(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
Jesus ‘said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’
And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.’
Long before the notes of Pomp and Circumstance were strung together, and its lyrics begun to sing about a Land of Hope and Glory; long before William Blake jotted down the verses of Jerusalem; and before Britannia started to rule any wave; in fact, even before St George’s Cross was borrowed from the Republic of Genoa to become the flag of this land; before that time, England looked to another symbol, indeed to one person, in which to find its unity, its pride, and its comfort in times of need. England looked to Mary.
According to tradition, during the reign of St Edward the Confessor, one thousand years ago, England began to be called “dos Mariae”, Mary’s dowry – meaning that out of all the Christianised countries, out of all the places one could possibly imagine, England was Our Lady’s own possession, her portion which she loved, protected, and offered as her own precious gifts to her divine Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. But what’s more fascinating about this tradition is that “Mary’s dowry” was not an official dedication, some pious slogan that a saintly king or an archbishop came up with, rather this was the fruit of popular devotion to the Mother of God, the product of the faith and love of people like you and me. And if England was Mary’s possession, this sentiment was nowhere more felt than at Walsingham, a tiny speck of village in Norfolk – which many of us know well – where our Lady had a replica of her holy house of Nazareth, and where countless pilgrims from all over the country and even the near continent flocked to ask Our Lady’s intercession.
This morning two of our hymns recall our attention to this tradition.
‘Mary of Walsingham, Mother of Jesus,
Pray for thy dowry, the land that we love.’
and our offertory hymn sings,
‘Joy to thee, Queen, within thine ancient dowry’
But besides the obvious nostalgic sentimentality and emotionally charged devotion of these lines, what can we, in a multicultural twenty-first century England, get out of all this? I mean, we are not it the Middle-Ages anymore and dowries are something that has largely into disuse. So what would be the point of recalling these traditions of times long gone by?
Well, first, the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham and its connections to England as somehow being as her special possession, should remind us to pray for a revival of the Christian faith in this land; it should give us confidence in praying, as the Walsingham prayer says, for the ‘conversion of England’ so that more and more people may turn to the Lord Jesus.
Secondly, this feast should inspire us to present Our Lady with gifts of our own. Let us make room for Mary in our lives, giving to her our hearts, our future, and our every good deed, to be her dowry as well, and she will, in turn, present them as precious offerings to the Lord. Indeed, about this second, more personal point, today’s gospel gives us a simple instruction; which is nothing too morally demanding nor too taxing to put into practice. The gospel simply says to each of us, ‘Here is your mother’, and then “take her into your home”.
England may have stopped being widely known as Mary’s dowry, and not many people may know the significance of Walsingham, but the Mother of Jesus, always remains our mother as well. So, when we are pressed down by worries or plagued by indecision; when we find ourselves stuck on top of our own personal calvaries, when we are dejected or discomforted; when, like St John at the foot of the Cross, we feel powerless before the suffering of others; the gospel simply says, ‘Here is your mother.’ Then, in those moments let us take Mary with us and she, Our Lady and protectress, will help us in our every need.
During the formative years of my vocation I took part in a number of ecumenical pilgrimages to the holy island of Iona, off the coast of Mull. We would walk almost ninety miles over hiking trails, fields, and costal paths only to arrive, exhausted and happy, to celebrate Easter Day with the monastic community of the island. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the only thing I remember clearly about each of these pilgrimages is the sense of sheer joy I experienced arriving to Iona. I don’t remember the falls along the way, the blisters, or the relentless wind – only joy of having finally arrived.
For those who know me fairly well, what I just said should not come as a shock at all as I tend to be – shall we say – a little forgetful. But the fact that my recollections only focus on joy may have also something to do with selective memory; something that each of us can fall into, especially after experiencing difficult circumstances. In fact, even St John’s gospel recalls Jesus talking about such a thing as selective memory when he says, ‘A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world’ (John 16:21).
Selective memory helps us to focus on our accomplishments; giving us the morale boost we would need should we be confronted by similar situations in the future. After all, if I remembered all the hardship my group of pilgrims endured walking down steep and freezing slopes in the pouring rain for a week, I would have probably never done that pilgrimage again… So selective memory can be helpful as we make our way through life; but it can also be a trap that prevents us from seeing clearly the reality of what we have been through, hampering our sense of gratitude towards those who have helped us along the way. And this is never more critical than when selective memory affects an entire nation; it is never more dangerous than when selective memory becomes selective remembrance.
