Tuesday, December 08, 2020

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Here is the transcript of my podcast for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Reading: Luke 1:26-38

Something that I really like to do on holiday, if I get the chance, is to visit museums and art galleries. Today, I want to show you one of my favourite paintings. This one is a bit unusual. Some of you may remember me showing it to you before. Let me show it to you first, and then we can talk about it.

(Please see the picture in the previous post!)

This painting is now in a museum in Warsaw of all places, but it didn’t originally come from there. It was originally on the wall of a Cathedral in Faras. Now, when I first heard this, I found myself asking, ‘Where? Where on earth is Faras?’

Faras, I discovered, is in Nubia, modern day Sudan, just below Egypt on the map. The story of how it came to end up in a museum in Warsaw is a fascinating one. (I have posted a link to a brilliant website that gives the full story with pictures.) Briefly, Christianity first came to Nubia in the 6th century. The first Faras Cathedral was built in the 7th century. This painting is from the wall of the second cathedral built in the 8th century. Faras was a centre of Christian worship until the 14th century, when the region was invaded by Islamic forces and became Muslim. At this point, the Cathedral disappeared from history.

Then in 1959, the United Nations appealed to the archaeological community for help. President Nasser of Egypt was building the Aswan High Dam, which would result in the creation of Lake Nasser and the whole area being flooded. The United Nations, knowing that there were many unexcavated archaeological remains, appealed to the international archaeological community to do what excavations they could in the time available before the area was flooded and whatever archaeological remains were there were lost forever. 

Somewhat unusually, Egypt and Sudan agreed that the international teams could take half of any discoveries they made back to their own countries. This was an incentive to archaeologists to get involved. A team from Poland under the leadership of Professor Kazimierz MichaƂowski excavated in the area of Faras. No-one knew about the Cathedral, and it was discovered by accident, buried in a mound of sand. Upon inspection, it was found to have all these amazing wall paintings. They were carefully removed with some going to Warsaw and some to Khartoum.

This painting is the most famous. It is a painting of St Anna (or, St Anne, as she is also known). Who was St Anna? And why am I talking about her today? Well, Anna or Anne is the name given in a 2nd century apocryphal book to the Mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Anna, in the story, was married to a priest called Joachim. We are told that she was unable to have children, but that, as a result of prayer, she miraculously conceived and gave birth to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This makes Anna and Joachim the grandparents of Jesus.

Now scholars are very sceptical about all this and dismiss the historicity of this story. Nevertheless, our Lord would certainly have had grandparents, so Anne and Joachim are as good names as any for two of them. Regardless of whether or not they were their names, they stuck, and they inspired many paintings, including this one from Faras. It was a painting that was hidden for centuries, but which can now be seen in Warsaw and in various websites.

Which, again, is all very nice, but why am I telling you this today? Well, today is the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Feast of the Immaculate Conception as it is known in the Roman Catholic Church. And so, it seems right that we acknowledge her conception – and hence her mother – today, the day which celebrates it.

Secondly, we are thinking during Advent of those who prepared the way for Jesus. I will be speaking about the Blessed Virgin Mary herself on December 20, and John the Baptist will pop-up again in our readings next week and early next year, so I thought we might spare a thought today for the grandparents!

After all, the Blessed Virgin Mary would have been living with her parents, whatever their names were, when she conceived Jesus. We are not told what their reaction was to their daughter getting pregnant. We are told that Joseph initially wanted to get rid of her, albeit quietly, so it must have come as something of a shock to her parents, to put it mildly. Naming Jesus’ grandparents reminds us that our Lord’s coming was a real event, involving real people, with dramatic and far-reaching consequences for all involved.

If we want Jesus to come into our life today, we can expect similar consequences. One thing is for sure: life will never be the same again.

So what, I wonder, would St Anne say to us today as we prepare in Advent for her daughter to give birth? Here we can let the painting speak for her. And this is where it gets particularly interesting, for in the painting St Anne is holding her finger to her lips. What does this gesture mean? There are three possible explanations.

1. The first is the more obvious one. As we only have a part of the original painting, experts have speculated that, in the full painting, St Anne was holding the baby Mary. The first and simplest explanation, therefore, is that St Anne is simply saying, ‘Shush!’ ‘Be quiet, or else you will wake her.’

2. The second explanation is that St Anne is urging us to be silent and wonder at the great mystery that is taking place of which her baby is an essential and integral part.

3. The third is that it is a gesture of prayer. Egyptian monks were known sometimes to pray with their finger to their lips. St Anne would thus be praying and so, by implication, is encouraging us to do the same.

So which is it? Well I can’t tell you what the original artist intended by painting St Anne in this way, but I think I can tell you what St Anne herself would say to us today - and it is all three!

1. Be Quiet

The first thing that St Anne would say to us is quite simply to BE QUIET. Not in the sense primarily of stopping talking, although that would not do us any harm either, but in the sense of being still.

