Today is a memorable day. First of all, we are keeping the Nativity, the Birthday, of the Blessed Virgin. Its proper date is the 8th, tomorrow. But this church, when it was consecrated in 1509, was dedicated by Bishop Elphinstone to Mary in her Nativity. The titular feasts of churches are traditionally marked with solemnity. So it seemed legitimate to anticipate the feast by one day. There is another reason too. Today we are marking a certain re-birth of our Catholic chaplaincy. And an unusual re-birth. Ever since 1967, I think, we have had chaplains and normally resident chaplains here. And these have often been religious: we’ve had Jesuits, Carmelites, Dominicans, not to mention the precious help of women religious. But this is our first religious community. What is being born, indeed, is a Friary, a Friary of Conventual Franciscans. It is the first such Friary to be established in Scotland since the Reformation. In a sense it is the rebirth of the Franciscan Friary that began in Aberdeen in 1471, lasted for 90 years and, historians tell us, was much-loved by the people.
So this is a day of new beginnings.
We are also at the beginning of the academic year. The summer is passing and the leaves are falling. The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is upon us, and as the annual cycle of nature winds down, students gird their loins and start to wind up! I suppose it’s a sign that we’re not just a part of nature, but can transcend it.
And we have this feast. In the calendars of many Eastern Churches, 1st September is the beginning of the liturgical year. So the first feast that Eastern Christians arrive at is that of Mary’s birth. Our own liturgy too calls it ‘the daybreak of salvation’. There is a chain of salvific events which begins with Mary’s conception and then her birth. It is a kind of Advent. It’s a moment when a key player in the drama of salvation comes on stage. The girl born today will in time perform her predestined role as Mother of God. So her being born looks forward to her giving birth. Her birth projects us on to that of Jesus. And Jesus’ birth looks forward to his birth in us, a birth brought about by the Holy Spirit and the sacraments. It’s the birth in us of faith, hope and love.
A great sense of providence, of God’s leading of human history and human lives, hovers and gathers round this feast. A great canvas is unfolded. Some of you may have seen the Great Tapestry of Scotland – with its 160 panels, tracing the history all the way from the end of the last Ice Age through to Andy Murray’s victory at Wimbledon. In today’s readings we glimpse the greater tapestry of Christ, of God at work in the world. The Gospel we have just heard takes us back to Abraham and David. It began with the words ‘a genealogy of Jesus Christ’. Actually it says, ‘the book of the genesis of Jesus Christ’. And the verse, ‘This is how Jesus Christ came to be born’, actually says, ‘the genesis of Jesus Christ was like this.’ The word ‘genesis’ is meant to evoke the first book of the Bible, and its account of the ‘genesis of heaven and earth’, of the universe and our earth. That first genesis – of the world and man and history – set up the stage, as it were, for the genesis of Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary.
The 1st reading was from the prophet Micah. He lived 8 centuries before Christ and foretold the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem. ‘His origin, he says, goes back to the distant past, to the days of old’. In Christian interpretation those words are usually referred not just to David, but to eternity. They’re linked to what in a moment we’ll say of Christ in the Creed: ‘born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made’. Then Paul, in the 2nd reading, speaks of believers as ‘the ones [God] chose specially long ago’, foreknown and predestined in God’s eternity. Again, the great tapestry.
And just as these readings take us back, so too they take us forward – St Paul especially. They take us to what God destines us to be: true images of his Son, his Son the eldest of many brothers, the genesis of a new humanity.
In a way, while autumn closes in, this feast is like a flower opening. Mary’s birth suggests Jesus’ birth, his human birth in time. And that human birth lifts our minds to his divine ‘birth’ from the Father in eternity. And this double birth of Christ then looks forward to a third: his birth in us. We who are predestined, called, justified and glorified, predestined to be sons and daughters in the Son of God, a new entity, a new whole in him.
There are so many ways of reading human history and our own lives. But this feast offers us, in a summary form, the Bible’s view, perspective, ‘take’. What a perspective it is! Epic in scope, beginning in eternity, culminating in eternity, and in the middle embracing our time, our years, and filling them with Christ. Everything in this little girl, born today, turns around him. No one was ever so Christ-centred as she. And everything in history and in our lives also turns round him, though we are opaque and slow, and it may take us years, even eternity, to realise it. Every aspect of our lives, outside sinful acts, can be enrolled, as it were, in Christ and even sins are taken into him by being forgiven and becoming occasions of grace. Every day, every year, every activity, social, academic, bodily or mental can be referred to him. Every intellectual perspective, economic, sociological, philosophical, scientific, so far as true, can be related, integrated into a Christ-formed, Christ-filled vision of faith.
Today Mary is born and a Friary is born. And I know I can say on behalf of Frs Ray and Jakub that they are here for you, for all who comprise this university parish. They are here with the Christ-filled vision of the Church and St Francis and the great Franciscan theologians. Their friary is dedicated to one of them, Bl John Duns Scotus. They are here at your service, as your ministers. They are here to help you integrate the years you spend here into that Christ-life of faith, hope and love. They are servants of the genesis of Jesus in this place. Please take them to your hearts and pray for them.
Bishop Elphinstone dedicated this chapel to Mary in her Nativity. At the end of Mass, we will sing the Salve Regina. When we do so, let us all entrust our new chaplains and their ministry and ourselves and one another to Mary. ‘Of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.’ May he be born among us!
King’s College Chapel, 7 September 2014