Beauty and Brutality: The Feast of Our Lady’s Birthday 2017

For those of us who live our lives according to the liturgical calendar, there can be both felicitous co-incidences and awkward disjunctions. The latter are more thought-provoking because they call in question many of our unexamined assumptions. Take today’s feast. I have often waxed eloquent about its beauty, as shy and lovely as the Autumn Crocus called ‘Naked Lady’ from its association with this feast. At other times, notably in this post for 2015,  I have been at pains to reflect on Mary as the archetypal mulier fortis, not at all the idealised milksop of much conventional piety. But I have not often drawn attention to the fact that we are sometimes confronted with a huge gap between what we are celebrating in choir and what everyone around us is experiencing. This morning that is especially marked. We sing of beauty but those devastated by the floods in South-East Asia or Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean know only the brutality of the disasters that have engulfed them. If we look further afield, we see more and more human suffering in the endless bloody conflicts and mass movements of people that characterize this century. How difficult it can be to go on affirming the promise of Micah 5. 1–4 or the confident assertion of Romans 8.28–30! Shall we really live secure, does God actually turn everything to our good?

I think the only honest answer to these questions is akin to that which Mary gave to the angel at the Annunciation. We do not know how, but we give our assent, we trust in the goodness of God. To those who have not tried it, that response will seem pathetically inadequate. It admits that we do not have any explanation (who could know the mind of God . . .); it acknowledges that there is no easy solution, no quick fix, no soothing balm (our wound is incurable . . . ). It simply says, God is God and as such he can be trusted; we cling to that knowledge with a wisdom wiser than we know, for it is faith and faith alone that can lead us. I love St Bernard’s image of Mary as the aqueduct that brings us the Water of Life. This morning, however, I think it is the image of Mary as a new-born child, unaware of her tremendous destiny, that both comforts and challenges me. It is not power or wealth that determines the outcome but love. There’s something in that for us all to ponder.

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Our Lady’s Birthday: the holy and the homely

The Church celebrates just three nativities: that of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. All three births are interconnected; each one has a special role in the history of salvation. The birth of Christ takes centre stage while those of his mother and cousin appear from the wings in a supporting role. The focus is always on Christ, as the liturgies for the respective feastdays make clear.

St Bernard has a lovely phrase to describe Mary and her role in salvation: he calls her the aqueduct that brings us the Water of Life. The humility and glory of God’s mother are both revealed in that phrase, and the astonishing trust God places in us as human beings . . .

In England this feast day often sees the first autumn crocus, once popularly known as ‘naked lady’ in honour of Our Lady. If you find one in your garden, why not say a prayer? Just as Mary unites in herself the holy and the homely, so that delicate purple flower reminds us of the presence of God here and now in the everyday circumstances of our lives.

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The Birthday of Our Lady

A couple of years ago I wrote of this feast:

The Church celebrates only three birthdays: those of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist. The Birthday of our Lady, which we celebrate today, is a lovely feast, full of light and joy. In the East, it is one of the twelve so-called Great Liturgies. The earliest sermon for the feast is by St Andrew of Crete (though my favourite is by St Bernard) and the day was once marked by a special procession or litania from the Forum in Rome to Sta Maria Maggiore. In England look out for the autumn crocus, the popular name for which, ‘Naked Lady’, is a reference to Mary.

I failed to mention my theory, which I daresay many will shoot down in flames, that devotion to Mary has been both a help and a hindrance to women in the Church. On the one hand we have been given a model of Christian discipleship we can make peculiarly our own: Mary, the strong woman of Nazareth, whose love and faith were unequalled; who gave us our Saviour; who intercedes for us now and at the hour of our death. On the other, we have the ideal no one can ever measure up to: the perfect woman, the eternal mother, someone remote from the inadequacy and messiness of our own lives.

Much of the history of women in the Church can be written as a study of the tension between these two conceptions of Mary. That is why this feast has always seemed to me important. It reminds us of the reality behind the narrative of Christ’s birth, his human lineage; and just as the genealogies of Christ weave into the story some surprising figures, so our ignorance of Mary’s antecedents means we cannot assume that her background was fairytale perfect. We must remember Mary, born an ‘ordinary’ human being, growing up with no one thinking her in any way special, with no education to speak of, no glorious future mapped out for her (a mere girl!), never apparently destined for any great service — and yet, the Mother of God whom all generations would call blessed. Today we think of her small and vulnerable, possibly even a disappointment to her parents, and ask ourselves: would we have passed her by as just another baby, just another girl?

May the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, help us to see ‘Christ, lovely in limbs not his.’ Amen.

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