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The gifts of Mary at Christmas

Before coming to Leicester Diocese we lived for a number of years in Oakham in Rutland where my husband was Team Rector. One of the traditions there was that in the weeks leading up to Christmas a travelling crib set made by the local Mothers’ Union, would journey from home to home, beginning on Advent Sunday and ending up at Church on Christmas morning. Especially while our children were small this was quite an occasion in our house. The Holy Family along with shepherds, animals and wise men would arrive in a shoe box and be set up in an appropriate place for their one night stay before they were packed away again and delivered safely to their next stop. There was always a mixture of glee and frustration as the knitted figures weren’t the most stable. Getting them to all stand upright at the same time was quite an achievement and invariably you had to lean them again one another for support. One year, horror of horrors, Joseph went walk about. No one was quite sure how it happened or where he went but by half way through advent he was nowhere to be found. You can imagine the mirth, I’m sure. Typical man, disappearing off just as the going got tough.

Joseph is I think the only saint remembered for what he didn’t do and thinking about his disappearance from the stable scene at such a crucial time provides an opportunity to shine the spot light even more strongly on Mary. I’m being unfair of Joseph I know. In fact he deserves a sermon all of his own. But that’s for another time. Right now, as I recall his absence several Christmases ago and as we consider this Cathedral’s  advent theme of Stable Family, I want to explore a little of how Mary both discovered for herself and provided for her growing family the stability needed amidst what was a time of great change, stress and uncertainty. Frightened and alone as I’m sure she felt, and far from home as she was, what resources provided the necessary strength for this young woman to fulfil what was being asked of her.

And in trying to answer the question I’d like if I may to draw on two brief phrases from two of the readings we’ve heard this evening. The first is from the story of the Annunciation and Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel’s prediction about the birth of Jesus. “Here I am”, she says, “the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”. Mary embraces the challenge before her, she offers a wholehearted yes to God’s invitation and crucially she does so without knowing or fully understanding what the future holds. Her yes is an act of total trust and surrender. It’s not dependent on the outcome. She doesn’t scrutinize the uncertainty or bargain over the terms and conditions, and nor does she try to control what lies ahead. This is not passive resignation; in her great wisdom, Mary actively submits - trusting in God’s overarching love and presence through whatever lies ahead, and we know all too well that that would include great joy as well as great pain which eventually took Mary right to the foot of the cross.  The stability Mary offers is that of a woman confident in her response to God’s call and confident in God’s promise to be with her no matter what.

The second phrase I want to consider is also from Luke’s Gospel and comes after the Shepherds have been to visit the baby Jesus.  Mary, we’re told, “pondered all these things in her heart”. All around her there was turmoil and confusion, excitement and anxiety and soon the family would be fleeing for their lives, to take refuge in Egypt, away from the clutches of King Herod. There was I suspect so much to do, so many practicalities to arrange, so little sense of control. And yet Mary makes time to ponder and reflect – she dwells in the present moment and in the stillness is given strength enough to bear the weight of what lies ahead.

Prayer in its deepest sense isn’t about asking God for things and being given them. Deep prayer – the type that gives stability - is about pondering God and the things of God. It’s about creating space for entering the mystery which is God – allowing him in amidst all the mess and the untidiness of life as well as recognising him in the joys and pleasures. The stability that Mary models for us comes not from having everything sorted and organised and perfect but from the way in which she responds when there is uncertainty and turmoil and fear. And the strength to do that came for Mary from a life deeply rooted in listening to the voice of God and abiding in God’s love.

So this Christmas if everything gets too much - if the family frustrate you, the practicalities overwhelm you, or you feel the weight of loneliness, regret or loss; if you struggle with sickness, infirmity or bereavement and if the festivities are less than perfect, then remember Mary and the gifts she offers – her deep trust and submission to God’s call on her life with its many ups and downs, and her prayerful reflection on all that comes her way.

And finally, as we long for stability in our own lives and strive towards it in our homes, churches and communities let us remember with Mary that the greatest gift of all is the Christ child himself whose nature reveals the extent of God’s love for each and every person and who calls us to play our part in creating God’s kingdom on earth as it one day will be in heaven.

May I wish you all a very happy Christmas.

Leicester Cathedral

Carol Service

20th December 2018

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