The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

  • Preacher

    Canon Michael Rawson, Interim Dean of Southwark

The Interim Dean's sermon preached at the Choral Eucharist on Sunday 10 September 2023.

One of the highlights of my sabbatical leave last year, and there were many, was an eight day course in icon writing with the wonderful Hanna Ward as my tutor. Hanna is a highly skilled and prayerful iconographer who teaches at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts and has held courses here in the Cathedral. Her attention to detail and bringing an icon to life is both passionate and infectious. Icons have accompanied me throughout my Christian pilgrimage, nourishing and developing my own spirituality and faith. Hanna gave me a selection of icons to write and I chose the Virgin of Tenderness icon in which the Christchild nuzzles in against Mary’s cheek, as they gaze adoringly into one another’s eyes. Here is depicted the unconditional love of a mother for her child and the child for his mother. Nothing else seems to matter in this world of their own, and yet they are there primarily for the world and its salvation. Some religious imagery of Mary leaves me cold and unmoved and yet in Our Lady of Tenderness there is no sugary piety or placing of Mary in a medieval convent, surrounded by silk hangings and gilt frames. Here rather is a very ordinary peasant woman cradling her beloved.

Donald Nicholl, the Rector of the Ecumenical Institute at Tantur, Jerusalem writes that before living in the Holy Land his image of Mary had been formed by the piety and imagination of renaissance art. His experience of women from the Galilee region changed all this:

‘The image which now comes spontaneously to mind is of a women with strong hands, sinewy through much work; of a face whose skin is rough from exposure to the sun and wind; of feet that are broad-spread through climbing the hills around Nazareth barefoot; but above all, of eyes that are steady, and a mouth that is firm, through enduring the sorrows of the refugee, the poor, and the oppressed.’

In our first reading there is a real immediacy about the prophecy of Isaiah that ‘a young woman is with child … and you shall name him Emmanuel.’ That name, Emmanuel, means God with us; no longer the distant and remote God experienced at arms length throughout the Old Testament, but rather looking forward to the day when Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, will show God’s love for humanity in his incarnation, taking on himself our flesh and blood.

The technique of icon writing that I found at the same time both incredibly difficult and yet humbling and stirring the soul was applying gold leaf to the halos and border of the work. This entails using damp clay which you have to breathe heavily upon. It’s not simply breathing over it or blowing on it, but a deep breath that comes from the diaphragm. Hanna left me on my own to do this for she explained it is literally breathing life into the icon and is a most private and spiritual act. And was she right! Once the clay has been moistened by your breath you have to quickly lay the gold leaf onto the clay. Just speaking about it now makes me feel emotional.

That immediacy of breathing life into the icon, as we hear throughout the scriptures of God’s Holy Spirit breathing life into creation, is also reflected in our second reading. Following the Ascension of Christ and in preparation for the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost Mary devotes herself to prayer with the other apostles. Mary who is receptive to God’s calling, Mary who literally makes room in her life and in her body for Jesus her Saviour now opens her heart and her soul to the coming of God’s Holy Spirit.

Today’s gospel reading takes us to a place of simplicity, expectation and beauty. But it is also a place where Mary must have been confused, unsure and perhaps fearful of what was being asked of her. The prevailing culture in our world is one of looking after number one and satisfying our own needs and desires. To look to the needs of others can be seen as a sign of weakness where we do not stand up for our own rights. Inspite of all the doubts and fears that Mary must have wrestled with when visited by Gabriel with God’s invitation to be Mother of his Son and therefore key to the salvation of the world, she said yes. Yes to turning her whole world upside down for it could never be the same again. Yes to losing face and status in her local community and yet gaining the family of humanity. Losing her self in order to become key to God’s plan of salvation for the world. In her acceptance of God’s invitation, Mary becomes a gift and an offering to God, trusting in God’s promises and knowing that God will be with her in her joys and pain, her challenges and acceptance.

The Icon of our Lady of Tenderness portrays Mary nurturing the Christchild and keeping him safe, whilst at the same time presenting Christ to the world. The same is true of our wonderful Madonna and Child, the work of the artist Peter Eugene Ball who was greatly influenced by the Romanesque art and architecture as well as African culture. There is something about the serenity of their faces which is full of hope and grace and reminds me of some of the art I experienced whilst living in Ghana. Mary gazes in adoration with her arms wrapped around Jesus, nurturing and protecting, whilst at the same time giving and presenting her Son to the world, to you and me.

Today is one of our patronal festivals when we celebrate the gift of Mary to the church and the world and how she points us to her beloved Son. Her example reminds us of our vocation to be the people of God in this place, living for others and providing a nurturing, creative and safe space for people to become all that God would have us be. It’s a great joy that we commission those working among our children and families this morning as we recognize the importance of their ministry in providing opportunities for worship and learning in a safe Cathedral environment. Please pray for them and for our young people today and perhaps ask yourself if God might be calling you to share in this ministry.

As we celebrate this feast of Mary today we have much to learn as a Cathedral community from her example. Mary put her faith and trust in God, inspite of not knowing where God’s call would lead her. By her words and her actions she made sure she didn’t get in the way of God’s plan for humanity. She presents Christ to the world and points others to him. ‘Listen to what he says,’ she exhorts others at the wedding at Cana. May we, like Mary, allow the Word made Flesh to dwell within us and grow in our hearts so that we too may point away from ourselves and keep our gaze firmly fixed on Christ.