The real Christmas story

I was a bit startled to discover the other day that about 40% of people in England do not think Jesus is a real person. The problem is, of course, that some of the things we say about Jesus, especially about his birth, are not about the real Jesus of history, but ideas about the birth made up by later generations. We all love seeing little children in Nativity Plays in which Mary arrives on a dear little donkey, after seeing a white fluttering angel, and then they sing Away in a Manger in which the baby Jesus, unlike all other babies, doesn’t cry ; but I am sorry to have to tell you that none of these things are actually part of the real story.


I have to inform you therefore that Baby Jesus almost certainly cried and had to have his nappy changed, although I do not know what kind of nappies they used in the 1st Century. I am happy to admit that an angel came to Mary, but the Bible makes it quite clear that most angels do not dress in fluffy white gowns and have wings; for people who see angels in the Bible either mistake them for ordinary people like you and me, or are so overwhelmed, as the shepherds were, that all they see is glory and light.


As for that little donkey in the dusty road! Well, Joseph might have been able to afford a donkey, but there is no evidence there was one, because people in those days, even very pregnant women, were quite used to walking long distances to get to where they wanted to go. We only have to look at those poor refugees flooding into Europe at the moment to see the truth of this.


Why am I going on about this, and perhaps spoiling the story for you? Well the answer is that since Christmas is about God choosing to come close to us, choosing to becoming one of us; then Mary has to be like those refugees, women on the road at the moment, and Jesus must be a real baby who might have died, like some of these babies have, because he was born in rough conditions with no home comforts.


The real story of Jesus is not some phantasy dreamt up by Disney with pretty music in the background. The real story is like the birth of so many babies in the world today, a tough situation where many do not survive, made worse by cruel people who will kill women and children if they think it necessary, just as Herod’s soldiers did.


The birth of Jesus is a miracle because it is real. This child did survive to become a man, and that man, that real man, changed the world. For his followers, that is us the Church of the apostles, died for the truth about Jesus that they proclaimed; and in doing so gradually, very gradually, brought more and more people to acknowledge, that his message of love in the midst of suffering and death is more powerful than all the killing that we humans can inflict on one another. This is the real Jesus that we follow, the real Jesus whose birth we celebrate at this time; and oh how much our poor sad suffering world needs to hear this message at the moment.


The Gospel for Christmas Night has the shepherds terrified by the “glory” that “shone around them”; and the Gospel for Christmas Day tells us that Jesus is “a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower”. Of course we all know that this doesn’t mean that that Baby Jesus had light and glory shining out of him. Only a very few would have realised that this very ordinary baby would bring the light of love and kindness lived out by ordinary men and women into this sad dark world.  So let’s do our best to share that light, and so make the real Jesus, born 2000 years ago, a living reality for those around us this Christmas. It is a hard job to bring his love to the world, and we too may have to sacrifice much as he did, for that love ; but tonight/today that is what we are here for. We call on him now to help us live his message out every day, for it is only with his power and his glory, that we will be able to bring a little of his glorious but gentle light into a dark world.


Rejoice with God in his love for us

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- During this Advent time of preparation for the coming of the Christ child, we can easily misinterpret our bible readings as exhortations to action – things we must DO to prepare for Christmas. In fact, the Incarnate comes among us whether we recognise him or not, and all our febrile worries and activities can all too easily fall into the Pelagian trap that makes us think that we are in control of affairs, when in actual fact what we are preparing for and celebrating is entirely God’s gift. God is not one whose arm can be bent to our will and the Incarnation, the becoming human of Jesus the Son of God, is always about God’s will for us and not the other way round. God the Father is all powerful and loves his creation, and when he saw it fallen away from his will he acted to redeem it; what Leo the Great described as a “Bending down in pity, not a failure of power.” The Father has always intended us for glory, to share his life, and the Incarnation is not a desperate retrieval plan for something gone horribly out of control, but part of his master plan from the beginning, a sharing of his divinity with us through and in the person of the Son.


