Our Lady’s Birthday (Good Shepherd)
Sermon for the Feast of the Nativity of The Blessed Virgin Mary preached at The Good Shepherd Tottenham on 9thSeptember 2019 at the 5.00 pm Mass
Yesterday was, properly, the Feast of the Nativity of Mary but our Parish Priest, honouring the dedication of the Parish to St. May the Virgin, has transferred the Feast to today.
Let it be said that for the Church of England the 8thSeptember is recorded in the Book of Common Prayer as the Feast of the Nativity of The Blessed Virgin Mary following the tradition of the Christian Churches of both East and West. Indeed the Western Church observes the actual birthdays of only two saints, namely St. John the Baptist on 24thJune and Mary, the Mother of our Saviour on 8thSeptember. All other saints, especially the martyrs, are venerated on the day of their death – regarded as the Heavenly Birthday.
We owe much to St. Andrew of Crete, the great Eastern theologian who lived form 660 – 740 AD and it became one of the great 12 liturgies as “The Birth of our Exalted Queen, the God-bearer and Ever-Virgin Mary”. The feast is, particularly, a link between the New and the Old Testament showing that Truth succeeds symbols and figures and that the New Covenant supplants the Old. This is the day on which the Creator of all things constructed His temple; today is the day on which, by a stupendous project, a creature becomes the preferred dwelling of the Creator. The Benedictus Antiphon at Morning Prayer sums up the joy of this feast: “Your birth, O Virgin Mother of God, announced joy to the whole world, for from you has risen the Sun of Justice, Christ our God. He released us from the ancient curse and made us blessed; he destroyed death and gave us eternal life.”
The origin of the liturgy and mass for this feast goes back to the consecration of the Basilica of St. Anne, the mother of Mary, in Jerusalem in the 6thCentury though, apparently, it was built on the site of an earlier church dedicated to Mary and erected on the spot known as the Shepherd`s Field and thought to have been the home of Mary`s parents St. Anne and St. Joachim. Appropriately, today, it is situated across a small square beside the Pool of Bethesda - a site of Our Lord`s healing miracles.
The Feast was introduced to Rome, and thence the Western Church by monks from the East and Pope Sergius I (687 -701) solemnised it with a procession with prayers which wound itself from the Roman forum to the Basilica of St. Mary Major and Mary has been recognised as the Ark of the New Covenant. Just as the ancient Ark carried the Tablets of the Law of Moses and Manna from the Wilderness so Mary was to bear the Christ Child in her womb for the salvation al humanity.
In his great sermon St. Andrew of Crete has this to say as part of his substantial sermon: “This is the highest all-embracing benefit that Christ has bestowed on us. This is the revelation of the mystery, this is the emptying of the divine nature, the union of God and man, and the deification of manhood that was assumed. This radiant and manifest coming of God to men most certainly needed a joyful prelude to introduce the great gift of salvation to us. The present festival – as present today as it was at the time of St. Andrew of Crete - the birth of the Theotokos or God-bearer, is the prelude, while the final act if the fore-ordained union of the Word (capital “W” signifying Jesus the living Word of the Father) with flesh. Today the Virgin is born, nurtured and formed and prepared for her role as Mother of God – Jesus the second Person of the Blessed Trinity who is universal King of all the ages. We might reflect on the words of the Benedictus Antiphon recited at Morning Prayer today which I quoted earlier.
St. Andrew of Crete, sometimes known as Andrew of Jerusalem, was born in Damascus, Syria He entered the monastic life in Jerusalem at the age of 15 and became a cleric in the service of Bishop Theodore. On 685 he was sent by the said Bishop Theodore to assist the Christian Emperor Constantine Pogonatus at the Sixth General Council of the Church and, remaining in Constantinope, now Istanbul, he distinguished himself for his humility and as a preacher, theologian and hymn-writer. In the Eastern Church his day is celebrated on 4thJuly.
The great Passiontide Hymn, Christian dost thou see them ?translated by John Mason Neale is found in English Hymnal and is by St. Andrew of Crete.
St. Andrew of Crete draws out the importance of this Feast pre-figuring the importance of the Virgin Mary in the scheme of redemption.