In the midst of the Battle of Britain, on 20th August 1940, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons with powerful words that made it into the history books; words that have influenced the collective remembrance of the nation ever since.
‘The gratitude of every home in our Island, …and indeed throughout the world, …goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’
Remembrance informs our gratitude. In other words, the way in which remember informs the way in which we give thanks to others, and indeed to God, according to justice for what they have done for us. Therefore, if today we remembered “the Few” and just “the Few” whom Churchill spoke of as “British airmen” then our remembrance would be selective and so our sense of gratitude would also be selective, excluding others whose valiant efforts also determined the outcome of the Battle of Britain.
‘It's not “lest we forget”, it's “lest we remember”. That's what all this is about -the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence… Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.’
Alan Bennet places these words on the lips of Tom Irwin, a cynical supply teacher in his acclaimed play the History Boys. This scathing gibe which could appear directed towards the entire culture of remembrance is, in fact, a dig at the way in which we tend to idealize, streamline, and make palatable the ways in which we remember momentous and tragic events, such as war, or in our very case also the Battle of Britain. This is a dig at selective remembrance, and we should do well to heed its call.
Let us remember that almost a quarter of the pilots who met the enemy in the skies of Britain came from fourteen other countries – 24,39%, if my I am doing my maths right. Let us also remember the ground control staff; the countless civilians who lost their lives in air-raids whilst working in airplanes and ammunition factories. Let us remember those who kept watch over our skies in the Royal Control Corps, now disbanded.
The very peace we have enjoyed on this continent for the last seventy years was wrought into the brotherhood and the blood of those who fought to defend the skies of Britain regardless of their nationality, but only in the pursuit of justice. If Britain had fallen under the enemy bombardments, God only knows what would have happened. D-Day would have perhaps never arrived, and certainly it would not have played out in the way it did. VE Day would have never dawned, and the oppression of totalitarism, racial hate, and fascism would have held sway across an entire continent…
In the Christian sense remembering has much to do with making present past events in their entirety. It means being honest about what happened so that we may properly give thanks to God and to everyone involved. That fateful Battle we remember today indeed tuned the tide of the World War, it was won over the skies of Britain and the Channel, and it was fought by the Few, the Forgotten Few from other countries (almost airbrushed out of history), by the Control Corps on the rooves of our cities, and by the many men and women who valiantly supported them at ground control, and in the spitfire factories. Today we call all of them to mind in one single act of true remembrance. To them all today goes out our debt of gratitude. And for them our prayers ascend to God the Father, that he may grant their souls eternal rest, that after the hardships they endured for the cause of justice they may be welcomed into a the joy of his kingdom. Amen.
Jesus says, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.’ (Matt 18:20)
I don’t know if you have ever walked into the middle of a conversation, like I have done many a time, and you ended up getting the wrong end of the stick altogether… It is easily done, and it can happen to anyone. In fact, the same type misunderstanding can also happen when we approach the Bible outside its proper context, or even more so when we focus on an isolated verse of the Scriptures and we draw all sorts of conclusions from just that one phrase.
Today’s gospel gives us a couple of examples of very common misunderstandings which can easily arise when we take the teachings of Jesus out of their proper framework. At the beginning of our reading we see that Jesus gives instructions on how to behave towards other Christians when they do something wrong – instructions that could lead even to the exclusion of a member (or as this is known in church terms, “excommunication”). A bit harsh, we might think, but pretty straightforward to apply on the whole. Then again, you see that Jesus says here, ‘If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him’ (Matt 18:15), so you can imagine how it could go horribly wrong. And if this were all the Christian teaching one had to go by, one could feel perfectly entitled to see it as their duty – their vocation even – to corner and to shame another person about their conduct… ‘go and have it out with them!’
The second example of a common misunderstanding comes a little further down as the Lord says, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them’ (Matt 18:20). Again, if this were all the Christian teaching we had to go by, we could think that (a) praying on our own wouldn’t get us very far all, and (b) as long as there was at least one other person with us, then we could pray and worship in any way we wanted because Jesus would be with us to make sure the Father would grant us all our wishes like a divine Genie of the lamp. For both of these examples, similarly to walking into the middle of a conversation, if we are unaware of the context in which they were set we could end up misunderstanding what Jesus actually meant to teach us and get ourselves caught up in a religion of our own making.