When therefore in our Gospel (Luke 3:10-18) we find the crowd asking John about the right manner of their behaviour, it is not principally a recipe for cleaning up their act that they are given, but a vision of the sharing which is the life of God in Trinity, what it is to be godlike. The actions called for are not primarily about morality but grace, the sharing and mutual adoration which is the Trinity in action. In this free distribution of clothing and food we meet the life of heaven. Our Jerusalem Bible translation does not quite capture the Greek in verse 12 where the tax collectors are advised to ‘exact no more than your rate’. Now the collection of taxes was farmed out throughout the Roman Empire to the highest bidders on the understanding that in addition to collecting the imperial revenues, they would take their cut in recognition for their labours. This often included the purchase of local thugs to enforce collection, and of course the tax officials could charge whatever they wanted in these circumstances and frequently became very rich, as Luke’s story of Zacchaeus suggests (Lk 19). The Greek actually says “Collect no more than you are appointed to do”, actually suggesting that they should not take any cut at all, but only what was previously arranged to be given to the Emperor’s treasury, a truly god-like act! Similarly, with the next verse, we know that troops supplemented their pay by intimidating the locals upon whom they were frequently billeted, and the bit mistranslated by the JB as ‘extortion’, is actually ‘false accusation’, meaning methods used by heavy handed troops to get the locals imprisoned and even executed and seize their property. All these things, expressions of inequality, and so un-god-like, are excluded by John as he prepares real hearers of his message for the coming of Christ. The distinction between grace and humanity in its fallen state is moreover pressed home by John’s comment that he is not worthy to untie the sandals of Jesus. As this was the job of the lowest of the household slaves, we can appreciate the point John is making, and his awareness of the gift bestowed. It is quite without comparison, grace in all its fullness.


Precisely because this is the situation, our reading from Paul to the Philippians (Phil 4:4-7) indicates the right attitude for all Christians to adopt. Not the unfortunate JB ‘be happy’, but rather as it says in Greek, “Kairete – Rejoice!” It is about God’s Kairos, his ‘time’. It speaks of an attitude of tolerance to everyone, something just as difficult for the citizens of pagan Philippi, with its myriad of gods and its Roman values and habits, as it is for us today; a reflection of divine toleration – what God puts up with from us all and what he does all the time. The letter goes on to encourage us not to be anxious (to worry) about anything, but rather to rest everything in God’s hands, and it is surely in the cultivation of this trust that we can ultimately live without fear, knowing we are always in his care and that that will not fail.


In the same vein, our reading from Zephaniah (3:14-18) calls the people of Jerusalem to rejoice as their death sentence has been repealed. Now Zephaniah was a prophet during the reign of Josiah, 640-604 BC. This reforming monarch succeeded Manasseh under whom religious practices had been allowed to slide and the worship of Yahweh declined. Israel saw this as the reason why they were being threatened by foreign invaders. With this in mind, Josiah instigated a series of religious reforms, record of which we have under the Deuteronomic historians and temple priests, and we must think of Zephaniah as a prophet who played his part in this reforming spirit. Once again we find that theme taken up by St Paul, that the Lord is among them. “You have no more evil to fear’. Such is the goodness and care of God towards his people that, far from any call that Israel (we) brush up our act), we are told that the Lord “Will exult with joy over you, he will renew you by his love; he will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival.” This then is what it means to held in God’s hands. This is the promise of Christmas which we are anticipating and awaiting, and we see precisely where we are and what we are in God’s presence.

