The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Isaiah 7.10-14; Romans 8.18-30; Luke 1.39-47
‘We’re going to have a baby.’ ‘We’re pregnant.’ However the news is delivered it’s one of the most wonderful things that we can hear
And then up on their phone they show you the screen shot of the scan that they’ve just had which confirms the news. I squint at the grainy image, not quite sure which bit is which. ‘How exciting – it looks … just like you!’
To feel the baby growing, kicking inside you, it must be amazing, to know that a miracle is underway and you’re holding that miracle; well, unimaginable.
And all of that wonder and joy and excitement comes through in the Gospel reading for this feast of the Nativity of Mary, of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We keep this day to celebrate that ancient patronage of this church, St Mary Overie. It was the name given to the convent on this site, the name given to the Priory which succeeded it, the name reclaimed when we were to become a Cathedral.
People always look a bit askance when they hear it for the first time, St Mary Overie, it all sounds a bit, well, gynaecological. But I assure them it has nothing to do with any of that. The overie means, over the river, over ‘ere, not St Mary’s over there, over in proper London, on the other bank of the Thames. St Mary’s over ‘ere on this land, in this place, here, incarnated.
Mary has just been visited by an angel who tells her she’s pregnant. No scan, just divine reassurance. But the angel also tells her that her cousin Elizabeth is also going through the same miracle – that the older woman and the young girl are both experiencing the miracle of birth, that both will groan in the very act of bringing new life into the world.
Mary cannot contain her joy and she makes the long and difficult journey from Nazareth where she’s living to the outskirts of Jerusalem to the home of her cousin. And as the women great each other the unborn babies leap in their mothers’ wombs, each recognising the presence of the other, John already beginning his ministry of pointing to the presence of the Lord, the forerunner in birth, the forerunner in life.
Ahaz is offered a sign. It could be as ‘deep as Sheol or high as heaven’ but he doesn’t choose either and God instead gives us a sign, his sign, not in the depths, not in the heights, not distant, not distanced but immanent, the sign between those two extremes.
‘Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.’
That name, Immanuel, is so significant. It means ‘God with us’, God alongside us, not in the depths, not in the heights, but walking where you walk, being as you are, Jesus, saviour, Immanuel.
It’s a powerful and a disturbing fact, this reality of the incarnation. Carol Ann Duffy picks up something of that in her poem ‘The Virgin punishing the Infant’. She was inspired by a rather shocking painting by the artist Max Ernst ‘Young Virgin Spanking the Infant Jesus In Front of Three Witnesses’ painted in 1926 long before we were told not to spank our children! But what Duffy does is to explore what the reality of God with us must have meant for Mary
He spoke early. Not the goo goo, goo of infancy
But I am God.
It’s a challenging poem. But here he is, Jesus ‘the firstborn within a large family’ as Paul describes him in the Letter to the Romans, and sharing in the challenge of living from this earthy place between the heights and the depths, the place in which creation groans and humanity responds.
Yesterday we commemorated the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. Most of us here will have engrained deep within us the images of that day that played almost on a continuous loop on our TV screens. We groaned as the towers fell, wept as the scale of the atrocity became apparent, and all life was changed. The fig tree that we planted at the end of the south transept has grown and grown in those twenty years, a living testimony to lives lost and lives changed. The tree is planted into the ground of this community that has, in those twenty years, experienced for itself the effects of terrorism, the hard reality of life.
And Jesus is here with us, saying ‘But I am God’ I am God with you, your Immanuel, in this over’ere, overie, real place. And it’s that community rooted in reality, rooted in the challenge of what it means to be that large family of which Jesus is firstborn, that we seek to be.
The joy of those two, the older woman, the young girl, holding within themselves the joy filled miracle of birth, the babies leaping with the recognition of divine encounter, this is all what we seek to be. We call ourselves inclusive, we call ourselves faithful, we call ourselves radical and on this patronal festival we ask for the grace to be renewed in each of these in this place, because the world cries out for all that true inclusion can bring, the world searches for faith which brings light into the darkest places, the world needs that radical love that will transform all that needs to be ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.’
And today three people are to be baptised, two now, one later, wanting to be part of this adventure of being alongside the God who is alongside us , with the Word who in Duffy’s words ‘speaks early’ into our pain and into our joy and makes himself known in the breaking of the bread.
St Paul writing to the Christians in Rome says this
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.
That glory is revealed here, now, by the alongside God in the meal we share, in the life we live. That glory is revealed even as we remember the deepest suffering and the loudest groans. That glory is revealed in the leaping of the unborn baby, in the first words spoken, in all that is pregnant in life being formed. That glory if revealed in you, my sister, in you, my brother, in this over ‘ere, overie community in this real, holy, Immanuel place, where God is with us.