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Thursday, 2 July 2015

Faith, trust and persistence in the face of disbelief

I used the poems and reflections of Malcolm Guite to form today's homily at St Stephen Walbrook:

‘The feast of the Visitation celebrates the lovely moment in Luke’s Gospel (1:41-56) when Mary goes to visit he cousin Elizabeth, who was also against all expectations bearing a child, the child who would be John the Baptist. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit came upon them, that the babe in Elizabeth’s womb ‘leaped for joy’ when he heard Mary’s voice, and it is even as the older woman blesses the younger, that Mary gives voice to the Magnificat, the most beautiful and revolutionary hymn in the world.’

Malcolm Guite describes their meeting like this in his Sonnet on the Feast of the Visitation:

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys
Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place
From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise
And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.
Two women on the very edge of things
Unnoticed and unknown to men of power
But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings
And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.
And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young’,
Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime’
They sing today for all the great unsung
Women who turned eternity to time
Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth
Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.

Mary needed that moment of empathy and inspiration because the experience of being the Theotokos, the God-bearer, was a difficult one. Difficult, because she was not believed - both by those closest to her and those who didn’t really know her. Mary was engaged to Joseph when the annunciation occurred. As she was found to be with child before they lived together, Joseph planned to dismiss her quietly. He had his own meeting with Gabriel which changed that decision but, if the man to whom she was betrothed, could not believe her without angelic intervention, then it would be no surprise if disbelief and misunderstanding characterised the response to Mary wherever she went.

We can imagine, then, how important it was to her to be with a relative who not only believed her but was also partway through her own miraculous pregnancy. The relief that she would have felt at being believed and understood would have been immense and then there is the shared moment of divine inspiration when the Holy Spirit comes on them, the babe in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy, and as Elizabeth blesses Mary, she is inspired to sing the Magnificat. In the face of so much disbelief and lack of support, this confirmation that they were both following God’s will, would have been overwhelming.

We can learn much from Mary’s faith, trust and persistence in the face of disbelief, misunderstanding and probable insult. We can also learn from this moment when God gives her both human empathy through Elizabeth and divine inspiration through the Holy Spirit to be a support and strengthening in the difficulties which she faced as God-bearer. Our experience in times of trouble and difficulty will be similar as, on the one hand, God asks to trust and preserve while, on the other, he will provide with moments of support and strengthening.

Mary has been given many titles down the ages but ‘the earliest ‘title’, agreed throughout the church in the first centuries of our faith, before the divisions of East and West, Catholic and Protestant, was Theotokos, which means God-Bearer. She is the prime God-Bearer, bearing for us in time the One who was begotten in eternity, and every Christian after her seeks to become in some small way a God-bearer, one whose ‘yes’ to God means that Christ is made alive and fruitful in the world through our flesh and our daily lives, is born and given to another.’ In his poem ‘Theotokos’, Malcolm Guite suggests some ways in which Mary’s experience can speak to us and inspire us in the challenges we face as we go through life:

You bore for me the One who came to bless
And bear for all and make the broken whole.
You heard His call and in your open ‘yes’
You spoke aloud for every living soul.
Oh gracious Lady, child of your own child,
Whose mother-love still calls the child in me,
Call me again, for I am lost, and wild
Waves surround me now. On this dark sea
Shine as a star and call me to the shore.
Open the door that all my sins would close
And hold me in your garden. Let me share
The prayer that folds the petals of the Rose.
Enfold me too in Love’s last mystery
And bring me to the One you bore for me.


Malcolm Guite - Singing Bowl.

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