Aiming for the best for God

The challenge for every Christian is to care about every single other person the way God cares for them, without considering their race, their religion, their background, or anything else that makes them seem different or even disturbing to us. God could have wafted into our world like an angel without really being human, but he chose to become like us; and his Baptism is the first moment in the adult life of Jesus when he does this. How easily he could have thought, “I am God’s son” or just “I am a holy Prophet. I am close to God in a special way. I don’t need Baptism like these ordinary people.”  But he didn’t! And he goes on to accept the mockery and violence of others without turning against them. For he says, does he not? “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”


Each of us is free to choose to act in this way. It can be hard to be kind and loving when people annoy us or anger us or even attack us, but that is the ideal, the target, we should always aim for. Freedom does not mean just doing what we want to. It means choosing freely to do those things and to act in those ways that serve the highest good, what we call the “Sovereign Good”, the good that is the will of God for his world. This is a high calling, this idea of always aiming for a target, and it is at the heart of what “sin” means. For “sin” does not necessarily mean that something is bad or wicked. No, “sin” actually means missing the target, falling short of the ideal. And it is only because the world uses the word “sin” simply to mean something bad, that I am going to avoid using it during these homilies on morality.


Another mistake we make is to confuse our feelings, what I feel is right and good, with what actually is right and good. Our feelings, like our conscience, can be good or bad, or rather muddled between the two. That is why the old saying taught me by my mother “Look before you leap” is so important. Some of you know how impetuous I can sometimes be, saying or doing things without thinking of the consequences. I guess we are all like that, especially when we allow our feelings to run away with us; but some of us are worse than others! That’s why our conscience, in Catholic teaching, should not be seen as an automatic pilot connected to our feelings, but much more something in our hearts and minds that is a judgement of reason rather than simply an emotion.


So if we are to treat every person properly, our conscience has to be informed. We have to work at it. This is why prayer is so important. We confessors often suggest that people pray for those that they have difficulty getting on with. But by that we do not mean pray that they will change to suit us. We mean : pray that we will see the situation the way God sees it, and rise above our feelings to something higher and better. As St Paul says in his Letter to the Phillipians (4:8) “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.”


We live in a world where people talk about justice and freedom and liberty and equality as rights that they ought to be given – by their government and by society in general. What we all need to realise is that such things can only exist if each human being strives to give them to others, strives to be a really good person every day. Those who do not believe in a higher power to turn to and pray to for help in this process are, we would say, missing out on a vital source of inner strength that we all need, to be able to live as good people. We Christians are realists. We meet each week for this very reason, we try to pray every day, to strengthen our links with God, the power of goodness and love that we need to help us cope with our wayward and selfish nature.  As Isaiah cried out in today’s 1st Reading (Isaiah 55:1-11) “O come to the water all you who are thirsty…  Listen, listen to me…… Seek the Lord while he is still to be found…. Yes, the heavens are as high above the earth as my ways are above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts.”


You have heard me say before, and I will say it again, that morality, trying to be good, should not at the heart of the Christian life. What should be at the heart of our life as Christians is our relationship with God, because it is only from this that true morality springs – a realisation of how hard it is to be truly good, and thus a turning to God every day to help us. This is the real struggling human world that God chooses to be part of, both when he is born as a human baby of a real loving human mother, and as an adult when he chooses to be baptised and to walk the road that will take him ultimately to the cross. As St John writes in his 1st Letter, of which we heard a later part as our 2nd Reading today. “In this is love: not our love for God, but God’s love for us when he sent his Son to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away.” (1 John 4:10)


As I give this series of Homilies on the Moral Life that we Christians are called to live out in response to that love, I hope I will be able most of all, not to go on about sin, but to share with you the high ideals that we should all be aiming for. And this all starts, as I said at the beginning, by us aiming to treat every person the way God treats us all, with infinite love and understanding. Hopefully then, we begin to rise above the awful ways we humans sometimes treat one another, as we become aware of our own prejudices and failings. Not just to tut tut about things in France as this week, or in Syria or Iraq or Palestine, or anywhere else we can think of, but most of all in our own back yard wherever we happen to live and work. There is the challenge we face as Christians. There is where we need God’s help and grace.

Homily on the strange adventure of the Holy Family

The story of the Holy Family is not a cosy comfortable one. Born in an outhouse and fleeing for their lives as refugees, and then settling in that rather rough town called Nazareth, they were constantly surrounded by the kind of very worldly things that any town with soldiers had to put up with. Even when they go to Jerusalem, they do not meet the Temple officials but two unofficial holy people who make disturbing predictions.

