My memory is failing me. Dates, names, requests, instructions and information, especially I may say from my spouse, behave like stealth bombers. They get under the radar of my memory as if they never existed. And so I haven’t a clue what I preached about last year, on this self-same feast of the BVM, not at least without digging out the original text. And if I were a betting man I’d wager that you lot don’t remember much either: so that I can safely repeat myself without anyone noticing!
But what in any case can be said about the mother of Our Lord which is new or different? So little of what we know, or think we know, about her comes from scripture, and so much from pious tradition and devotion, and from legend. The very word ‘Assumption’ is double-edged, and reminds us that doctrines about Mary are so often tinged with theological presumptions and assumptions. And I’m probably going to add to all that today, because I want to reflect for a few minutes on what the bible’s silence may say about her.
For almost thirty years before his public ministry began, Our Lord’s life seems to have been largely private and hidden, and the scriptures give us only occasional tantalising glimpses. It could be so helpful to know what Jesus was like as a child, a teenager, an adolescent and a young man; so interesting to know what struggles he may have had, what difficulties he may have encountered; but the record is largely blank. And yet it’s clear from what happened later on that his mother’s love for him was unfaltering, that through all these years Mary was always ‘there’ for her Son. It’s even possible that for some of this time Mary brought Jesus up on her own, as Joseph isn’t mentioned after Jesus was aged twelve, and may possibly have died before Jesus reached manhood.
Be that as it may, we can be certain that Jesus grew up with his mother’s total understanding and love, and under her influence and protection. I very much doubt whether the Incarnation was completed once and for all at Jesus’ conception or even at his birth. I am much more persuaded that Our Lord grew into maturity as the Christ with the guidance and encouragement of his mother, on whose lap he would have heard the stories of Genesis and Exodus and of the prophets, and at whose feet he would first have learnt how to pray.
Within this little picture of Jesus and his mother lies one of the great creative tensions of the Christian faith. Mary had the humility to live as the Lord’s handmaid, and as the willing instrument of the Incarnation. Yet at the same time she had the incredible vision to see in her son the fulfilment of God’s ancient promises. And she had the confidence to guide and encourage him towards his destiny. Luke even tells us that the child Jesus lived in Nazareth ‘under the authority’ of Mary and Joseph. There was nothing automatic or programmed about Our Lord’s response to his Heavenly Father’s will – we know that from the account of his temptations in the wilderness – and I feel sure that his understanding of who he was, and what was expected of him, could not have come about without the love and support of his earthly parents, and particularly Mary.
I don’t think it is fanciful to draw a lesson here for our own time, and for our own society. Do we value our country’s children as much as Mary valued her son? And can we, as the nation’s parents, learn from Mary to love our children with her unique blend of concerned authority, responsibility, and vision for the future? One of the many lessons to be drawn from this weeks looting on the streets of London and Liverpool and many other cities, is that parenting is not a bolt-on skill to be picked up at a few evening classes. We must learn from Mary that parenting is the means by which our children become grounded in love: it is a heaven-sent duty and privilege that determines the future happiness and well being of our society, and indeed of all humanity.
Of course there was both risk and pain in what Mary did for her son, and we don’t even have to fast-forward to the Crucifixion to be convinced of that. Luke gives us an example in the rather engaging story of ‘the day Jesus went missing’. When Jesus was a boy of twelve the holy family travelled as usual to the Passover festival in Jerusalem. On the way home, Mary and Joseph had a sudden panic: they couldn’t find their son anywhere among the long dusty caravan of people and animals trudging back to Nazareth. It was one of those classic cases of ‘but I thought he was with you’! So back they go to Jerusalem, and after much anxious searching find Jesus in the Temple, listening to Israel’s finest religious teachers. ‘My child, why have you done this to us?’ says his mother, with perhaps a mixture of relief and exasperation. It was only later that Mary would have realised that this was indeed where her love and her motherhood were leading: to that vision of his heavenly Father’s kingdom to which Jesus was now being irresistibly drawn.
Luke gives another, even more painful example later during Our Lord’s ministry, when Mary and the rest of the family come looking for him while he is teaching the crowds. Someone says to him ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside and want to see you’ to which Jesus replies ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice’. The great love that Jesus had known as a child among his family was now expanding, rippling outwards, until it was to embrace the leper, the alien and the outcast: nothing less than the whole children of God.
Perhaps Mary was the first of Our Lord’s disciples to recognise that her Son was more than merely a descendent of King David, more even than the promised Jewish Messiah. Perhaps she was the first to grasp that Jesus’ sonship with his heavenly Father was unique and intimate, and that the redemption of the whole world was to lie in who he was, and what he was to accomplish through his death. If our faith, like Mary’s, runs deep and true, there will be times when it hurts. In Jesus, the love of God always seeks to draw us away from ourselves, deeper into God, and deeper yet into the needs and sufferings of our world. Sometimes it can even feel as if our own needs are not being recognised. But that is never, never, the case. It is just that the great love that Jesus first experienced at his mother’s breast now fills the whole world, and spreads through all eternity.