Friday, January 4, 2013

Father Bill Scott on the Incarnation

The children and congregation upon arrival at Holy Trinity, 
having processed from St Silas' Church

Further to my remarks two days ago on Mary as Theotokos, “Mother of God”, I share with you in this post a sermon preached by the Reverend Prebendary William Scott at Vespers and Benediction in Holy Trinity Kentish Town, London, on 5th May 2012 for the Society of Mary May Devotion. Father Bill, Sub-Dean of the Chapels Royal and Domestic Chaplain to Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace, is a distinguished former Vicar of the great Anglo-Catholic parish of St Mary’s Bourne Street. (This sermon has been published in the current edition of the Society of Mary’s magazine “AVE”).

“O wonder of wonders, which none can unfold:
The ancient of Days is an hour or two old;
The maker of all things is made of the earth,
Man is worshipped by angels, and God comes to birth.”

Henry Bramley’s Christmas Carol puts most wonderfully the wonder and mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I wonder how many of us when we were children used to play at Church. Those who have come to faith a bit later in life will probably not have done so, but I remember vividly playing at Church with my small friends. Most of them were Scottish Presbyterians and so it was not as much fun as it might have been.

Alexander was Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt in the third century. While he was waiting for some guests to arrive, he stood by a window, watching a group of boys at play on the seashore below the house. He had not watched them for long before he discovered that they were imitating, evidently with no thought of irreverence, the elaborate ritual of Christian baptism. He sent for the children and had them brought into his presence. In the investigation that followed it was discovered that one of the boys, who was none other than the future Primate of Alexandria, Athanasius, whose feast day we celebrated this week, had acted the part of the bishop, and in that character had actually baptized several of his companions in the course of their play. Alexander, who seems to have been unaccountably puzzled over the answers he received to his inquiries, determined to recognize the make-believe baptisms as genuine; and decided that Athanasius and his playfellows should go into training in order to fit themselves for a clerical career. 

Well, one never knows where one’s make believe games will lead one. Athanasius became the great Apostle of the Incarnation and suffered greatly in the process because he was faced with the followers of Arius. The Arian concept of Christ is that the Son of God did not always exist, but was created by—and is therefore distinct from and inferior to—God the Father. Thanks to Athanasius we have the words in the creed about Jesus – God of God, light of light, begotten not made. Athanasius taught that God took to himself human flesh, drew humanity into the Godhead. He became man: that is he became what he was not. The eternal became temporal. Back to the Christmas Carol:

“He is that he was, and for ever shall be.
But becomes that he was not, for you and for me.”

The doctrine of the Incarnation is pointing us to a mystery which we can only ponder and never fully understand. People try to water down which it is, telling us by saying Jesus was a human being who was open to God just as we should be. They say that Jesus may have possessed a high degree of consciousness of God. But that is not Christianity. The Epistle to the Hebrews stresses that Jesus is both utterly human and utterly divine. As Jesus said to Peter, “Flesh and blood has not revealed it.”

Many have sought and still seek to keep the divine and human apart. That is where the role of Mary in relation to the incarnate Christ is a vital test of faith. In 431 the Council of Ephesus gave to Our Lady the title, Theotokos, God bearer, Mother of God. That is, mother not only of the human flesh of Jesus, but of the flesh of God, and because of this union of natures, all humanity was called to union with God in and through the flesh.

We are not a religion which seeks to escape from the flesh, from our bodies. God has taken a human body, the body of Mary and been born in it. Jean Vanier the founder of that amazing organisation “L’Arche” which seeks to provide Christian homes for people with handicaps and special needs and give them a purpose and meaning in life has said that love is “revealing to someone his or her own beauty.” In God’s dealing with Mary, her beauty is revealed to her as the chosen and loved by God so that she can go on, not only to say, “Be it unto me according to thy word,” but also, “all generations shall call me blessed.”

There is a profound insight in recognising that we need someone else to help us discover our own beauty. St Ignatius of Loyola capitalises on this when he suggests that we begin our prayer by pausing and pondering how God looks on us:

A step or two away from the place where I will make my contemplation or meditation, I will stand for the length of an Our Father. I will raise my mind and think how God our Lord is looking at me, and other such thoughts. Then I will make an act of reverence or humility. (Sp Ex 75)

How one actually shapes this brief ritual will be different with each person and open to one’s own creativity and devotion. There are many ways to revitalise God’s loving gaze. A little private liturgy in which both body and soul enter into private prayer can be a great help in deepening the authenticity and stillness of our prayer. It can help to reduce distractions and allow God to work in us. Christian Art has seen many portrayals of the Annunciation and nearly always our Lady is gazing on the angel and is in a posture of reverence. It is this wisdom which St Ignatius takes up.

The prophet Zephaniah talks of God looking at us with love when he says: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty saviour; He will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love. He will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals” (3.17-18).

This image of God rejoicing over us, dancing with joy over us, is something to relish in prayer because this is what the Incarnation is all about. The Holy Spirit will come upon us as we bask in this joyful love of God.

The 13th century Blessed Beatrice of Nazareth begs of God in one of her simple but profound prayers which is one of my favourites:

"Teach me to pray, God.
You see everything
You hear everything
You know everything
You experience everything in me and with me. 
You are my companion and my beloved. 
Nothing is hidden from you.
Your love for me is light,
And in this light you see everything."

God looks on us as he looked on Mary and longs to help us discover our own beauty. God’s grace is creative in the strictest sense of the word. Another prayer from my commonplace book, this one by Romano Guardini:

"Continually I receive myself from your hand. 
This is my truth and my joy.
Continually your eye looks at me
And I live on your look.
You, my creator and my salvation. 
Teach me in the silence of your presence,
To grasp the mystery that I am 
And that I am through you and before you and for you."

Our Lady looked at God and allowed him to gaze lovingly and creatively on her. As we rejoice in calling her blessed may we also rejoice in allowing God to do great things for us by allowing him to gaze and gaze on us.

We now move on to Exposition and Benediction. We can begin here and now to allow that God who gazed on Our Lady to gaze and gaze on us so that we can be lost in wonder, love and praise.


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