Sermon for Evensong, Sunday 18 August 2013

All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. (Acts 1:14)

Hearing the phrase “certain women” always brings to mind, for me, a deep seated memory of a soap opera that was written to show case a great array of talented Australian women. Created to give women a key role in television in this country, it was meant only to run for a few episodes as a miniseries, but ended up running four seasons. It was to give rise to another long running female ensemble program, Prisoner, recently remade as Wentworth, which premiered only recently on pay television.

What strikes me as odd about this is the need to make such a program artificially to give women an equal billing with men. Stars that were to become household names included the likes of June Salter, Jane Fitzpatrick, Sigrid Thornton, and Diane Craig. Looking back now, albeit to my childhood days when television, much like most of life in rural Tasmania, was black and white, yet to be fully awaken to the possibilities of a technological world where things could be viewed not only in shades of grey, a full range of living and vivid reality.

Certain Women also had a great array of men. Many of them were, and were to remain, big names in the entertainment industry for many years: Shane Porteous, Brian Wenzel, Bruce Spence and Charles “Bud” Tingwell. It was great to such certain women playing opposite and in leading roles to such big names in the industry. Is it that strange that a concerted effort of a few was needed to ensure that women were able to work in their own right only a generation ago?

It is with that memory that when I hear through the Gospel narratives of Luke, together with the Acts of the Apostles, the phrase certain women, for me, it is not just a footnote to those present at some of the key moments in the life of Jesus. They were witnesses to the choosing of Matthias, and, key and important people who played an important and essential part in the story of our Lord, and the increase of the gospel.

Growing up in rural Tasmania, I attended a catholic school under the patronage of Mary, run by the relatively young French order, the Marist Fathers. It would be easy to infer that this has formed my own thinking and to some extent devotion to all things Marian, but it hasn’t. Despite the teaching of the Marist Fathers, together with the Sisters of Mercy, I cannot recall any occasion in morning prayers or the Mass when a “Hail Mary” was said. Certainly, there were some strong Marian hymns, but in 7 years at the school, I had no idea how to say a rosary. For all I knew, those strange beads that the older nuns wore on their habits were some sort of strange elongated abacus!

It wasn’t until I went to University that I was given a set of beads and invited after the death of a Catholic friend to attend a Rosary. For me, it wasn’t the sort of prayer that actually did anything for me. It caused me to think and wonder. I began to enjoy arguing with some of my more ardent and fervent Anglican friends, 2 of them now Bishops of the Church, that there was nothing in the Ave Maria that is offensive to classical Anglicanism. I still hold to that, and not surprisingly, still enter into a few heated discussions from time to time with some of my peers. I can’t see how the quoting from Luke’s Gospel, the strong statement enshrined in the Nicene Creed, and the idea of praying with the company of heaven, of whom we believe Mary to be is anything but acceptable.

There are some who are quick to point out that if you say “Hail Mary” it is a bidding to Mary and therefore not a prayer through Jesus Christ our Lord. I will concede that the generally accepted translation is “Hail, most favoured one”, but I have no real problem with adding in the name of Jesus. The context makes it quite clear. Then, there is the quote attributed to her cousin Elizabeth: Blessed are you among all women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Adding Jesus to that in our devotion is not too much of a stretch either. Like the unborn Baptist who responded in joy to the voice of the Mother of my Lord, I find the two scripture verses helpful in meditation.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, seems to create a stir for some. Sancta Maria: should we rename all our Anglican churches under such patronage? Mother of God: this is at the heart of great debate at Nicaea. There, the Church accepted, and our Anglican tradition dictates that Mary is the Theotokos-bearer of God. I often wonder if there lies a fantastic opportunity awaiting a talented woman from the certain women of the Australian film industry to make a mini-series based on the Council of Nicaea: especially the bit where St Nicholas takes out a colleague and breaks his nose. Mother of God is part of our own orthodoxy.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

 

Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we lift our voices.

We pray with the saints. We pray to God. We pray to the throne of heaven. And as for the thorny and uncomfortable matter of Original Sin, Article IX of our Articles of Religion deals with this sufficiently and desirably. We’re not praying to Mary, we’re praying with Mary.

For some, this is too much. I note in my trusty office book, from the Society of St Francis, an “Anglican alternative” to the Hail Mary. It is almost the same, but rather than tackle the issues of whether Mary is the theotokos or not, a compromise is suggested:

Son of Mary, Son of the Living God.

To those who object, this overcomes the question of intent of the prayer being addressed to Mary, but rather, directly, to Jesus Christ our Lord. I’m comfortable with that for those who really do have an issue.

