Our Lady's Birthday
8th September, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, is also the anniversary of the arrival of the Fathers of the Oratory in Oxford in 1990. Below is the sermon preached at the High Mass yesterday by Fr Rupert Allen, Chaplain to the University of Bristol.
Most of us reach a stage in our lives when our birthdays lose the excitement and anticipation which so marked their celebration during our childhood and youth. They begin to mark a mere passing of time or another year closer to the grave when we can indeed give thanks for the good things of past years, but so too have an eye somewhat closer to our inevitable mortality. I do not mind confessing that I seem to have reached that stage rather recently.
The Church, ever directing our gaze to heaven, rarely marks the earthly births of her members; the feasts of our saints mark not their birth upon this earth, but rather their earthly death and their birth into heaven. Indeed in the whole calendar of the Church's year only three times do we celebrate an earthly birthday; those of St. John the Baptist, of our Saviour and today, the birth of Our Mother. Those births which celebrate and direct our minds to these great moments when something of Heaven was born to earth.
And it was to our life and to us that Our Lady was born. That great genealogy which we have just heard in the Holy Gospel is the very story of the whole of human history - with its triumphs and disasters personified. Our Lady does not come as the natural culmination to a line of perfect persons, but as a gift from Almighty God to a people most in need of the Salvation which is heralded by her birth.
Our Lady is born to a people, to the elect people of the House of Israel. Her forbears reflect humanity at its best and at its worst. We see as those generations unfold the struggle of Israel to remain faithful to its vocation to be a light to the nations, a struggle equalled in both fidelity to and abandonment of the Law of the One True God. These names, some of which seem both at once unfamiliar and unpronounceable to us, are none the less part of our common inheritance too, for they reflect not only our common wrestling with the Truth and our attempts to live it, but that even in the midst of our failure to do so, our God intervenes time and time again to rescue His people. The faith of Abraham and the apostasy of Manessah, the wisdom of Solomon and the idolatry of Amon .... to this, to our confused, fallen and weak humanity was born the Mother of Him who was destined to be a sign of contradiction to the sinfulness of Man.
Preserved from sin, she was not shielded from being a witness to the rise and fall of many; and it was during that most painful sorrow of hers, that of the Passion of Her Son, that the Mother of God became the Mother of us all. In the midst of suffering, pain and sorrow, Her Motherhood was made known to all so that when such times arrive for Her children, they may know to turn to their loving Mother; that She who stood by the Cross of Her Son will be on hand to stand by us when our crosses come. It is that too which we celebrate today; not only the birth of the holy Mother of God, but the moment that Heaven gave us a Mother too.
Our Lady, preserved Immaculate though she is, does not abandon us who are tainted by sin, after all she was born amongst us. Rather she seeks us out, amidst the contradictions and confusions of our human condition and seeks to claim us for her Son, she is quite simply, our Mother who seeks our salvation. If the Apostle says “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more” we can be certain that we sinners are ever sought out by her who is full of grace, sought out by our Mother who loves us and wants us to experience and to know that love, not simply as an idea or a sentiment, but in reality.
Just as Our Lady was born to a people and to a family so that she might become the Mother of All Christians, so too I am sure many of us can recall a moment, an image, a place where we first began to understand and to rejoice in the protection of our heavenly mother, the moment when Her Motherhood was born into our lives. A moment perhaps when in the midst of our sinfulness God’s Mother came to remind us of Heaven’s claim on us.
I am sure the good Fathers know already of the great number of us who first learnt to love Our Lady in this church through the preaching and devotion of Her sons and St. Philip’s; of the legions of Catholics who seemed first to grasp something of Our Mother’s love for us, as individuals, as Her children, within the walls of this church. It is no surprise therefore that in so many a room of those who have passed through this parish, and those who remain, that image, so motherly and so merciful, of Our Lady of Oxford, Mother of Mercy, continues to look down with love on those who first found her in her chapel here. In that chapel, now once more so beautifully adorned, how many of us have poured out our hearts, sought out our Mother and even received the first stirrings of our vocations?
For myself I could not stand here preaching in this church on the Feast of Our Lady’s Nativity without mentioning a moment, more years ago than I care to number, when Our Lady seemed to have something to say to the young student I then was. There in her chapel I came across a prayer-card (I never discovered which of the Fathers left it but I have my suspicions), an image of a true son of Our Lady with a very real love for her; St. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows; a young man who enjoyed all the world had to offer, but who gave it up to live a life devoted to his Mother in the Congregation of the Passionists.
On that prayer-card were written words which have always stayed with me and lost none of their impression. “Do you seek someone to love” St. Gabriel says “then Love Mary!… She is loveable, faithful, constant. She will never let herself be outdone in love, but will ever remain supreme. If you are in danger, she will hasten to free you. If you are troubled, she will console you. If you are sick, she will bring you relief. If you are in need, she will help you. She does not look to see what kind of person you have been. She simply comes to a heart that wants to love her. She comes quickly and opens her merciful heart to you, embraces you and consoles and serves you. She will even be at hand to accompany you on the trip to eternity”
She does not look to see what kind of person you have been. She simply comes to a heart that wants to love her. .... Just as God did not abandon Israel for its contradictions but instead gave them, and all of us, a Mother, so too does Our Lady look past what we have been and seeks only that we should want to love her. As she comes to us to be our Mother, she does not require even that we already love her perfectly, but only that we should want to. We are here today to celebrate her birth because we do want to love her, let us ask therefore the grace, through her maternal and merciful intercession, that we may be granted the great favour not only to desire, but indeed to love.