Sermons given at the 10.30 am Sunday service are regularly available as audio downloads and some in written form below.


A Quiet, Silent Piety

The Feast of the Visitation of the BVM

~

I was ordained priest thirty-four years ago on this festival of the Visit of Mary to Elizabeth. Aspects of the occasion are still vivid in my memory. I worked very hard on the service leaflet and included a quotation from the Bishop of Chester John Pearson’s Exposition of the Creed.[1] Commenting on Jesus’ birth ‘of the Virgin Mary’ Bp Pearson wrote:

         In respect of her [i.e. Mary] it was necessary that
         we might perpetually preserve an esteem of her person,
         proportional to so high a dignity. It was her own
         prediction, From henceforth all generations shall call
         Me blessed; but the obligation is ours to call her, to
         esteem her so. If Elizabeth cried out with so loud a
         Voice, Blessed art thou among women, when Christ
         was but newly conceived in her womb, what expressions
         of honour and admiration can we think sufficient now
         that Christ is in Heaven, and that Mother with Him!
         Far be it from any Christian to derogate from that special
         privilege granted her, which is incommunicable
         to any other. We cannot bear too reverend a regard
         unto the Mother of Our Lord, so long as we
         give her not that worship which is due unto the
         Lord Himself. Let us keep the language of the
         Primitive Church. Let her be honoured and esteemed,
         let Him be worshipped and adored.[2]

Mary will indeed be honoured and esteemed toward the end of our worship this morning when we sing one of our finest and much-loved hymns, ‘Ye watchers and ye holy ones’. In verse two we’ll address the Blessed Virgin Mary at the head of heaven’s ceaseless praise of Almighty God:

         O higher than the Cherubim,
         More glorious than the Seraphim,
         lead their praises, Alleluia!
         Thou Bearer of the eternal Word,
         most gracious, magnify the Lord,
         Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.[3]

I’ve reflected on Bp Pearson’s words and exhortation through the years. I’ve been helped by Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s teaching about the Communion of Saints: ‘..there is no rigid frontier’, he once wrote, ‘between saints in glory and saints who struggle with their sins’.[4]

I’ve also reflected on my own prayer, and especially my growing tendency to ask Mary to hold me in her heart as one of her spiritual children as she prayers to God through her Son and Lord. I don’t ask her to surmise or second-guess me, nor to plead for me, nor to give me what God alone can give; I simply share with her my needs, as I might share my needs with another Christian whose intercession I ask for, trusting that she will hold it before God, and that God will hear her prayer as well as mine. Most of us, after all, value other people’s prayers on our behalf.

I’ve asked myself why Mary especially receives those confidences from me. This is what I’ve come to think.

I’ve noticed through the years that those who offer less receive more. The voluble, garrulous, opinionated person is less likely to receive the confidences of others than the quiet, attentive, receptive person. The person at the forefront, who leads movements, events, organizations, who advocates ideologies, rallies supporters, has power--such a person receives disclosures, especially deep ones, less than the person standing quietly by. Only a fool tells his or her secrets to an opinionated, forceful loud mouth. By contrast, quiet attention and receptivity are the soil of sharing and disclosure.

In the witness of the Bible Mary stands among the latter sort. At every sighting, even when circumstances place her at centre stage (as at the Presentation of Christ in the Temple), she doesn’t intrude herself. When she’s very near centre stage, she never takes centre stage, nor does she seek to edge anyone out. She has no need or inner urge to be prima donna. A halo of self-possession encircles her; its beams, as far as we can tell, are attention and receptivity.

Every soul that knows its need of God will find that attractive. For in Christian experience there come moments when we’re compelled by an inner necessity to lay aside the postures and pretences, the self-delusions and fantasies which fill so much of our daily lives and relationships. Moments descend upon us when we need to say to someone who does not, cannot, will not stand over us in judgment: “This is who I am; this is my failure, this is my burden, this is my need, this is my hope.” Someone who will listen; someone whose life experience, in so far as we know it, enables them to understand.

At such times our plea is not that they will advise us, correct us, fix us, but that they will listen to us, be beside us, receive what we have to say or share; that they will hold what we share (however worthy or unworthy of us and of our calling) in their prayer to God. What we want is that they, just because of their openness to who or what is before them, will rejoice with us, mourn with us, aspire with us, resolve with us, hope with us.