Our lives are always so busy. Much of what we do, we have no choice over. When I am at the School each morning, I am amazed, for example, at how much mums, in particular, have to do at the beginning of each day.

Those mums watching with sons and daughters will know what I am talking about. From the moment you wake up, before taking the kids to school, you are busy. You have to get him up, washed, cleaned, fed, his bag packed. You have to make sure he has everything he needs for the day and that nothing has been forgotten – and that’s just for your husband!

Life seems to be a whirlwind of activity in the midst of which there seems to be so little opportunity to think and concentrate on the things that really matter. To make matters worse, we add to our already busy lives so many things of so little consequence and importance. From the trivial pursuit of constantly checking our phones to pursuing the acquisition of more and more material things.

The trouble is that it becomes a habit, so that we find it hard to be still even when we have the time and the opportunity to be so. We have become scared of being still and not doing anything. We are afraid to be alone with our thoughts.

In St Luke’s Gospel (Luke 10:38-42), there is the well-known story of when Jesus and his disciples visit the home of two sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha is busy doing all that needs to be done to look after their guests. Mary, however, while her sister is rushing around doing all the work, simply sits at Jesus’ feet, hanging on to his every word. Martha reacts in the way I think most of us would react if we were in a similar situation. She says to Jesus:

‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ (Luke 10:40)

It’s a perfectly reasonable request. Jesus, however, answers her:

‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ (Luke 10:41-42)

Things do need doing, but perhaps not so many as we insist on doing and not to the exclusion of doing the thing that really matters: listening to Jesus.

We too need to take time out like Mary did to ‘listen’ and to ask ourselves what really matters in this life and whether we have our priorities sorted out. Martha was distracted by many things. What is there that we are allowing to distract us from listening to Jesus?

St Anne would put her finger to her lips today and tell us to BE QUIET. She would encourage us to be still and listen to what Jesus is saying.

2. Wonder

Having persuaded us that we should be still for a moment and take time to consider what really should matter most to us, St Anne would encourage us to take our eyes off ourselves and gaze in silence and wonder at the miracle that is taking place before our eyes.

I love Christmas – all of it! Sadly, this year is not going to be the same as usual and much of the celebrations will be muted. We will still put up decorations and celebrate in what way we can, but it won’t be the same as in previous years. But maybe that is a good thing, for one year at least. It enables us to focus on what truly matters and ask what Christmas really means to us.

It is all too easy, even for us believers, to take for granted what it is that we should be celebrating. It is very easy to miss the miracle of Christmas in all the noise and busyness of what is going on in the world around us. Just as throughout the rest of the year, we miss out on the miracle of the presence of God in our lives, not because we do not care, but because we are just too busy doing other things.

To everyone, except the chosen few, there was nothing exceptional about the birth of Jesus. Girls got pregnant all the time. And girls gave birth in crowded settings. Doubtless, then as now, it was a cause for happiness when the baby was safely delivered. But this birth was the most amazing event since the beginning of time. God had become one of us; Immanuel, God with us.

If this is not amazing, something to wonder at, then I really don’t know what is. To appreciate the wonder of it, however, needs for us to take time, to be still, and to allow the significance of it to sink in.

Listen to St Anne! In the quiet and stillness, see the wonder of what has taken place and let it amaze you. Your life will be changed because of it.

3. Pray

As in the silence and wonder we see what God has done for us, how then are we to respond? Our first response should be to pray. How else can we respond, but in worship?

This is the point at which, in different circumstances, I would be encouraging you all to come to our services at Christ Church at Christmas. That’s not possible this year. At least, not in the same way. We will be recording services for Christmas, and I hope you will take time to watch them and to join in.

We will also be opening the Church for private prayer when there would have otherwise been a public service, and the reserved sacrament will be available for all who request it. I hope some of you will feel able to come.

Wherever we take time to pray this Christmas, however, it is important that we should. But worship is more than times of prayer, public or private, important those these are. Worship is about the offering of ourselves in service to God. We thought about this earlier this year as we read through St Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome together. St Paul writes:

‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.’ (Romans 12:1)

St Paul makes his appeal to the Roman believers on the basis of the ‘mercies of God’. In the light of all that God has done for us and the love he has shown to us in the gift of his Son, what other response can there be but to offer ourselves to him in lives of worship?

The Blessed Virgin Mary said: 

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.’
(Luke 1:46-48)

Believers, sadly, disagree about various aspects of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s life. One thing I think we can all agree on, however, is that hers was a life of devotion and commitment. The Blessed Virgin Mary responded to the Angel Gabriel’s words to her:

‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:48)

This wasn’t about a single act of service, but an offering of the whole of her life in worship. In doing so, she provides a model of submission and obedience for all would follow her Son.

This Christmas, then, listen to St Anne:
  • Be quiet
  • Wonder
  • Pray
And today, as we thank God for the Mother of our Lord and for his favour to her, let us ask her to pray for us:

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee:
blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.


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