Sunday, 1 January 2012

A Jewish Mother

The internet is abuzz with news about the new arrival. Fr Jeffrey Steenson is to be the new Ordinary of the latest Ordinariate, of the Chair of St Peter. My own particular delight is that another former student of St Stephen's House achieves high office in the Catholic Church. Fr Scott Hurd trained with us there and now he is to be a top gun in the Ordinariate; Vicar General, no less. It couldn't happen to a nicer chap.

Here our little Group in Bournemouth is planning a coach for Jan 15 to take us to the Ordinariate Evensong & Benediction at St James', Spanish Place. There are still one or two seats left, so if you are interested let me know. We are hoping there may be a few from the Salisbury Group joining us, too.

This morning, we worshipped with the parish congregation of Our Lady Queen of Peace. Fr Gerry invited me to concelebrate and preach: and here is what I had to say on this happy day:

As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.

Mothers have a great gift – the gift of embarrassing their children. When the son brings a girlfriend home for the first time, there is mother with the photograph album, ready to let the girl see just what a geek the son was with those braces on his teeth. It is not done with any malice; it is just that to a Mother, her son is always that, her boy. And she remembers so much from his childhood, since it was so important to her. When she was in her nineties my own mother would speak about me. How old is your son now? they would ask. ‘Oh, about forty’ she’d say - very flattering, when you’ve already had your seventieth birthday; but she could just as easily have said “about twenty” or “about fifteen” – that’s how she remembered me.

So it was nothing extraordinary that Mary remembered the events surrounding her Son’s birth – every mother does it. But every mother does not give birth to the Son of God, and the time of Jesus’ birth has been remembered not just for a lifetime but for two millennia. And whereas the day I fell out of the pram, or the day I learned to ride a bike are just the sort of thing that happens to everyone, the day the shepherds came to the stable is eternally significant. Yet unless Mary had treasured these things and pondered them in her heart, they would have been lost to us.

So Mary is a typically proud mother, indeed a proud Jewish mother; but her son never studied to gain an ology (do you remember Maureen Lipman in the BT ads?) What Mary had to remember about Jesus was vastly more important; this child, she was told by Simeon, is set for the rise and fall of many in Israel. She was to be the Mother of her Lord, the Mother of God himself.

There was a Muslim scholar speaking on radio recently, trying to show how inclusive and reasonable Islam was; “but we believe the Bible”, he said, “we honour the prophet Jesus and his virgin mother.” Don’t be deceived. Like every heresy throughout history (and Islam is a heresy, a distortion of Christianity) Muslims pick and choose which parts of Holy Scripture they will believe and which they will ignore or deny. It was like that way back about four hundred years after the Resurrection, centuries before Mohammed was born. There was a false teacher, a monk called Nestorius, who refused to give Our Lady the title “Mother of God” – or rather its Greek version, Theotokos, the God-bearer. For two hundred years that had been how orthodox Christians spoke of the Blessed Virgin; she was the God-bearer. The person who first used the phrase was Origen, and it caught on as a perfect description for the role of Mary in the Christian story. She brought the Son of God into the world; she bore God in her womb. Well, Nestorius did not like it; to him it sounded as though this was damaging Jesus’ humanity. He was fully human – and Mary gave birth to a human son. Eventually it took a Council of the Church, the Council of Ephesus, to decide the matter. That decision we firmly hold, as Catholic Christians; that Jesus is fully human, and fully divine. The Blessed Virgin did not give birth to two sons, but to one, Jesus, and her Son is properly called Son of God and Son of Man.

In all this, the Church relied on what Mary had remembered and what St Luke and others had written from what she told them. She who had seen and heard and experienced all these things treasured them, and pondered them in her heart. She is, before anyone else, the first Christian theologian, the one who contemplated the mystery of Jesus’ birth and realised that this was, indeed, Son of God.

You will find Christians who shy away from the word ‘theology’. They say they are simple Christians, and they are worried by dogma. Theology, though, is simply an attempt to find out the truth about God, and give a coherent account of Him. Doing this, we also have to discern the truth about his creation, especially about human beings. That was the aim of those who wrote scripture; from the first page of Genesis, the question is how mankind came into existence, and how we are connected with our Creator.

The Nativity of Jesus is the greatest step in this journey of discovery; that is what this whole festival is showing us. When the appointed time came, as the Epistle tells us today, God sent his Son, born of a women, born a subject of the Law; that is, he was fully human, governed by the laws of nature as we all are. Unless he had been like us in this, we could not have become like him. But he is truly Son of God, who is sent into the world; and so the Spirit who is in his Son can interact with our spirits, enabling us to cry Abba, Father.

This is why theology matters. The Church’s teaching about God and man is based firmly on Holy Scripture - and especially on how Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. When we pray, when we work at the meaning of the words of Scripture, when we wrestle in our minds with the teaching of the Church, we are honouring Mary – for this is what she did, and our praying and pondering continues her work in this generation. So you see after all this Jewish mother is concerned about an ology. Not Sociology, like Beattie in the ads; but theo-logy; the study and knowledge of God himself.

If Mary had not treasured all these things, from the visit of Gabriel to the birth in the stable, from the visit of the shepherds to the need to become refugees in Egypt, if she had not pondered these things and entrusted their meaning to Our Lord’s disciples, our knowledge of God, our theology, would have been very deficient. As it is, we can trust Mary the theologian more than any other teacher; and part of her lesson is that we can become a little like her if we will treasure these things, and ponder them in our heart too.

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