The other day I was able to attend Evensong at the Cathedral. Since 2000 one of the oversight bodies for the Cathedrals in the UK has been a Cathedral Council and I have served on the Council for the last 10 years or so. Well, times have changed and new arrangements have been put in place for Cathedrals across the board, so the service saw us Council members ‘stood down’ and the new governance articles adopted in advance of the new Dean of Durham’s Licencing next week.
It’s a bit of a treat to sit in on evensong once in a while. Whilst our parishes might celebrate the service occasionally – marking a special occasion perhaps – the strength of the service lies in the predictable daily pattern of prayer that it provides: large parts of the Old and New Testament scriptures read consecutively from evening to evening (so the whole bible is read through the year) alongside the psalms (also read or sung in succession). And the whole service is framed around two of the great gospel canticles or hymns: The Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis.
We read the Magnificat this morning albeit that it is a poem or song (we’ll sing it later as our last hymn). I’d forgotten where it comes in the early chapters of Luke’s Gospel: for some reason I had it fixed in my head as Mary’s song after the angel Gabriel had announced that she will bear the Christ-child. But no. It comes later. At the annunciation Mary says to the angel, ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.’ The Magnificat comes three months later when Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth. Which I think bears a little reflection.
The meeting with the angel and the acceptance of her vocation to bear the Christ must have been an intense experience for Mary but it was a deeply personal experience: no one else was present. We might imagine an awkward conversation with Joseph…or her parents, but Luke does not give us this. (Matthew gives us some details but there is no time scale attached to them).
As far as Luke is concerned, this visit, perhaps just as Mary’s pregnancy was beginning to show, is the first occasion we have of someone else being let in on the secret of God’s dealings with her. More than this. Elizabeth recognised God at work in and through Mary the moment she stepped through the door of the house and she heard Mary’s greeting. (Elizabeth, you’ll remember, was herself pregnant -with the baby who we know as John the Baptist- it was her unborn child that leaps within her when he hears Mary’s voice: a sign (Elizabeth believed) that Mary is carrying the Christ.)
Today is our patronal festival. A day we set aside in the church year to remember our patron saint: in our case the Blessed Virgin Mary. A couple of years ago we used this day to affirm the various ministries that people offer within the congregation and beyond. I’d hoped to do the same this time last year but you’ll no doubt remember that the death of Her Majesty and the Proclamation of a new monarch overwhelmed everyone’s plans.
So again, this year, as we read about Mary and her vocation, as we hear her song we can perhaps touch base with our own sense of calling, our own vocation: because the thing is, it is not just those who are given the Bishop’s Licence who are called to Christian service. Every one of us here in this room, through our baptism, is called (like Mary) to respond to His word, to be obedient and sacrificial in our service of the Lord.
Vocation is a difficult thing. Our tendency is to push it from us when we limit our understanding of it it to those with clerical collars or bishop’s certificates. And yet today, we will see that there are any number of ways that we can serve Christ in and beyond this place.
Where our bible reading comes in is that it reminds us that sometimes we need another person to affirm what God is doing within us. Mary may have visited Elizabeth full of faith and confidence. She may however, some weeks on from her meeting with the angel, have sought Elizabeth out because she was anxious or uncertain. Of course, we don’t know. But Elizabeth’s words of affirmation – unsought but welcome – gave Mary the affirmation she needed and released within her a song that celebrates a new thing coming to birth: the Kingdom of God.
Sometimes we simply get on, we do the work in front of us faithfully week in and week out to the best of our ability. We don’t seek thanks but it is nice when it is given…and we are the last person to recognise that God is using our gifts in His service. Today’s service gives us an opportunity to recognise the many gifts that God has given to us though other people – to affirm them and celebrate them, to acknowledge them and thank God for them. Today’s service also allows us to dare to believe that the gifts we offer are God given, they are signs of His work within us, enabling the church to flourish and its work to touch the lives of people who (as yet) don’t recognise His place in their lives.
So let us rejoice, like Elizabeth and Mary in the work of God amongst us, His people. Let us fulfil our vocation which is to Celebrate God’s love and let us commit ourselves afresh, wholeheartedly to bringing the Kingdom of God to birth on earth as in heaven.
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St. Mary’s is open for private prayer each weekday from 10.00am – 4.00pm