Today is an opportunity to connect with our Lady, Mary, the chief patron of this Abbey. And this can only refresh us.
Today’s Divine Liturgy holds her up to us. This Mass is of Mary, Mother of the Church. The readings have portrayed her. The first from Genesis hinted that she will be the new Eve, the mother of all the living. The Psalm evoked her as another Judith championing her people. The 2nd reading showed her praying for the Holy Spirit as the Church was born at Pentecost. And in the Gospel we saw her standing by the Cross of her Son, her heart broken open to receive new children. Mary, Mother of the Church – Mother of the Church in this place, our Lady of Aberdeen. We acclaim her. Salve Regina, Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy! Whenever “we celebrate the eucharistic sacrifice”, said the 2nd Vatican Council, “we are united most closely with the worship of the heavenly church” (LG 50), and “first of all, with the glorious ever-virgin Mary, Mother of our God and Lord Jesus Christ” (EP 1). She is here.
And here we are, each of us living our own life, from birth to death; each of us on a journey from our baptism to the eternal life promised us. Here we are, living in a dangerous world, pressured and unsure, with threats to body, soul and spirit, to our families and societies. Here are we, though, together in Christ, perhaps freshly absolved today, bearing one another’s burdens, being fashioned by the Holy Spirit as the Church in this place. Here are we, wonderfully diverse in age and character and origin, but one in faith, a Pentecost in miniature.
Some of the more senior among us may remember an advertisement for Clark’s shoes. It showed a little boy and girl, a sort of Hansel and Gretel, holding hands and facing a long road stretching ahead of them, with trees on either side. Even as a child, I thought, well there’s life for you. The point was, of course, that Clark’s shoes would carry you through. Well, we know that, more than good shoes, it’s Christ’s hand and Mary’s feet we need, the feet that took her at speed to help her cousin Elizabeth, the feet on which she stood unwavering beneath the cross.
“Mary shines forth on earth”, said the 2nd Vatican Council. “She shines forth, until the day of the Lord comes”. She shines forth “as a sign of certain hope and comfort for the pilgrim people of God” (LG 68).
So, is she shining for us today?
When Mary agreed to become the mother of the Messiah, she said to the angel: “I am the servant of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me.” She understood, identified, declared herself to be a servant of the Lord. She was a teenager, we guess, when she said this, and had already come to this understanding of herself. It sprang from her immersion in the spiritual tradition of her people, Israel, in which everyone thought of themselves as a servant of the Lord, and thought of that, not as demeaning, but as a title of honour and glory. And because Mary understood herself in this way, she was free to “commit herself wholeheartedly and unimpeded by any sin to God’s saving will” (LG 56). And when she then went to visit her cousin Elizabeth and the Magnificat poured forth from her heart, there again she let the same word slip: “for he has looked on the lowliness of his servant.”
The handmaid, the slave-girl, the servant of the Lord. This is already light. A surprising light, a counter-intuitive light. As human beings, we carry a great gift from God; more than a gift, an echo of God within us: our freedom. We are creatures who can make up our minds, take decisions, initiate action, choose our path in matters small and great. This is precious. This is what we must never lose. We are not robots, we are not AI, we are not slaves or mere things. We are free persons. And drama plays around this. Freedom is scary and sacred all at once; a joy and a danger. What do we do with it? We can run away from it, we can sell our souls to lesser things, we can go with the crowd, surrender to circumstances and just conform. Or, at the other extreme, we can run wild with it, disconnect it from the rest of reality, isolate it, make an idol of it. We can become a law unto ourselves, answerable to no one and nothing except “me” – all in the name of personal autonomy. “Whatever I want is fine, because I want it.” And our culture can be a toxic blend of both this running away and this running wild. Every issue in fact where, as Christians, we are at odds with the prevailing outlook, goes back to the underlying question of freedom, its nature, its scope, its use or abuse. We are always reliving the drama of Genesis where our first parents wrenched the gift of freedom from the Giver’s hand, so that they could be like gods, setting the agenda. Take the ludicrous idea that we can define our own gender without reference to our biology. Take the advocacy of assisted suicide. The ultimate issue is always freedom. And who of us isn’t personally caught between running away from our freedom or running wild with it, either the slave of bad habits or wanting to trample over reality, over others, forgetting limits and commitments? Freedom has become a knot. And at the Annunciation Mary untied it. She accepted something new and greater into her life, God’s word. She accepted a mission on behalf of her people. She bowed to something greater than herself. And she was never freer than when she did so. She had command of her full self, of her womanhood, her virginity, her potential to be a mother. And completely freely she made a gift of herself to the Lord and his people. She linked her freedom to the One who gave it, to the truth and to love. She did not run away or run wild. She became a light for the good use and the flourishing of freedom. When she called herself a servant of the Lord, she set freedom free. Strange, is it not, that a teenage girl with a listening ear and a love of her people, discovered all this? And let the Lord in.
It is not demeaning to serve. “Now, Lord, let your servant go in peace”, said old Simeon (Lk 2:29). “A servant of Jesus Christ” is what St Paul called himself again and again (cf. Rom 1:1 etc). Likewise, St Peter (2 Pet 1:1), and St James (1:1) and St Jude (1:1). No, it is not demeaning to serve. The Lord himself took on “the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7) and in heaven says he will sit us down at table and serve us (cf. Lk 12:37).
At the moment of the Annunciation, when Mary became the mother of Jesus, says Vatican II again, “she devoted herself totally, as a handmaid of the Lord to the person and work of her Son, under him and with him, serving the mystery of redemption” (LG 56). “Serving the mystery of redemption.” Serving. Today we are feting, and rightly, our altar servers. Servant of the Lord, serving the mystery of redemption, serving at the altar: it all connects. And serving isn’t demeaning. It’s ennobling. Most of all, liturgical serving. When you serve, you are taking on, here on earth, the role the angels perform in the liturgy of heaven. You are standing by the Cross like Jesus’ mother, and her mother’s sister, like Mary Magdalene and the beloved disciple. Close to the altar, you are witnesses to the blood and water that flow in the Church from Christ’s side. You are enabling a dignified and reverent celebration of the Eucharist. You’re making it possible for the clergy to celebrate with peace of mind and the whole congregation to focus on the essential. We are so grateful to you. And you are growing attitudes that will shape your whole life. St Benedict told his monks to treat all material objects as though they were the sacred vessels of the altar. The elements of nature and human handiwork are all due respect, and the liturgy teaches us this: to respect our environment. And to respect one another and treat one another with reverence and courtesy – all those bows! The altar is a school for life. And a school for prayer, as the phrases of the liturgy take on life inside you.
And so to all of us. “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters”, says St Paul. “But do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh but serve one another in love”. “Serve one another in love” (Gal 6:13). Similarly, St Peter: “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God…As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet 2:16;4:10). This is not demeaning. This is our vocation. This is freedom. As bishop, I’m humbled to meet every day huge generosity from young and old, from clergy, laity, religious. It’s awesome. It comes from the Holy Spirit, who’s the generosity of God poured into our hearts.
Serving one another in love, serving the mystery of redemption, serving the Lord. Freedom untied, freedom flourishing. Mary shining, as she serves us still from heaven. The Church radiant with love. And for the world a hope of healing. Let’s carry all this with us back home.