Friday, July 16, 2010

An Inspiring Sermon on Mary and the Apocalypse

I always look forward to reading FORWARD IN CHRIST - THE ANGLO-CATHOLIC VOICE OF THE AMERICAS, the magazine of Forward in Faith North America (FiFNA). What a feast the May 2010 edition proved to be! They do have a WEB SITE on which a number of the articles appear. But this sermon, by Nashotah House seminarian Sam Keyes, was not there . . . so I scanned it in order to share it with you.

“l want you to be free from anxieties.” 1 Cor 7:32-40, Mark 6:1-13 

Driving in the eastern European countryside can be an anxious experience for Americans. In this blessed country, especially now in the 21st century, we are exceptionally good at signage. If, God help you, you want to go to a small town in the middle of Mississippi, you just follow the signs. There are signs with road numbers and names, signs saying what towns are ahead or to the side, signs with mileage, and signs for various landmarks. 

But say you’re trying to get to the Hungarian village of Villánykövesd. You’re driving along the motorway, and suddenly, a few meters before the exit, there’s a sign with the name of the place. No warning signs, just the one. You pull off onto the narrow country road. After a few miles of blank countryside you begin to wonder if you’re going in the right direction. After half an hour you begin to think that you’re going to end up in another country if you don’t turn around. And then, after you’ve long abandoned hope, you see a little sign with the name of the village, and you’re there. 

Sometimes, in my darker moments, I think the Christian life is something like that. Did 1 miss a sign somewhere? Shouldn’t 1 be there already? What if I’m headed in the wrong direction? 

This image is unavoidable if we look seriously at the apocalyptic implications of both of our readings tonight. In Mark the twelve are sent out with no provisions: just a staff and the clothes on their backs. The message of the kingdom is all they need, and their lack of concern for their own security only intensifies the urgency of that message. 

St Paul says it is better not to marry. Why? To a traditional Jew this should be scandalous. Isn’t the first human vocation to “be fruitful and multiply”? Is the world really ending so soon? 

And this is all well and good. But then we tell ourselves: surely we know now that St Paul’s apocalyptic expectation was wrong. The Lord didn’t return in his lifetime. Shouldn’t these apocalyptic ethics be abandoned? lt looks like we could be here for a while - shouldn’t we get on with planning for the future? 

Most of us have a hard time imagining that our lives have anything to do with the end times. We think of it in terms of grand battles between angels and demons: giant beasts and dragons, antichrists, desolation, and cataclysm. And we didn’t just make those images up: they come to us straight from Scripture-from the Revelation to St John and from Daniel, from our Lord’s own words in the gospels, and even from the kind of “signs and wonders” we see in our gospel this evening. 

So here’s what it comes down to: if I went to the beach for vacation and found a seven-headed beast crawling out of the sea, well, maybe I’d reconsider Paul’s instructions to live as if the world were ending. As it is, I’ll just get on with my life, thank you very much. 

But this is, 1 want to suggest, to misunderstand what the apocalypse looks like. We forget that the apocalypse didn’t begin with nuclear weapons or with dragons, but with the event that many of us remember three times a day: “The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary. And she conceived by the Holy Ghost.” 

The Lord of all creation, gestating in the Virgin’s womb for nine months. Then he goes and spends 90% of his earthly life in a carpenter’s shop. And we think that, because we lack dragons, we can get on with our preservation strategies, avoiding Paul’s reminder that this world is passing away. 

In an interview last year one philosopher said, “The end times will be very long and monotonous - so mediocre and uneventful from a religious and spiritual standpoint that the danger of dying spiritually, even for the best of us, will be very great” (Rene Girard in First Things).  

Nothing spectacular, just a long road, with very few signs. A road so tedious at times that we are tempted to doubt that there is anything very important about it, that anything especially interesting will come of it. The main sign on the motorway - let’s name that the Cross - seems a long way back, and it is hard to know if we’re on the right road. 

A friend of mine has devoted much of his life to working with kids in the inner-city neighborhoods of Richmond. He once confided to me that when he visits churches a lot of people tell him, “What you do must be so rewarding!” But in fact, he said, it is incredibly unrewarding, and at times he wonders if he does any good at all. Is living in witness to the kingdom rewarding? 

The assumption that our lives must be rewarding is another way of saying, with St. Paul, that they are full of anxiety. But, he says, “I want you to be free from anxieties.” Free from the need to live rewarding lives. Free from the need to live lives that are interesting. And here’s the key: free from the need to save the world. 

We live in a culture that prizes heroes, yet the Christian life isn’t designed to make us into heroes but to make us into saints. And the thing about saints is: they endure. Heroes either go down in flame and glory or they save the world - whether from terrorists or aliens or big business or popes (pick your Hollywood preference). But saints die unnoticed in monasteries after lives of silent prayer; they live simply with their families in fidelity to the gospel; they submit willingly and quietly to the hand of persecutors; they probably do not end up in Holy Women and Holy Men; and even when they do find themselves in the public spotlight - like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta - they point with trembling hands towards the Cross. 

What it means to live in the end times, then, is not that there are dragons or a rapture lurking around every corner: it is that there can be nothing more interesting, nothing more heroic, nothing more satanic or evil or world-shattering than the Cross. All battles that may come, whether fleshly or spiritual, pale in comparison to the victory that our Lord has already won. And this is both comforting and disturbing, for it means that our lives may appear to the world, and to ourselves at times, profoundly boring. We may very well be in danger of demonic attack, but equally often, perhaps more so, we are in danger of falling asleep at the wheel, of imagining that the dark, uneventful monotony means that we no longer need to cultivate virtue. 

Yet living in the apocalypse, after the Cross, also means that our perseverance on the long road has nothing to do with our own capacities for greatness but with the unending charity of Christ. 

We know that charity, as the prayer says, “by the message of an angel.” And Mary, full of grace, models for us the perfect way of discipleship: for she received that message and followed the road, not knowing where it would lead. Who knows how long it must have felt: thirty years of faith, without the benefit of many road signs. Most of us would have convinced ourselves, that we needed to take matters into our own hands, to chart an alternate route, to invent new virtues fitting for the times. But Mary “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 

Mary is Queen of Heaven not because she saved the world, but because she knew, more completely than any of us, that she couldn’t save the world. She was of all humanity the most “free from anxieties,” the most un-heroic, and so she is the first to share in our glorious inheritance. 

May her prayers bring us to the foot of the Cross, that we may know with her that the kingdom has come, and so be saved from all our anxieties. Amen. 


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