Beginning with Mary
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
7 September 2008, 10:30 (Blessed Virgin Mary)
I wonder if you recognise this beginning to a recent novel? Read the opening paragraph of ‘Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’ .......
If you didn’t recognise that, how about this? Play the opening bars of ‘The Train’ by Show of Hands.
Beginnings. Fascinating moments which set the scene, draw you in, whet your appetite, intrigue you, get you on the edge of your seat.
It's almost impossible to know where the story and the song are going to go. Beginnings are exciting, unnerving, because you simply don't know what's going to happen. It's the same with the birth of a new baby, the start of a journey, the first day of a new job. Rob, Scott, Tamsin, the choral scholars, the choristers, Roger, Doug, Andrew, you probably all feel like that today. A blank page, an unwritten symphony, anything could happen.
And for all of us, if you are anything like me, ever since school days, the start of September always feels like the beginning of a new year. So it’s a new start of sorts for all of us, and I want to offer a few thoughts about how we approach this blank canvas, this fresh page, this clean start, by reflecting on the place of our patronal saint, Mary, today on the occasion of our annual patronal festival.
It is not enough to say that Jesus could have been born into the world through any woman. The biblical story makes it clear that Mary was specially chosen. Why? I don’t normally do 3-point sermons, but here’s the exception to my rule. 3 things, among the many things we could say about Mary, that set her apart.
1. She was pure.
We talk about the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is not just a reference to the miraculous nature of a 'virgin birth', but the utterly innocent, unsullied, purity of Mary as an icon for a totally new beginning for the world.
Purity is not in vogue these days. It's not just that we don’t like the concept of purity, it's that in our global village with its information highway, it's hard to feel pure any more.
We look at starving faces in Bangladesh and feel guilty; we see pictures of Iraq and feel guilt by association; we feel guilty about Zimbabwe because in the past we Brits were part of the problem and in the present we can't see how we can be part of the answer; we go shopping in Tesco and feel guilty every time we buy PG Tips instead of Fairtrade, or because we've heard that Tesco turn a blind eye to the maltreatment of turtles in South East Asia; we use our high Street bank to support the local economy but know we have no real control over where they invest our money, and so we feel guilty that our high-interest current account is financed by investments in places like the armaments industry; we buy our kids some trainers from Bluewater but worry that they've been made in a sweatshop in the third world; we feel guilty about driving our car because of global warming; parents who both work outside the home feel guilty about neglecting their children but don’t know how else to pay the mortgage... (and so on and so on) ...
When our dog Jasper was a puppy, he was adorable. In those days, every time I went out with Jasper, someone stopped to talk to me. Strangers I’d never met began chatting away like old friends. It reminded me of when our children were babies, pushing them out in the pram. Suddenly passers-by would stop, lean over, smile, coodgy-coo, and within seconds you would be exchanging life-stories.
What is it about puppies and babies that causes cracks to appear in the Great British reserve about talking to strangers? I think it’s to do with purity and innocence. New lives, canine or human, are an open book, an unwritten story.
When it snows unexpectedly and you open the door on to a fresh fall of snow, do you find yourself unwilling, like me, to place that first footprint in the pure virgin snow? There’s something magical about an undisturbed snow fall. It resonates with some deep and primeval desire for a perfect, untouched new beginning.
Despite the general public’s mockery of figures like Mary Whitehouse and Lord Longford, I believe there is a desire in the public consciousness for the church to take a lead in demonstrating what it might mean to lead a pure life in our complex modern world. This is the role of the holy fool, the court jester, the figure of fun who may yet be the only one who can express the truth to those around them.
So to all of us, Mary brings the challenge of purity, striving to live as best we can as unsullied children of God in a complex and far from pure world. Today’s new starts, all of them, are opportunities to wipe slates clean and commit ourselves to purity, innocence and holiness.
2. She was an Outsider.
Mary was a poor, uneducated woman from an insignificant place, bearing a child out of wedlock, bringing him up in his early years as a refugee in a foreign country. In so many ways, this placed her as an outsider in her faith and culture.
Valuing the outsider is a recurring theme throughout the pages of the Bible. Christ's life was spent moving towards people who had been excluded from the inheritance of their Jewish faith - women, children, outcasts, the sick, the poor, the sinful and the corrupt. You cannot read the Bible and escape this: God is for the outsider. Faith, hope and love are gifts for everyone, not just the usual religious suspects. Christianity is a missionary faith.
This should guide and inform everything we do as a cathedral. It's why we offered to place the emerging idea of a Pioneer Curate here, and I hope that not only will we support Rob in his ministry among those who the church struggles to reach, but also that Rob's work 'out there' will affect us deeply 'in here', and get into our spiritual blood.
Valuing the outsider is what lies behind the HLF Interpretation Plan, the work on the Faith Observatory, our Education work, our involvement with Emmaus Medway, Angelspace, the Festivals. It's where the link with Chennai is so rich in possibilities. And there's a challenge for Scott, Neil, Catherine, Dan and all the musicians and liturgists here – valuing the outsider should motivate all that happens in liturgy and music too, for music is not self-serving, it is missionary.
So Mary challenges this cathedral that bears her name: How do we value the outsider in our music and liturgy, in our hospitality and our education work, in our mission and ministry?
3. She was Obedient (Luke 1:38)
Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be to me according to his word.
Living obediently is a powerful thing. If you go to Malling Abbey you can't fail to be struck by the quality of their life - together, and as individuals.
In all monastic communities, that life is held together by the glue of vows – there are different vows for different communities, things like poverty, stability, chastity, and obedience. Not everyone is called to make such vows, but in an age when none of these qualities are in vogue, we could do well to reflect on the liberation that vows of this nature bring.
When members of the community came here for the Gundulf anniversary service in March, it was the first time that some of them had left the Abbey for over 30 years. I asked one of the nuns afterwards about whether they found their vows restrictive in any way, and she told me the amazing thing is that they actually experience them as a liberation.
The vows of Poverty and Chastity may get the most press, but obedience is the vow perhaps most misunderstood. Obedience is to accept the will of God and to submit to it, believing it to be for our greater good. It is a powerful thing, because ultimately it relies 100% on believing a) that God is good, and b) that God wants the very best for us. If you think about it, disobedience betrays one or other of these two core beliefs.
Obedience for Mary meant submitting herself to a path in life that she may not have chosen for herself, recognising that God wanted to use her to submit herself for a greater good.
Obedience for us as a cathedral will involve submitting ourselves to a bigger story than our own. We may love this place for its architecture, for its music, for its history, for its sense of place. But ultimately it is here to serve the purposes of God, rather than to serve itself. And that will challenge us deeply from time to time, but as we submit obediently to the call and will of God we will experience this as a liberation and not a constraint.
At this time of new beginnings, uncertain of how the story will work itself out, but excited by the possibilities, our patron saint Mary calls us to purity, valuing the outsider, and obedience. So may we, like Mary, magnify the Lord, and rejoice in God our Saviour .... wherever it takes us.