But what is the context of the Scriptures? Jesus identifies it as the Church when he says that all his teachings are applicable within “the Community” of believers. The word used here is “ecclesia” (Cf. Matt 18:17), meaning the assembly of all the faithful which the Lord gathers around himself, the collective body of all Christians. It is this Community that the Lord charges with recalling all people to repentance, whilst not to judge anyone; this is the community entrusted by Jesus with “binding or loosing” (meaning forgiving sins and welcoming back stray members); this is the community entrusted with the message of the gospel; and, regardless of its size, this is the place where Jesus primarily meets with his follower.
Oftentimes is can be all too easy to grumble and to feel dejected about “the Church” as an abstract reality, but if today’s gospel teaches us anything about our community of faith is that the ecclesia, the Church, is essentially the backdrop against which the true meaning of the Lord’s teachings could stand out and become relevant for us. Christian thinkers of several denominations, and first among them the Church Fathers, have taught for millennia one simple phrase; ‘extra Ecclesiam nulla salus’ meaning ‘outside the Church there is no salvation’. This is because the Church is essentially our context, the one body of which we became part at our baptism, and the backdrop against which we each play out our individual vocation to be the person – our true selves, as I said last Sunday – that God created, loves, and finds indispensable.
Maybe I sound like an idealist here, painting such a rosy picture of the Church as the community to which all people are called, and the place where each person can be their true self. But I have experienced the alternative to this view. I spent a good few years being angry towards the Church, wanting to ignore it, and to move on. But being part of this community gives full meaning to the gospel – in a sense, the Church brings the gospel to life in each generation as a tangible reality. Being gathered around the Lord Jesus – at least on Sundays – at Mass gives meaning to the saying, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.’ And being Church gives meaning to our prayers. Indeed, being part of the Church is what gives meaning to our being Christians. To pretend otherwise, to think that Jesus calls everyone to follow him, but that “he doesn’t do Church” would be the biggest misunderstanding of them all.
Jesus says, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ (Matt 16:24)
In St John’s Gospel there is a famous statement Jesus makes about himself and his mission that can appear a little puzzling especially when compared to what he says this morning. In John 10 Jesus says, ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10); which means that to follow Jesus should make us experience life to all its true and possible fullness. However, today in Matthew Jesus seems to paint a bleaker picture saying, ‘anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it’ (Matt 16:25); and besides this Jesus also invites all prospective Christians to ‘deny themselves and take up their cross’ (16:24).
So, which one is it? What does living the Christian life really entail? On one hand the peddlers and sympathisers of the so-called Prosperity Gospel – popular in America and with the Trump administration – would say that genuinely following Christ would bring blessings of personal achievements, well-being, and financial security as immediate rewards from the Lord; therefore living life to its fullness in a very tangible sense. On the other hand, many people (both within and outside the Church) insist on picturing being a Christian as essentially the pursuit of self-denial, to the point of reducing religion to a cold list of dos and many, many don’ts.
But actually the truth is that both these interpretations, apart from being polar opposites, are also neither helpful in promoting Christianity, nor an accurate picture of what the Christian life really looks like. Jesus does bestow fullness of life on his followers, but this fullness has often little to do with material comfort, financial security, or personal achievements. Similarly, the purpose of the self-denial and of picking up the cross which Jesus talks about is never an exercise in self-loathing. Jesus does not ask us to straggle along behind him beating ourselves with sticks. So, once again, what does living the Christian life really entail?
Last week I quoted one of my favourite theologians in saying that ‘Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary’ (BXVI, Homily, Sunday, 24 April 2005). But I understand that we can’t often perceive how important this is. In a culture where we are constantly told that self-image and worth are determined almost exclusively by what we possess, by what people think of us, by how many likes our social-media accounts get, and by how we conform to the latest trends, we risk creating a fake reality around ourselves in the hope that all this will provide our lives with meaning, shield us from pain, give us security, and ultimately bring us happiness. Yet, this artificial self of our own making has nothing to do with the person God created and loves.
When Jesus invites each of us to follow him, to live the Christian life he is essentially asking us to lose the fake and transient realities we have manufactured for ourselves (sometimes even at great personal costs); he is asking us to dispose of those things that distract us from being a Christian, and he is asking us to lose all those life plans we made without consulting him, in order that we may find our own true self in him; or rather, so that we may discover our own identity in being the person which the Father thought of, loves, and finds indispensable.
If we do this; if we constantly look for our true self in Christ, if we bear the cross of whatever circumstance we find ourselves in because of our faith, if we strive each day to follow Jesus by imitating him, then we will be able to experience the fullness of life Jesus promises to his followers.