Being somewhat a person with a dry, dark wit, I do find the ringing of the Angelus bell on Richmond Hill, at times, to be rather amusing. My PA, Kieran and I, often smile as the balance on the 4 tonne bell of St Ignatius proves impossible to control and the well-known sequence of 3-3-3-9 is usually 5-2-4-11, or variations on that. We think a collection to have a mechanical clapper placed on it should be considered, but then again, it rules out the ministry of a couple of local characters. One of them, Bill, for 35 years, has walked up the hill and faithfully rung through the Angelus, no matter what the weather, or what is happening in the Church. Bill tells me he does this because it was one way of ensuring that not only he prayed everyday, but his intellectually challenged son would also know to say his prayers.

For some of the staff at the Epworth administration within the Pelaco Building, if the Angelus doesn’t ring, they don’t know when to go to lunch.

I’m not obsessive or fanatical about devotion to our Lady, but I do find great comfort and strength in her courage, her ordinariness and preparedness to trust God. When I was preparing for my ordination, on a retreat at Mary Knoll, a convent in Blackmans’ Bay, south of Hobart, the then Dean of Hobart, Dr Stuart Blacker, had us all dress in full clericals and cassocks and go outside in the 36º heat. I sought shade in the courtyard where one of my favourite images of Mary is located. What stays in my mind, and what I was to preach on at my first Eucharist, is the way that the sculptor had captured not only the ordinary young girl, but also her fear tinged with joys at the birth of her son. I rejoice in the ordinary, for God, in favouring Mary, gave us one of the greatest joys we could, as humanity, hope for.

This was not a merely a certain woman, this was a person whose billing in the gospel story is essential to our understanding of the incarnation. In looking at Mary, and indeed to Joseph, we are called to be midwives to the soul of all who come to know and allow to be born in their lives the living word of God. A footnote at the end of the ascension narrative, and lumped in with all the other women is not enough. The account in Luke’s gospel, and indeed the Acts of the Apostles, have not a subversion of women, but rather, a strong underpinning foundation of faith and true witness that cannot be overlooked.

Whilst our inherited testimony that in which we affirm that all things necessary for salvation is contained, despite the strong male centric stories and perspective shaped by a society so different to our own, there were, as there still are, certain women who were witnesses and ambassadors of all these things. First among these is Mary, Mother of our Lord.

Even when history continues to give the top billing to the men who were called the apostles, those certain women not only accompany the story of the Gospel, through the writings of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, they continue to be there, bearing witness to all that happened. No more should we say that they have a supportive role, but rather, they are integral and essential in the story of the Church then as they are now. For me, these certain women, of whom Mary is first and named, are the stars of the early Church. They are the ones who stand out to me every time I have that childhood memory of a long lost television show that would not be made lest someone not had the vision to see the reality of equality within a growing television industry in this sunburned country.

At the heart of catholic evangelism is the sharing of good news. Often blinded by partisanship and the babble of dogma, the role of these certain women is part of the good news our Christian story has to share. Truly good news celebrates that which we know to be good and true. Behind the upfront and glory of the celebrated 12, there was a faithful group who were constant in their prayer and support, and their part in the mission of the early Church. Those certain women, together with Jesus’ family, were part of the community on which today’s Church is founded. What they saw, what they did, and how they did it is part of the reaching out to others which is essential in our mission. Good evangelism, good witness starts with that whole idea of a community gathered in prayer and support. It is not burdened by the dogma of well-oiled machine, but rather, liberated and allowed to be that which Jesus intended.

They constantly devoted themselves to prayer…together with Jesus’ brothers. They lived out what they knew and saw. They shared with those who were invited into their community. Their role was as pivotal and important as the twelve whom we call sent. With that community, we can echo the Springtime Rhapsody from the Song of Songs, Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away, for the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. (Song of Songs 2). New growth is now happening on the seeds planted by the faithful of generations past. Tended and grown lovingly by prayer and mutual support, it is the fruit of the harvest that will be the gift of growing the kingdom in the days ahead. A new age has was heralded in by the words of an angel to a young girl, and devoted in prayer, and witness to all things that happened to her son, Jesus. She treasured them all in her heart. Today, we add our echo of the words of the Angel Gabriel, and to Elizabeth as we too, share this good news entrusted to those pioneering certain women, together with the family of Jesus:

Avé María, grátia pléna, Dóminus técum.

Benedícta tu in muliéribus,

et benedíctus frúctus véntris túi, Iésus.

Sáncta María, Máter Déi,

óra pro nóbis peccatóribus,

nunc et in hóra mórtis nóstrae. Ámen.

 

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.

Blessed are you among all women,

and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God,

pray for us sinners

now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Fr Dennis Webster

Preached at Christ Church, South Yarra