is
                        stay awake
            and be ready,
                        for the Son of Man
            who is coming at an unexpected hour.

It’s time to wake up:
            to be looking outwards;
time to be prepared
            with our lamps trimmed,
(in contemporary terms, to have batteries in the torches).

Advent expectation
            relies on us being awake,
            to the reign
                        of the Prince of Peace.

Advent wakes us up
            to the claims of Christ
in his first coming amongst us –
the Incarnation –
of which we say in the Creed:
            for us and for our salvation
            he become incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
            and was made man.

Advent wakes us up
            to another Gospel proclamation
articulated in the Creed:

                        and he will come again glory to judge the living and the dead,
                        whose kingdom will have no end.

Advent wakes us up to
            and receiving
                        Christ, the Bridegroom

The sleeping Christ
            in the manger of Bethlehem
was watched
attentively and adoringly
            by Mary, his mother and her husband, Joseph.

Let us,
            like Mary,
gaze longingly on Christ
            who comes to us
                        in the breaking of the bread.

In this Eucharist we stretch out our hands
            to receive the Bread of Life;
may we also,
as the Advent hymn puts it,
prepare our hearts too
            to receive him
                        when he comes again in glory:

Let every heart prepare a throne,
And every voice a song.       (Philip Doddridge 1702-51)

The prayer after communion for Advent Sunday is also a good prayer before Communion on Advent Sunday, so let us pray:

O Lord our God,
make us watchful and keep us faithful
as we await the coming of your Son our Lord;
that, when he shall appear,
he may not find us sleeping in sin
but active in his service
and joyful in his praise;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.