Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church, Killiney, Co Dublin on 18th December 2005
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Luke 1:38
Protestants don’t do Mary; which always leave me feeling slightly bemused and at a loose end when I’m at some of the great cathedrals. Next summer we are spending five day in Paris, the stay will include a visit to Notre Dame, the cathedral of Our Lady, a wonderful medieval building on an island in the river Seine.
We’ve twice been to the cathedral of Our Lady at Chartres—a fantastic place. The city lies to the south west of Paris in the midst of very flat agricultural countryside. Huge cornfields stretch in all directions and the cathedral dominates the skyline for miles around. It is said that you can see the cathedral from twenty miles away. For centuries the two great spires would have caught the eye of those working in the fields and going about their daily lives, making them think about a world and about things far beyond their understanding.
Chartres was a place of pilgrimage in times past and it would be easy to see how those journeying towards Chartres would have been awestruck by this vast edifice – even more so when going into the cathedral and seeing the soaring ceilings and the most beautiful medieval stained glass. The cathedral at Chartres is designated as a World Heritage site by the United Nations, its fame has spread all around the world.
You go into such places, and even if you’re not a religious person, you get a sense of reverence, a sense that this is a special place
I wonder though, if we do a disservice to Mary. We lose the flesh and blood Mary to whom Gabriel and we get a woman whom we associate with statues and stained glass and buildings. I remember being at Chartres and at one point in the cathedral seeing an altar with a medieval statue of Mary and the infant Jesus. I wondered what the young woman from Palestine would have made of this great cathedral named ‘Notre Dame’ in her honour. Perhaps we should ask what Mary, whose trust in God was absolute, would have made of those who say they follow her Son today.
Mary appears in the Gospels as a woman of outstanding qualities. She does not always completely understand what was going on. Do you remember the time when she and Joseph lost Jesus on the way back from Jerusalem when he is twelve years old. They go back to Jerusalem and they find Jesus in discussion with the teachers at the Temple. Mary is confused, she says “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
Then do you remember when she and Jesus’ brothers came to take him home from where he was speaking, “Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him”, Saint Luke tells us, “but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.”
Jesus’ words always seem to me to be a sharp rebuff to Mary. Hasn’t she always heard God’s word and put it into practice? She continues even when she may not understand
Mary’s part in the Gospel story is a story of involvement, serving God in an unprecedented way. Mary’s involvement demanded her whole self. There was no holding anything back. Having a baby was not something she could pick up when it was convenient and put down when it didn’t suit. It demanded every moment, every possession, every expectation, every hope, every thought, every breath.
Mary’s part in the Gospel story is a story of commitment. There are moments when she does not understand Jesus, but she is committed to following him even when she is not clear where that might lead. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he and his disciples are at a wedding at Cana and the wine runs out. Mary is already aware of Jesus’ extraordinary powers and says to him that the wine has run out and she gets an enigmatic answer, ‘my time has not yet come”. She says to the servants that they are to do whatever Jesus tells them. Here is a moment with a huge potential for embarrassment, for making herself look foolish, for getting things completely wrong, but she is committed to Jesus, whatever it might mean.
Mary is not frightened of involvement, she does not shy away from commitment, nor does she fail to meet the demands of faithfulness. Faithfulness for Mary meant standing at the foot of the Cross watching Jesus die an agonising death, faithfulness for Mary meant a sword piercing her soul – it meant anguish and sorrow and desolation. Faithfulness for Mary dragged her to extremes of human existence.
Perhaps we should be cautious when we say that we don’t do Mary. If we leave Mary out of our thinking we leave out the story of Jesus’ most faithful disciple.
This young Palestinian woman takes this huge burden upon herself and her heart is broken before being filled with the joy of the Resurrection. Mary’s example calls on us to become involved; it calls on us to make a commitment; it calls on us to show faithfulness. The story of Mary challenges us to be very different people in order that we would share in Mary’s joy.
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” May we also be the Lord’s servants.