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Mary the God-Bearer
A sermon for the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary
by Canon Simon Everett
on Sunday, 14th August 2016
Lady St Mary Church, Wareham
On the 15th August every year, in the east and the west, there is a festival to celebrate the blessed Virgin Mary, (Lady St Mary as we would say here in Wareham). And this being the nearest Sunday, and the Sunday of our flower festival, we celebrate our patronal festival. But what exactly is it we are celebrating? Well in the western church, if we give it its full title it is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Coming from the western, Latin Church, the Roman Catholic church maintains that Mary did not die, but was assumed bodily into heaven. Of course the protestant churches rejected this at the Reformation, but in the Church of England lectionary it is still a feast day dedicated to Mary – that highly favoured lady.
However, the origin of this feast day comes from the Eastern church, who do not celebrate the Assumption of Mary, instead they have always celebrated the Dormition of the Mary, (a fancy way of saying the falling asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary!). And I have to say that I find this a far easier and more genuine way to remember the mother of our Lord – gentling falling asleep to awake re-united with her son, the Christ. Which one of us wouldn’t want to leave this world in that way? Going to sleep here and waking up in glory.
There is much in the Eastern Church theology that I admire and relate to, particularly their appreciation and desire for God to be glorified. And although their emphasis is more on the traditions of the Church fathers, Icons and Liturgy (rather than the Bible) these are seen simply as means of entering the heavenly courts to worship God more fully. If you enter an Eastern Orthodox Church you will see many icons, particularly of the Virgin Mary, and usually with the Christ-Child on her lap, or held in front of her. And there is a reason for this.
In Orthodox Church Mary has a title “Theotokos”. It is a Greek word that was used by the early Church Fathers and eventually became a title in its own right. It means, the one who carries God, or ‘God-bearer’. This has led many to give devotion to Mary, but this rather misses the point. As Bishop Michael Perham says, ‘The insight of Mary as theotokos is worth holding on to because, at the very heart of faith, she is not the one who matters. She is simply a vessel for the divine, the means by which God came uniquely among a people in a way that has changed everything. Because she was that vessel, all generations are to call her blessed, but she does not point to herself. She carries Christ into the world. That was how he came first among his people, hidden in the virgin’s womb.’
What he is saying is that Mary is simply a model for all Christians. Yes, Christ’s glory fills the universe, but he is no longer seen on earth as he was in the days of his incarnation. Instead he is hidden among his people; hidden, not in their wombs, but in their hearts and minds and bodies, and wherever they go they carry Christ into this often dark and hurting world.
In other words, for all the uniqueness of Mary as theotokos, every Christian is also called to be a God-bearer. We must, everyday day in every way, carry Christ into every place and every circumstance where his love and compassion and life are longed for.
In the Epistle reading from Galatians this morning St Paul says, ‘…because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.’ Paul is saying that in order to become theotokos a transformation needs to take place. Those who desire Jesus in their lives are to be transformed from slaves to sons and daughters.
He says that this transformation of human nature came about by God’s son becoming as we are - born of a woman, sharing the relationships of a human family, so that we human beings could share the relationship that he shares with God. Isn’t that incredible, we can share the same relationship Jesus has with his Father.
Jesus came with the express purpose of redeeming us, that is paying the price of our sins, to set us free so that we could become God’s sons and daughters.
Without Christ we remain slaves, caught up in a world of sin and death where we are divorced from God’s love, where wrongdoing clings to us, dragging us into a moral abyss, living in a dog-eat-dog world where there is no true meaning or purpose but simply survival of the fittest. St Paul says that without Christ in our lives we are like slaves, driven by our selfishness, greed, covetousness and every other sinful desire. But by his death and passion Christ came to change this, so that we might be set free: and more than that be welcomed into God’s family by adoption which in turn means we inherit the riches of that family.
As one commentator says, ‘That great deed of purchase on the cross results in God now giving us the key of the door. We are slaves to the old order of things no longer. A new era has begun, one in which we have received the full rights as children.’ And those rights, and the inheritance that we enjoy, include: a new intimacy with God, whereby we can call him Abba, Father. We call him Father because by the Holy Spirit we know him, truly know him, in our hearts.
That doesn’t give us licence to get over familiar with him, but it does mean that we can approach God with a boldness and affection, in the same way that a child comes to a loving parent. Indeed, the relationship that the Spirit encourages within us is one of warmth and spontaneity. This means that we can come close to our heavenly Father in prayer, sharing with him all that is on our hearts, as well as the larger concerns for the Church and the world. What a privilege.
Another part of the inheritance we have as Christians is that we can bear the fruit, and enjoy the gifts, of the Spirit that make us individually more like Jesus, so that corporately we can become the body of Christ here on earth. In bearing God in our hearts and lives we are outwardly to show Christ to the world around in word and deed. We are to reach out to those around with the same love and compassion that Jesus showed when he walked this earth, in first century Palestine. And when we do this as a Church, united in Christ’s love, we are as Christ to the world. At least that is the theory, and this is what we should be striving for. As we will say in a few moments time, ‘We are the body if Christ, in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Let us then pursue all that makes for peace and builds up our common life’.
But of course the greatest part of our inheritance will be when our earthly work is done and we go to meet the Lord in Glory. And it is there that we shall meet all the faithful who have gone before us, including the Blessed Virgin Mary.
On this day, let us think of her faithful obedience in being willing to bear the Christ-child; her willingness to become theotokos, the God bearer. And let each one of us take up the mantle, carrying Christ into every place we go, lifting our needs (and those of the world) to the Father in prayer, trusting the equipping of the Holy Spirit.
Now, all glory to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.