 All this reminds me of Tolkien’s great stories of Middle Earth where he shows that the cosiness of the Hobbit’s homeland is equally uncertain. As a good Catholic he puts his whole grand story within the context of a journey – a flight from danger into danger.  The hobbits are portrayed in their safe little country called The Shire enjoying life and partying away. But, faced with danger four special hobbits have to get up and go.  They are not aware then that this decision has such significance. Just like the disciples when they followed Jesus. And like the disciples (and like us) they have moments on the journey, safe houses on the way, places where they might long to stay for ever, where they are shown a bit more of what their journey is really about.

It’s exactly the same with us. Students often used to ask me why the prayer-life and the faith they knew back home has now been utterly shaken. Some thought they had lost their faith, entirely ignoring the fact that in a new situation at University, God wants them to move on, and that may well mean praying in a different way and finding Mass very different from the experience back home. We all need to realise this truth. Life, especially our spiritual life, is a journey, a pilgrimage. The changes faced on becoming a student are obvious, but actually all of us face the same kinds of challenges, for even when outwardly everything appears the same, life is always an inner journey towards God. Moments, even periods of our life, when we feel God is close, are actually only there to prepare us for the next stage on the journey. And sometimes, when we get closer to God, we may feel that he is further away. Before long, each one of us will be challenged to respond to him in new, different and sometimes frightening ways. However old or young we are, there is always a new journey to do, a new enemy to ask God to help us overcome. And remember, St Paul says that,  “The last enemy is death.”

Tolkien uses two Transfiguration moments in his story – with Elrond at Rivendell and then with Galadriel at Lothlorien – to make  the same point. But he makes further allusions to his faith at the second of these places, because here the hobbit travellers are given two special gifts. First, Lembas, is a special bread that will not go stale, to sustain them on the journey. This is just like the unleavened bread the Israelites took with them into the wilderness – the same bread that Jesus gave to the disciples at the Last Supper – the same bread that we receive at Mass transformed into his presence to sustain us through life.  The second gift is Light – the Light that Galadriel tells them will be a light for them when all other lights go out, even at the darkest moments of their lives – just like the light we are given at Baptism and given again at every Easter Vigil.  Signs of God’s presence for us whatever darkness we have to face.

Our Gospel also reminds us of one other thing we need to do, to listen. “This is my Son.. Listen to him.”  Tolkien makes this point too although he does it in a more comical way by showing the two younger hobbits constantly failing to listen. Merry and Pippin are great characters because they are so much like us, whilst Frodo and Sam have the darker more obviously Christian road. They are the ones who have listened and now discover that certain of these the words come to them to save them in moments of great peril.  Like them, we too must listen, because we never know when what we have experienced in the good times will not sustain us when times are tough.  I once cared for a young man in his 20’s who suddenly discovered he was dying. He had given up the faith, as many young people do.  But now, “I’m scared“, he said. For a moment I was stuck for what to say, but then suddenly it came to me. “Do you know the story of the Prodigal Son?”  The story he had listened to in his childhood suddenly came back to him as a voice from a loving God, and with that voice for support his fear left him, the last enemy was defeated, and he died in peace.

 So with Mary and Joseph, right from the beginning of their life together, they too have to listen to God again and again, and often what they hear is deeply disturbing. No wonder Jesus, growing up in this family, understands what it means to really listen to God. Family life for him is a preparation for the difficult road he has to take, and that difficult road is the one he offers to us too. A great adventure not a cosy retreat.




