Monday, March 26, 2012

Mary's "YES" and "NO" (Canon Arthur Middleton)

Arthur Middleton who spent 10 years in Sunderland and 24 years as Rector of Boldon is an Emeritus Canon of Durham. He was a Tutor at St Chad's College, and served on the College Council being Acting Principal in 1996-97. He is an Honorary Fellow of St Chad's, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a Patron of the Society of King Charles the Martyr. He is on the Church Union Council Standing Committee and Publications Committee. As a prolific writer of books and articles, he has completed three lecture tours in Canada and Australia. I had the privilege of hosting his two visits to Brisbane. He preached this sermon at All Saints' Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, on 9th September, 2001.


Mary is the bearer of the God who comes and is given the name the Theotokos or God-bearer by the Greek theologians of the early Church. In his poem Gabriel to a girl Unwed, the late Anglican priest and theologian Austin Farrer puts Mary's response to Gabriel in these words:

'My only prayer is to be a handmaiden of heaven.'

We remember that it was to this she was born. It was by no means an easy option and started in the unlikeliest of circumstances, by having to accept an unmarried pregnancy. Mary must have talked about this experience with its accompanying thoughts and problems, joys and anxieties. The ponderings of her heart would focus on that bundle of potentiality she carried within, those hidden purposes of God, as she was kicked awake in the early hours, and her morning sickness would not let her forget it. The unmarried Mary would know the tension in relationships with her parents and the gossip of neighbours, as well as the strained relationship with Joseph who didn't know who the father was. Her imminent marriage was threatened with cancellation. This drastic step was only averted when that same Spirit to whom Mary had pledged her obedience, led Joseph to share her understanding and obedience.

From birth Mary must have been overshadowed by an invisible go-between, stalked by the Spirit of God. A moment of recognition and awareness moved her mind and life of Mary in another direction drawing Joseph with her. This is what it means to have your life sealed by the Spirit of God. He it is who really awakens and helps us to see in a way previously unknown. He it is who gives the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and knowledge.


Julian of Norwich speaks of this kind of experience in chapter 5 of her Revelations. She wrote:

'God showed me too the pleasure it gives him when a simple soul comes to him, openly, sincerely, genuinely. It seems to me when I ponder this revelation that when the Holy Spirit touches the soul it longs for God rather like this; "God of your goodness give me yourself for you are sufficient for me. I cannot properly ask anything less, to be worthy of you. If I were to ask less, I should always be in want. In you alone do I have all". '

Previous to this Julian is given a vision of Our Lady, St. Mary, at the moment of the Annunciation, and tells how at once she understood something profound about Mary which had not been so obvious to her before. In this vision Mary appeared in surprising simplicity. She was not the 'queen of heaven', but a simple peasant girl of humble birth. This was the whole point: Mary's greatness lay in her deep humility and her simplicity. In Julian's vision Mary simply said, 'Behold God's handmaid'. Julian goes on to tell us that two other points were being made to her; first, that God (who is almighty, and maker of all that exists) desires to make himself known to simple creatures; secondly, that he can make himself known to us (as he did to Julian) because of his own self-emptiness or humility. The humility of God deliberately chose to be born of a common woman, in divine humility, and because of this there is now a permanent bond between his own being, and humanity. God is one with us. 

Julian learned that God - who is all-powerful - is already with us in this life. Furthermore, she discovered that He, who is all-holy, wants to be known to us in this life in an intimate and personal way, rather than merely through doctrine and rules. She writes in ch. 7:

'For truly it is the greatest joy that could be, as I see it, that he who is highest and mightiest, noblest and worthiest, is also lowest and gentlest, most humble [homely] and courteous. ' 

In other words, God is not only homely and personable but also friendly. The point of this vision, beginning with the image of Mary at the moment she became the Mother of God, was to show that God is both humble and kind; wanting to communicate with his creatures, and also capable of it.


This kind of knowing, a deep interior, intuitive love-knowledge is the fruit of attention, and attention, is not something that can be compelled. It is an involuntary state of mind, a concentrated gaze towards the object of attention. It requires the art, the ability to be still in silence.  One of the most obvious characteristics of Mary is her stillness and silence.  Continue reading . . . 


Post a Comment