Of such a quality of relationship we catch a glimpse when Mary visited Elizabeth. We know there was shared rejoicing. What else they shared between them in those months together—one so young, the other so old, yet together in the life-changing experience of pregnancy and looming motherhood--our common sense and experience can imagine.

So we’re given an image of Mary both sharing and receiving; sharing because she’s willing to receive, and receiving because she’s willing to share. And none of this is grand or assertive; it’s of a piece with her quiet, listening piety.[5]

Maybe Mary was like that as a personality from the start. Maybe her birthing of Jesus taught her this posture, when the ‘great lesson’ was

        to be little, to think and make little of ourselves;
        seeing the infinite greatness in this day
        [Christmas Day] became so little, Eternity as a child,
        the rays of glory wrapt in rags, Heaven crowded
        into the corner of a stable, and He that is everywhere
        want a room.[6]

That’s what has drawn Christians prayerfully to the Mother of God, Mary, through the Christian centuries: her quiet attention, her listening, compassionate heart; a mother for all disciples, who prays for us ardently, maternally through her Son to the Father.

Her intercession for us is not to avert the wrath of a distant Deity but to hold us sympathetically, compassionately on her heart before our heavenly Father as part of the family. For who more than Mary among Christ’s followers is our sister, our mother (Matthew 12.48-50)? Are the words we’ll sing later in this service any less applicable to Mary than they are to those standing near you, any less relevant to those on your hearts today but distant by distance or by death?

         Brother, sister, let me serve you,
         let me be as Christ to you,
         pray that I may have the grace to
         let you be my servant to.
         I will hold the Christ-light for you
         In the night-time of your fear;
         I will hold my hand out to you,
         Speak the peace you long to hear.[7]

Why should those not be Mary’s words to us as surely as they’re our words to one another?

A few years ago I hear an anthem at an Evensong service. Its words were those of the Russian writer Michael Lermontov, from one of his poems or novels. Picture a young, strong military officer. He’s entered a darkened church somewhere in the south of Russia near the Black Sea or the Caucuses. He’s far away from the young woman he loves, yet he carries her on his heart minute by minute, hour by hour. Whatever else the soldier’s love involves, and for whatever else on the brink of battle he might feel urged to pray, he stands before an image of Mary, and whispers:

         Mother of God, here I stand now praying,
         Before this icon of your radiant brightness,
         not praying to be saved from a battlefield,
         not giving thanks, nor seeking forgiveness
         for the sins of my soul, nor for all the souls.
         Numb, joyless, and desolate on earth,
         but for her alone, whom I wholly give you.[8]

He commits his beloved to Mary’s quiet, attentive love, his beloved to the interceding love of Mary, the mother of all believers. He asks Mary to be part of his prayer, so that his prayer, his concerns, may become hers too. That prayerful exchange expresses his love, and from it he gains comfort.

Such is the quiet prayerful conversation with Mary which this festival celebrates; a prayerful conversation which every believer can have his- or herself.

         She will hold the Christ-light for you
         In the night-time of your fear;
         She will hold her hand out to you,
         Speak the peace you long to hear.

Is there anything unChristian in that?

Amen.

~

 

Charles Miller

St Helen’s Church, Abingdon-on-Thames

The Solemnity of the Visitation of the BVM to Elizabeth

June 3rd 2018

 

[1] Pearson lived 1613-86; his Exposition was published in 1659.

[2] An Exposition of the Creed [2nd ed.], vol. I (Oxford, 1843), p. 218. First published in 1659.

[3] The hymn text was composed by John Athelstan Riley (d. 1945) from texts from Greek Orthodox litanies; verse two is his paraphrase of the ‘Theotokion’ sung at the end of the Offices. See The Hymnal 1940 Companion, 3rd ed., (New York, 1951), p. 352.

[4] ‘The Communion of Saints’, in Sobornost/ECR, 3.2 (1981): 195. Ramsey comments further: ‘As God-bearer, Mary helps in the bringing of the Communion of Saints into existence. As creatures with ourselves, she gives glory to her creator and ours, to saviour and ours’ (ibid.).

[5] So Jeremy Taylor, The Great Exemplar, p. 54.

[6] Mark Frank, Sermons, I [LACT] ( Oxford, 1849), p. 79.

[7] Common Praise, no. 393.

[8] Michael Lermontov (d. 1841) was a Russian soldier and writer. I have not been able to trace the source of the text which Tavener has set to music.