Christmas is meant to be deeply disturbing

Frances writes on this weekend’s readings :- We can very easily get sentimental when we think about the Holy Family, indeed can make them rather twee. However the readings set for this year point in a quite different direction, and instead suggest things quite startling and disturbing. The reason I say this is because it seems to me that all those who appear in our stories both from the Old Testament and in the Gospel seem to be people on the edge, people who are the different and strange and the highly disturbing, which is perhaps where we are all meant to be. In our Genesis story of Abram and Sarah (Gen 15:1-6. 21:1-3) we find the patriarch the epitome of failure. He is old and childless and moreover his wife is cursed with barrenness so that his heir lives in distant Damascus, well outside the confines of what would become Israel. Abram cannot fulfil the basic requirements of a patriarch, a leader of men and provide sons to follow in his line until the Lord God takes a hand in the people’s affairs and rescues, not simply Abram and Sarah, but the very nation itself. by the promise of a son. Our text, a hatchet-job if ever there was one, significantly omits all the raggy stuff surrounding this event, with Abram and Sarah’s appalling treatment of Hagar and Ishmael; the horrific story of the Sodomites. and the resort to incest to produce offspring of the daughters of Lot, nephew of Abram. All of this speaks of the very precariousness of human life, most especially life without God. It makes very clear that without the guiding hand of God in all this the entire project of forming God’s ‘chosen people’ would have foundered right from the beginning.

Our reading from Hebrews (Heb 11:8.11-12.17-19) backs this up. and labours to impress upon us the faith of the founding father and mother of Israel and ends with that great tour de force, the willing sacrifice of Isaac – on whose life hangs the very being of the nation. We are meant to see that there is something distinctive about Abram/Abraham, as he is the one chosen out of all this chaos and violence and sin to become the leader of his people; and there is in him that God-given gift of faith which enables him not merely to respond to God’s offer of redemption, but to have some perception of that relationship with the divine which would start his nation on its long and painful journey to God. That our story ends with the aborted sacrifice of Isaac is of course the great pointer to God’s ultimate work for the salvation of his people, Jesus, the one for whom there would be no last minute reprieve; no alternative sacrifice; no ram caught in a thicket; but rather the supreme sacrifice on the cross of the only and beloved Son of God. He is the Father’s gift to his creation, born of his very being, the perfect sacrifice for a sin-ridden world.

When we come to our Gospel (Luke 2:22-40) with this disturbing background to guide us, we begin to see precisely what a strange set of occurrences surround our Holy Family as this long journey to the world’s redemption enters its final phase. First of all we have the conventional picture of the pious Mary and Joseph fulfilling the commands of the law and we think they fit in rather well. But at this point a startling event occurs. Simeon, described as ‘upright and devout’, smashes the whole thing to smithereens. Simeon is not a temple priest, nor apparently joined in any way to the elite who ran the temple or even of the ultra pious Pharisees, simply a man of prayer. Yet it is this man who becomes the rogue-cannon. First of all, unconventionally, he takes Jesus in his arms and blesses God with the acclamation that he can now die in the knowledge that he has seen the ‘salvation of Israel and the light of the nations’. But Simeon has not done a gentle or kind thing, he has declared to this couple, with no pretensions to greatness or high rank or power, that their child will be the one who, bypassing the long expected system rooted in power and political clout based in the temple and the law, will take the faith of Judaism out to the world! Simeon moreover promises Mary that her child “Is destined to be a sign for the fall and the rising of many in Israel.” This child, he prophesies, is going to be the catalyst that smashes the system and the expectations which had led and fostered the nation since the time of Abraham. He warns Mary of the pain this child will bring to her, “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” Now surely this is a terrible thing to say to a new young mother, not a scrap of comfort or of conventional well-wishing, but words harrowing and deeply disturbing, and he ends with the enigmatic promise that this child will cause “The secret thoughts of many to be laid bare.” The Greek speaks rather of the ‘revelation’ of what lies hidden in our hearts. Clearly then, Simeon’s words are not cosy but powerful. They shatter all conventions, and they do it most of all to Mary and Joseph.

