Church of the Panagia Kassopitra in Kassiopi, Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)
Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick
8 p.m., Monday 9 September 2019
The Eucharist to mark the beginning of a new season
Readings: Isaiah 61: 10-11; Psalm 45: 10-17; Galatians 4: 4-7; Luke 1: 46-55.
May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
I am just back from a fortnight’s holiday in Corfu, enjoying Greek hospitality and, of course, the Mediterranean summer weather.
But, for me, holidays in Greece have always involved visiting churches and monasteries, archaeological sites and places of historical interest.
As an inveterate and incurable church crawler, this also means hopping in and out of churches, to see their architecture, their treasures and their icons.
Last Tuesday, as we slowly made our way through the back streets of the old town of Corfu, of course we had to search out Holy Trinity Church, the Anglican Church, Saint George’s, the former Anglican church, the Orthodox cathedral, and, of course, the Church of Saint Spyridon, the best-known church on the island, with its tall bell-tower and its reliquary of the island’s patron saint.
Needless to say, it would be impossible – it would be folly – to try to visit even a large proportion of churches in any Greek town. In Corfu, indeed, it would be easy to pass many of them and not notice them, hidden as they are in the labyrinth of side streets and narrow alleys.
For example, we almost missed the Church of Saint Eleftherios and Saint Anna, within the shadow of the clock tower of the much-more impressive Saint Spyridon.
From the outside, this small church looks very plain indeed. You might be forgiven for imagining that its plain walls are the façade of an ordinary, domestic, family home. There is no traditional courtyard, no candles burning outside, and I don’t think I noticed any bell tower either.
It is a crowded busy street, with tourists pushing through by the shops selling souvenirs to suit every price and taste. But not one passer by seems to notice this church.
And yet, we got a wonderful welcome once we stepped inside. Olga, who seems to be the caretaker and churchwarden all rolled into one, dropped everything she was doing, and with that combination of enthusiasm and informality with piety and reverence that is so characteristic of Greek churches, she showed us everything, from the bones of the saints, to the icons, to the icon screen, to the windows and the gallery.
But one icon she was particularly keen for us to see shows Saint Anne as the Mother of the Virgin Mary, holding her on her lap; and the Virgin Mary, in turn, is depicted as a mother too, holding the Christ Child on her lap.
We joked to one another: ‘Holy Annie, God’s Granny.’
But even in that private joking there is an important germ of truth too.
Yesterday [8 September 2019] marked the Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and we are using the readings for that feastday this evening.
I was sharing in my sermons in this group of parishes yesterday how the story of the Virgin Mary’s birth or the names of her parents, Joachim and Anne, are, of course, not mentioned in the Gospels. Of course not. But that does not deny the reality that she had parents, and that they must have been models of good parenting too.
Pious traditions developed at a very early stage in the Church about Joachim and Anna, and how they took their daughter at an early stage and presented her in the Temple in Jerusalem.
According to an early patristic text, dating from about 200 AD, Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, who had been childless, received a heavenly message that they would have a child. In thanksgiving for the gift of their daughter, they brought her as a child to the Temple in Jerusalem to consecrate her to God.
It is a story that probably drew on images in this evening’s psalm (Psalm 45: 10-17) in the readings for the Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Whatever credence you give to early stories like this, or however, you respond to them, the germ of truth here is that good mothering inevitably produces good children, and good mothering can be a blessing when it comes to good grand-mothering.
Now, I am not ever going to suggest that alongside the Mothers’ Union we might have a parallel Grandmothers’ Union, or Grannies’ Union. Just imagine how organisations like that might proliferate!
But mothering comes in different forms, in different ways, and through different people, and not only from birth mothers. Good mothering comes through adoption, favourite aunts, big sisters, good neighbours, good grandmothers … and it should come from what we once referred to as Mother Church.
The Virgin Mary’s priorities in the words of the canticle Magnificat in this evening’s Gospel (Luke 1: 46-55) are a model for good mothering by the Church. She might have asked: who am I going to feed this new baby, clothe him, nurture him, educate him, all as a single mother? Is he going to grow up to be a success and have a long life?
Instead, she gives thanks for God’s blessings to her family and her people, and she sings of her hope that tyrants will be brought down, the hungry fed, and the humble and lowly receive justice.
These are values she must have received in parenting by her own mother, and the values that must have been a priority in the parenting she gave to her son as he was growing up.
The Mothers’ Union should always encourage, cajole and tease the Church, so that the Church too provides good mothering for God’s family and emphasises the values that prepare us to be signs of the Kingdom of God.
And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Luke 1: 46-55 (NRSVA):
46 And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
Liturgical Colour: White
who looked upon the lowliness of the Blessed Virgin Mary
and chose her to be the mother of your only Son:
Grant that we who are redeemed by his blood
may share with her in the glory of your eternal kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Introduction to the Peace:
Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given:
and his name is called the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 7)
You chose the Blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son
and so exalted the humble and meek;
your angel hailed her as most highly favoured,
and with all generations we call her blessed:
Almighty and everlasting God,
who stooped to raise fallen humanity
through the child-bearing of blessed Mary:
Grant that we who have seen your glory
revealed in our human nature,
and your love made perfect in our weakness,
may daily be renewed in your image,
and conformed to the pattern of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Christ the Son of God, born of Mary,
fill you with his grace
to trust his promises and obey his will
373, To God be the glory (CD 22)
704, Mary sang a song (CD 40)
712, Tell out my soul (CD 40)
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.