Let’s begin from the beginning. God the Father has sent his Son into the world. And he sent him through Mary. ‘The Word (the Son) became flesh’ and received flesh, his human being, from his human mother, Mary of Nazareth. Under God, she gave it to him. And this divine humanity is the instrument of our salvation; we are saved by contact, by communion with it. And it comes through her. ‘Mediatrix of All Graces’ is a clumsy phrase. But ‘all graces’ means Christ, and Mary was the medium through whom he came. So there’s a truth here.
Today, we celebrate the two most prominent apostles, Peter and Paul. Let’s think first of all the Apostles: the Twelve with Matthias replacing Judas Iscariot, and Paul called later. And if we consider their role in God’s plan, we can say that, in another way, ‘all graces’, everything that graces us, come to us through them. Do we really realise how much we owe to them? The Father gave everything to his Son and the Son gave everything to his apostles. He gave them his Gospel, his teaching, his pattern of life, his authority, his power, his body and blood. He took them with him, smiled at them, rebuked them, touched them, breathed on them. He led them through his death and resurrection. He showed them the wounds on his risen Body. He sent them his Holy Spirit. He gave them the fullness of grace and truth he brought from the Father. And they – I’m quoting Vatican II here – ‘handed on by their oral preaching, their way of life, their practical provisions – and later had committed to writing – all they had received from the Lord.’ So they are the foundation stones on which the whole structure of the Church stands. They are the aqueducts of the living water that flows from above. They’re the first violins of the orchestra, the soloists of the choir. Everything that makes us the Church, the community of faith, comes to us from Christ through the apostles. To be simple, just think of the Eucharist: ‘Do this in memory of me’, he told them. And because they did, we do.
So we honour Mary, the Mother of God – and with her St Joseph and St John the Baptist – for their subordinate but vital role in the coming of God into the world, his coming in the flesh. And after them, we honour the Apostles for handing on everything God in the flesh did for us during his life on earth. And we praise the Holy Spirit who empowered Mary to be fertile and the Apostles to be faithful.
Permit me a distraction here. When we enter this Cathedral church from Huntly St and come through the porch to the back, several things remind us of God entering the world. There is the chapel of our Lady of Aberdeen, with Mary holding her infant Son. Less visibly, there’s a statue of St Joseph and stained glass of him and John the Baptist. There’s the font which reminds us of our own baptism, and of Mary’s womb and the ministry, again, of the Baptist. So, as we enter we’re surrounded by these reminders of the Son of God entering the world. Then we move into the nave, the large public space. Once upon a time, on the arcades between the pillars, stood statues of the twelve apostles. What sense that made! At the beginning of the church: reminders of the Gospel beginnings. In the body of the Church: reminders of Jesus’ public life, his gathering of disciples. (I should add that all is not lost, and that the 12 consecration crosses keep that memory of the apostles alive). Then, after entrance and nave, come the sanctuary and altar. And what happens there? There the memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection is sacramentally celebrated, the climax of his life, and the sign that he will come again – from the east – to take us with him to glory. There we receive the body and blood of the crucified, glorified, coming Lord. There too is the rood, and the circular window suggesting eternity. And so in the beginning, middle and of this church are mirrored the beginning, the middle and the end of the Gospel: our whole faith and hope.
Today, we have what the Collect calls ‘the noble and holy joy’ of recalling Peter and Paul: ‘Peter, foremost in confessing the faith, Paul, its outstanding preacher, Peter who established the early Church from the remnant of Israel, Paul, master and teacher of the Gentiles’ (Preface). Peter the Galilean fisherman, Paul the diaspora Jew, the learned rabbi. Peter with his temperament, Paul with his. Simon Peter called by Jesus from the very beginning, Saul / Paul encountering the then glorified Jesus only later on the road to Damascus. Yet, they fell out at once least, they were one in their love of Christ, one in giving their lives, both martyred in Rome, brothers in the Lord, of one heart and soul. Praise God for them!
Let’s just think of them as men on whom Christ impacted – mightily! – and pray that something of that impact will waken our dullness too. Peter and Paul took Jesus on board at every level of their being. ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ ‘I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.’ Christ’s personality, his name, his face, his heart, his teaching, the power of his death and resurrection, his Holy Spirit: these weren’t words for them. They were reality. Jesus made these men. He transformed them. He filled their lives with meaning and purpose, hardship and joy. He healed Peter’s fear and Paul’s bitter zeal. He saved Peter from the hand of Herod: ‘from all my terrors he set me free’. ‘He stood by me, said Paul, and gave me power.’ But for Jesus, they’d have been nobodies: Peter quite unrecorded, Saul / Paul with perhaps a footnote as a minor Jewish intellectual of the 1st century. But thanks to Christ, they live. They live in glory. They live as intercessors. They live on the pages of the New Testament. They live in the memory and prayer of the Church. Peter lives in his successor, the Pope, Paul in the apostolic mission of the Church. ‘For you, eternal Shepherd, do not desert your flock, but through the blessed Apostles watch over and protect it always’ (Preface I of Apostles). They are alive in Christ. May they live in our hearts too! And may Christ be something to us of all he was to them!
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 29 June 2017)