This picture is taken up by Luke’s description of Anna the prophetess, and again we see that this old woman represents a break with conventional Judaism and families. She is of the tribe of Asher, up beyond Galilee, but long a widow and dedicated to the temple, though she does not seem to have any official position there, and appears to have forsaken all kith and kin for a life of prayer in the temple, something none of the temple elite or even its work-a-day clergy did. Yet she too sees Jesus and immediately praises the Lord and looks forward to the deliverance of Israel, deliberately going out of her way to tell others about him. None of our stories are about conventional or secure, nice families. All of them are about discordances, upsets, and radical breaks with the established order and expectations of it. The picture painted by Simeon and Anna, like those incidents surrounding the House of Abraham, are meant to bring us up short, to make us think and reconsider what the Christmas stories are about, and if we are looking for the cosy and the secure then we will not find it here; for just as these people are marked for life by their encounters with God, so every Crib scene we view will be overshadowed by the cross as we see depicted sometimes in the stable cross-beams of Bethlehem scenes. Christmas is above all the Feast of the Incarnation, of God’s full entry into our humanity, and it is meant to be deeply disturbing.

Why some people only come to Mass at Christmas?

It is always lovely to see people at Mass at Christmas who don’t often make it for the rest of the year, and I was wondering what it is about Christmas that makes it so special for them (or for you if you are one of them). Of course some come simply to be part of their family, for Christmas is a family occasion after all; and it is good that some people suspend their lack of belief at this season simply to show solidarity with their loved ones who do.

But I think the other thing that attracts people at Christmas is the simplicity of the story. What I mean by this is that in the stable at Bethlehem we are told that we can meet God in a tiny baby, and most of us have felt for ourselves, at one time or another, the thrill of a tiny new human being in the life of their family, and have marvelled at the miracle of new life.

But the reality of little babies is that although we can goo over them when they are tiny, they grow up; and it is the grown up Jesus who is much more difficult for many people to handle. Yes, he can teach us about kindness and generosity on the one hand, but he also attracts around himself a whole lot of people who, like us the leaders and members of the Church today, are far from perfect. And for many people that is where the problem starts; for they are happy to believe in God, but the Church? No thanks!

Yes the problem of the Church as an organisation run by people who are very far from holy, and are sometimes downright wicked, has always been a problem. Look at the 12 that Jesus chose. They are honest enough to tell the story against themselves, about how they were too blind to fully understand the message Jesus was bringing to the world; how he had to tell them off for sending children away ; how they argued amongst themselves about who was the most important ; and finally how one betrayed him, another denied  him, and the rest simply ran away when he was arrested. Yet Jesus, knowing they would behave like this, still chose them to be the first leaders of the Church. And why? Because he had to. He had to choose 12 imperfect and sometimes very sinful men because there wasn’t and never could be anyone else.

 I love some of the stand-up comedians with their clever witty remarks, especially the Newsquiz on the Radio when I am washing up, and I love them even when the Church is a target for their wit, as it often is. There is no point in pretending that we the Church are some perfect and holy organisation that it is impossible to criticise. As Pope Francis often points out – we, the Church, are merely sinners, and that’s it. And what we need to remember is that if we there hadn’t been a Church, an organisation made up of human beings, no-one would know about Jesus, and no-one would know about Christmas.

The Bible that we read our loud in Church with its message about Jesus only exists because ordinary human beings, the Church in those early years, albeit inspired by God, wrote about Jesus, or chose the writings about Jesus that should go into it. And it was the Church still imperfect that has passed it down from generation after generation until today.

So if you are one of the people who rarely comes to Mass because although you love God, and love Jesus, you cannot stand the Church, please think again. God chose to come to us despite all our failings. He was born in the midst of a little town who had no room for Mary and Joseph and stuck them in a stable. He is the Word made flesh, choosing to become one of us, despite the many times we mess up. We are called to believe in the Church that Jesus chose to create to pass on his message. We are called to be an active part of that Church however often some people in it drive us mad or say things we really don’t like. Let us be like the shepherds, not just watching the glory of the angels, but getting up and going to Bethlehem and giving ourselves to Jesus in love and service, for ever.

What can I give him? I can give him my heart.


