I used to smoke thirty cigarettes a day.
When I was ordained priest thirty six years ago I struggled to stop knowing it was a bad example to the kids in my youth group.
The parish had an annual pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. That was a great time of growth in fellowship with God and one another as we exchanged for a weekend our grimy mining village for the Norfolk countryside.
I know people from St Giles have been on pilgrimage to Walsingham and I wouldn’t hesitate to encourage anyone of you in that venture.
I will always remember kneeling in the Shrine before the statue of Our Lady and saying ‘You have Jesus ear more than I – I’m going to stop the cigarettes - will you ask him to take away the withdrawal symptoms?
She did. He did and I’ve not smoked cigarettes even since.
It’s the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary and I want you to be more aware of the power of her intercession, which is why I tell my tale.
I need to go deeper for you. Why did I pray to Mary and not directly to Jesus, you might ask?
It’s all a matter of obedience.
What do I mean? I mean that I try and live by obedience as Christianity is about obedience, Jesus and Mary are both about obedience, and so is the Church.
I pray because I’ve been taught to pray, by my parents and by the Church. In that sense I don’t make up my own religion but go with the flow of things. At one point I came to recognise from holy people I knew that in praying as a Christian I never prayed alone and that the Mother of Jesus joins my prayers with all the Saints in heaven. I came to see the dead are not dead in Christianity but alive and present.
If a Christian believer is, as the letter to the Ephesians puts it, seated with Christ in the heavenly places we don’t sit alone. The saints are also seated with Christ and when we pray we take a seat with them – and right next to Christ in my mind’s eye, in the eye of the church through the centuries, is his Mother.
As the seventeenth century Anglican Bishop Thomas Ken wrote in his hymn on Mary’s entry to heaven:
Heaven with transcendent joys her entrance graced,
next to his throne her Son his Mother placed;
and here below, now she’s of heaven possess,
all generations are to call her blest.
This is a poetic image of what some call the Assumption, Mary lifted up, following Jesus, to share his throne. The image is true to the destiny of every believer which is, as St Paul teaches, to be seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6)
I believe there’s going to be plenty of space on that throne but if anyone gets to sit closest to Jesus it’ll be Mary.
When we love Jesus we’re drawn to love those who love him and his Mother is chief of them.
The Bible portrays her as humble yet confident in God, persevering in prayer, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit. Her Feast today is a reminder of the glory to come for all believers, of which she has privileged foretaste.
Mary herself prophesies her glory and ours in the passage we just sang and read called the Magnificat: My soul magnifies the Lord…for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed…he has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
Christianity’s all a matter of obedience which we see both from Jesus and from his Mother, who did not fail to obey the invitation sent through Gabriel, the incident depicted in our Lady Chapel window.
Why did I pray to Mary and not directly to Jesus?
The answer is: its not either-or but both-and, although in my case its heavily weighted towards Jesus. It’s a bit like why do I ask people to pray for me, or why do we invite a group to pray for St Giles on a Saturday morning. Our prayer as individual Christians is interwoven both with earthly and heavenly collaborators. There are times, most times, when we pray directly to God and other times when we know we need to ask others to pray with us.
Why? So that we achieve an agreement in prayer that God has promised especially to honour. ‘Where two or three are agreed in my name it will be done for them’ Our Lord says in Matthew 18v19.
Incidentally I see my call to St Giles as linked to a post card Bishop Lindsay Urwin sent me 5 years ago from Walsingham where he is now Shrine Administrator. The card asked me to consider offering myself for service here. As I was thinking about this sermon Bishop Martin sent me a similar card with encouraging words after last month’s confirmation – here it is – and it of the same statue I knelt before 35 years ago when I stopped smoking.
The Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham is as old as this Church.
In 1054 the Lady Richeldis was invited by a vision of Mary to build a representation of the Holy House of Nazareth and invite pilgrims to come and seek healing, as I did from my addiction. To go with that flow of pilgrims through the ages has always been part of my Christian obedience, as Walsingham is the main shrine to Mary in this land.
Why are Shrines like Walsingham so important? Because God has caused them through his Saints and because they uphold the validity of prayer and are evidenced by the formation of holy people. Walsingham to me is associated with holiness and fun. My memories are of parishioners finding courage to making their first confession or to seek healing as well as of great evenings in the Bull pub by the Shrine.
Pilgrimage is about getting away from it all to find yourself, and any one of us here is free to make a pilgrimage, to book a few days at the Shrine where we all have a friend who’ll book us in, namely Bishop Lindsay Urwin formerly of Horsham. I was thinking about him when I noted that it is 10 years since he as our Bishop blessed our Aumbry to effect perpetual Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in 2003 since when that flame of presence has burned day and night in St Giles.
Mary said he has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. Yes the cult of the Virgin Mary has needed reformation at times but in love for Jesus we’ll always be drawn, however we express it to love those who love him of whom his Mother is chief.
Obedient, humble yet confident in God, persevering in prayer, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit she is, and her Feast today is, a reminder of the glory to come for all believers, of which she has privileged foretaste.
Shall we not love thee, Mother dear, whom Jesus loves so well? And to his glory year by year thy joy and honour tell?