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Patronal Festival: The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Sep 17, 2021, Author: The Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury

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“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God”.

I am very grateful to Father Jeremy for his invitation, and for his welcome, and bring you the greetings of Salisbury Cathedral on this, your patronal festival. It is very good to be with you, and although I’ve driven sixty miles, to feel at home. You value the choral tradition, as do we; your beautiful church building dates to the thirteenth century, as does ours; your dedication is to the Blessed Virgin Mary, as is ours.

The scale of our medieval ancestors’ dedication to Mary never ceases to amaze me. One bit of evidence for that can be found in the rollcall of precious relics accumulated by Salisbury Cathedral in the first few hundred years of its life. A manuscript in our archive from 1536 records that at that date the canons possessed the relics of approximately 200 different saints. Among those 200 they possessed only one relic of St Bartholomew (his thumb) and two of St Peter (a piece of his cross and a parcel of his hair). Whereas they had in their collection no fewer than six relics of Mary, including drops of her breast milk, a chunk of her sepulchre, and pieces of her handkerchief.
I would have loved to produce them for you this afternoon. It would have been quite a Show and Tell. But two years after the list was compiled Nicholas Shaxton, Bishop of Salisbury, wrote to his clergy demanding that he be sent such relics as they possessed. Idolatry had been practised in the Diocese, he insisted, and devotion paid “…to vain things; namely stinking boots, rotten girdles, great bullock horns, filthy rags, and gobbets of wood”.

The relics were swept away, and a fair few of the 200 saints were swept away too, their offence being their want of foundation in Scripture or in history. Despite the undoubted panoply of superstition that surrounded her Mary did not share their fate. The most radical of the Reformers could not argue with her Biblical attestation, and on the simplest reading of the Gospel witness she is at the very least the girl who says yes to God’s angel; the mother who will not run from her son’s scandalous death; and the disciple who waits patiently in the upper room for the Holy Spirit to come.

Obedient; enduring; faithful: Mary is all those things, and yet as this afternoon’s Gospel makes clear, her story is not without its complexities. In an exchange of emails during the long hot summer (!) Father Jeremy and I determined that we would hear a short passage from St Matthew this afternoon: only six verses. We spared you the seventeen verses which precede those six, seventeen verses which outline the genealogy of Jesus, seventeen verses which begin with the patriarch Abraham and work through more than forty generations. I may have skipped Show and Tell but perhaps I can set you some homework? Go and read them, and amid Hezekiah begetting Manasseh and Manasseh begetting Amos, look out for the women whom Matthew names. In their stories we learn even more about who Mary is for us; we learn the truth of what Paul writes to the Romans: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God”.

Salmon is the father of Boaz by Rahab; Boaz is the father of Obed by Ruth; David is the father of Solomon by Bathsheba; Joseph is the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born. Rahab and Ruth: what do they have in common? Neither were Israelites: Rahab was a citizen of Jericho, and Ruth was a Moabite. Bathsheba and Rahab: what do they have in common? They are the victims of abusive men: Bathsheba, a married woman, was impregnated by a lustful king who had her lawful husband killed; Rahab was what we might nowadays call a sex worker, who gave hospitality to foreign spies. And Mary – named after these three in a line of succession – discovers that she is expecting a child when she is still unmarried, a reality that exposes her to the risk of death by stoning. It is so outrageous that an angel gas to be called in to calm Joseph’s jitters. As with Rahab, as with Ruth, as with Bathsheba, so too with Mary: God looks beyond the pristine and the predictable; God is interested in whatever is strange and unknown; God takes what looks like scandal or catastrophe; and God makes of it something beautiful. Micah reminds us that it is always out of one of the little clans of Judah that God’s saving work emerges.

God does it with Rahab, with Ruth, with Bathsheba, and with Mary. God will do it with you and me. Timothy Radcliffe, the Dominican friar and author, uses a wonderful image. He points out that it’s the job of the Royal Mint to press coins carrying the portrait of the Sovereign. You and I are like those coins; we emerge from God’s mint carrying the portrait of the Sovereign, the supreme Sovereign – the portrait of Christ. It’s just that whereas Her Majesty the Queen looks the same on all the coins circulating in her realm Christ looks like – well, like you, and like me. Each of us carries his image. That’s what God works in us – because all things work together for good.
And Mary lights the way. Unlike her, who all generations call blessed, none of us has arrived yet. In our endless vanity we kid ourselves that we’re human beings but we’re always human becomings. The image of the sovereign that we bear is tarnished and indistinct. We are works in progress, on our way to perfection, on our way to completion; on our way to being revealers of Christ in all our words and thoughts and deeds.

The west window in the tower of your Church was given in 1883 in thanksgiving for the Victorian divine and Tractarian EB Pusey. In 1845 Pusey was invited to preach a course of nineteen sermons (yes, nineteen) in the week following the consecration of a new church in Leeds. I’m full of admiration for the congregation’s stamina. It makes me feel faint just to think of it. Pusey’s theme was ‘The Glory of the Body’. Christ’s human nature is at the right hand of God the Father, he claims, and it is to Christ’s body of glory that our earthly bodies will ultimately be conformed. This is not something that will happen when we die. It is something that begins now. In Baptism we have been made the children of God; in the Eucharist God lives in us; we seek day by day, says Pusey, “…by prayer and daily diligence to have his image, line by line, retraced in us”.

Line by line; day by day; hour by hour we grow into the stature of the humanity that God intends for us and that the mother of Jesus displays for us. You and I need only allow God’s work to be done. Amen.