Mary Mother of God, New Year 2022/3
I have no idea really how fireworks work and of course I could have looked it up online when writing this sermon and explained it to make myself look all knowledgable. But I haven’t. And though I don’t know how fireworks work there’s one thing that strikes me about them: they start in very small containers but once they’re set off, whoosh they go up in to the air and have a huge, vivid impact and they’re visible for large distances. Bang, they go. Colour streaming all over the sky.
We’ve all gathered here hoping that God will bless 2023. We might be thinking all sorts of things about 2022: loved ones we’ve lost, major errors we made, great success and achievements, relationships cemented, new life brought in to the world. We might not really have thought about 2022 very much. We might just be glad it was better than 2021. I love history and looking at the past but I think there’s always a danger that we analyse our past too much. And in over-analysing it we often end up failing to spend that time and mental energy working out how to live better in the future. “I am about to do a new thing” God says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” (Isaiah 43:18-19). We need to get the balance right when it comes to looking at our past.
But it is God’s blessing we seek for this new year and so I wanted just to say something about things being blessed. First, what do we ask God to bless? Well, at one level, all sorts of things, from new homes, to ourselves especially at significant moments in life or before travelling, new cars, food before meals, things we’re going to use for religious devotion, such as rosaries or statues. The list goes on.
When we are asking God to bless them we are recognising that they are part of a world, which is good because God made it. We’re saying that God has a plan we’re seeking to unite ourselves with and resolving to lift up that which is being blessed into that divine plan, for in living up to God’s intentions for His creation we will indeed know all the great things He has in store for us. We’re saying yes, there’s the potential for something to go wrong through our laziness or our wilfulness but we know if we let God be the beginning and the end of what we do with this thing or with this person or in this situation then all will be well. By seeking God’s blessing we will be testifying to the goodness of the creation God has made and which He has redeemed by sending His Son for us.
My friends, 2023 is filled with opportunities for faithful service; for marking it out as a year where God’s kingdom can be established, where His word is going to be proclaimed and is going to be sovereign, where His Holy Spirit’s activity in the lives of others can be observed and testified to. There are going to be 53 Sundays in 2023 for us to keep holy and we’ve got the first one off to a great start by being in the Lord’s house now. There will be conversations with people we know already, there are going to be interactions with folk we have not yet met and won’t be introduced to before we are given the choice either to speak of Christ and follow His precepts or to choose a path of apathy and unkindness. There will be talents and gifts we know we have and there will be newly discovered possibilities in our armoury and we will be able to decide whether to give them to God or to hoard them for ourselves.
The temptation is that we are aware that there are two ways to try to bless something. The first way is what we might think of as the bull in the china shop/sledge hammer/in your face way, when we do something really big and impressive, everyone notices, it might cost a lot of money or require everyone to look at us and see us do whatever it might be, some big generous act, some massive kindness. It’s the spiritual equivalent of buying a huge bunch of flowers to say sorry to someone when we’ve upset them. We over-compensate, we might be generous in an overly showy and ostentatious way. This, needless to say, is the wrong way to try to know God’s blessings.
But then there’s the way God presents to us, the second way. We see this supremely in the Parable of the Yeast, which Jesus, that babe whose birth we celebrate on this the eighth day of Christmas, grows up to tell us. The parable is quite simply this: “The kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened,” (St Matthew 13:33). No explanation or further details are given. If you’ve ever cooked with yeast you will know firstly you don’t need very much and secondly it takes a while to work through the whole dough and at first it will have no discernible impact at all.
Let’s look at these details in turn, first, that we don’t need much. Jesus teaches us elsewhere that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed we will be able to move mountains (St Matthew 17:20). It’s a tricky bit of teaching. Personally, I think I have quite a bit of faith but I’ve never literally moved a mountain, I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted to. So surely this is in part teaching us that in reality we mustn’t ever think we have enough faith. We must be mindful that the life we are living now is actually functioning on a tiny amount of faith compared to what God is willing to give us. There is room therefore for a whole load more. Faith is a gift, we can’t force it out, it needs tending and nurturing, it’s God’s gift within us, nurtured in the family of the church through the heavenly food we receive in the Sacraments, chief among them Holy Communion. Faith isn’t about answering pub quiz questions on the Bible but it is about altering our lives to witness to the Life and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, we have room for more faith in our lives.
The Kingdom of Heaven being like yeast reminds us too that it needs to be worked through every bit of our life: decisions about where we live, with whom we form relationships, what we do with our money, how we exercise, where our children go to school, what’s inside our home all this is be about advancing the kingdom God, blessing and hallowing our life and the life of the Church. Now, some of these things are decided for us, but where we have choice we must make positive decisions for God. We put little intentions in with each part of our life and dot, dot, dot, this will be sufficient to ensure we stay grounded in the love of the Lord.
So, what bits don’t we examine in the light of Jesus Christ, who has shone in to the world? Is it that we don’t see our work as something we need to ask God to bless and hallow? Is it we want to find a partner and fail to consider whether he or she ought to be a Christian? Do we spend all our money on unnecessary stuff and then wonder why we struggle to give sacrificially of the wealth we have? Do we see our bodies as Templeso f the Holy Spirit or just something for our own enjoyment or just a bit of a handicap? Consider this my friends as you come to the altar today and as Christ enters into your life afresh through this Mass, wonder where His light doesn’t shine in your life.
We see this “kingdom as yeast” approach in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. She receives a unique and singular grace secretly and privately when she is formed in the womb of her mother, St Anne, as we celebrated on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. That grace imparted to her the gifts we received at our baptism, the cleansing from sin and the incorporation into the body of Christ, and prefigures the joy of the life of those who share in the Resurrection of Christ. Mary then lives her life simply but passionately devoted to God, getting on with her life united to God. There are no crowds following her. The paparazzi aren’t outside her room waiting to see what will happen next. She goes to the Temple as required. She recites the prayers required of the old religion. She finds Mr Right in St Joseph, and sets about planning to marry someone who is similarly committed to God devoutly but otherwise just in an ordinary way. And then, my brothers and sisters, and then the Archangel appears to her and says she is going to have a baby. And that life of yeast-like drops of grace and holiness means she confidently can respond in that moment for which creation longs: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” (St Luke 1:38). The projection of human history is changed in that moment because she says, “Yes,” not ‘no;’ not ‘not at the moment;’ not ‘let me do something else first;’ but ‘yes.’
So, have routines of holiness in your life: graces before Meals, Mass every Sunday, prayers and reading of the Bible on the bus to work, friendships where we can talk about Jesus, sacrificial living for the benefit of strangers and the outcast, kindness on our lips, love emitted from our mouths. And then we won’t have to make up for our failure of discipleship with big dramatic gestures, rather doing wonderful things for God and His Church will flow from a life when each moment is hallowed through seeking to be united Jesus who is born for us. Our Lord has come in to the world for all to see - maybe not with a big bang - but with a glory that can be known the whole world round.