To be a Mother to the world

In one sense all of us are meant to be like Mary, and this is especially true at this time of the year. But you might have thought that our Gospel today would have told us something of the journey to Bethlehem, a long 60 miles on the road that any heavily pregnant woman would find difficult, or the arrival in the little town to find it full to bursting with visitors, and so no room at the Inn and only a stable to rest in. But, actually, much of that story is not in the Bible at all, because for the writers of the Gospel what is much more important is how Mary came to be expecting this baby in the first place, which is why that is the story in our Gospel today (Luke 1:26-38)

 The first thing to notice is that when God calls us he is already with us. We think of God as a power outside us, and so he is, but he is also already within us. So the angel greets Mary, and instantly reminds her of this truth “The Lord is with you.” And being told this we, like Mary, ought to be “deeply disturbed”.  Why? Because, even we practising Catholic Christians prefer to think of God as at a distance from us. We want God with us on our terms. A power we can turn to for help and encouragement-  Yes.  A power we can thank and praise for the many good things in life – Yes. But we don’t really like the idea of a power that is within us, disturbing and challenging us, when we would prefer to be doing our own thing.

Those of you who are women who have borne children have the advantage of understanding Mary better at this point than the rest of us; and of course, those of us who are men will never know the physical disturbance that is part of this story – to conceive and bear a child. But we do know how disturbing this is from observation, and those who have been, or are, fathers with very young children, know how it transforms and takes over life once the child is born. As one pair of young parents said to me recently, “We are learning what sacrificial love really means, especially in the middle of the night!”

The point however is, that whatever our physical experiences are or have been, spiritually we are called upon to live our life like the pregnant Mary, bearing God within our very being, however disturbing that may be, and being prepared not to keep God to ourselves, but to share him with the world. And this is even more true for the Church as a whole, and not just for us individual Christians within it. The Church, in one sense, is called to be Mary to the world. That is why we often speak of the Church as her, as our Mother the Church, because she, the Church, is called to hold within her the presence of God, to realise the mystery of this calling, to ponder in her heart what this means, and to offer to the world what we have been given, however hard and painful that may be.

Notice that this includes asking God difficult questions. Mary says “But how can this come about?”  The idea that we should accept God’s will without question is not here in this story. That is perhaps an invention by some people who sought unquestioning obedience. Mary’s example is quite different, for after being disturbed, she responds with a tough question, and we should surely be prepared to do the same. Think of little children once they learn to talk. It is delightful, if a bit infuriating, that they ask endless questions. God made us that way, and we should never be ashamed of continuing to ask them, even questions to which we know there is no complete answer.

Mary’s question is like that. God does not explain how this is going to happen within her. All he does is tell her of what is already happening in her cousin Elizabeth. The Jesus who is already a tiny embryo within her is, as St Paul says in our 2nd Reading (Romans 16:25-27) “a mystery kept secret for endless ages”. For however much science can and does explain the process by which new life is created, it is still in another sense a mystery. A young and fairly sceptical father once said to me after witnessing the birth of his first child. “After seeing that miracle take place, I just had to believe in God.”

Yes, we think, especially when we are young and strong, that we have our life in our hands. Discovering that life is not like that, is an endless journey. We believers say that this is a journey into God – a journey in which we learn that we are called, like Mary, to a great responsibility, to give birth to God, to co-operate in God’s work of creation and re-creation for the good of all humankind.  I would like to end therefore by reading to you a little of St Anselm’s great meditation on Mary  

To Mary, God gave his only-begotten Son, whom he loved as himself. Through Mary God made himself a Son, not different but the same, by nature Son of God and Son of Mary. The whole universe was created by God, and God was born of Mary. God created all things, and Mary gave birth to God. The God, who made all things, gave himself form through Mary, and thus he made his own creation. He, who could create all things from nothing, would not remake his ruined creation without Mary. God, then, is the Father of the created world, and Mary the mother of the re-created world. God is the Father by whom all things were given life, and Mary the mother through whom all things were given new life. For God begot the Son, through whom all things were made, and Mary gave birth to him as the Saviour of the world. Without God’s Son, nothing could exist; without Mary’s Son, nothing could be redeemed.

Lady, full and overflowing with grace, all creation receives new life from your abundance.”

 We are called as individuals, and as a Church, to be like her. And Mary said “Let it be for me according to your word.”