A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 22 December by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods

As I said in the notices, after this sermon I will be baptising Alison, who has been part of the worshipping congregation here at the Abbey for something like two years. Alison: in your baptism you will be joining not just the Abbey family but also, and much more importantly, the whole Family of God throughout the world. And what a varied (I’m tempted to say ‘motley’) collection of people make up God’s Family, and always have done. Rich and poor, young and old, of every colour and every class; all of us sinners, but some more sinful than others; all of us in need of God’s grace and his forgiveness, but some of us more reluctant to admit it than others. When a Vicar was brave enough to put a banner above the main entrance to his church, ‘This church is for sinners only’, he was right. The indignant members of his congregation who protested were wrong.

That’s why, on this day when the Church reflects on the Blessed Virgin Mary and her part in God’s plan of salvation, we must be very careful before we hold up the icon, the picture, of the Holy Family as the perfect example of Christian family life. Here is no cornflake-packet family. The conception of Jesus put Mary’s engagement to Joseph under the strain both of scandal and possible separation. There followed a pretty squalid birth in a stinking stable and a frightened dash as refugees into Egypt. Jesus had to grow up to reject close family ties in order to take the whole world, as he put it, as his brother and sister and mother. The picture, properly drawn, is stark and uncompromising. Small wonder that St. Paul actually calls the Incarnation a skandalon, a scandal [1 Cor. 1:23]. If we imagine the Holy Family as a cosy, self-contained little unit, an icon which should held up as a model for us all, we will be shutting-out the single and the divorced, the childless and the old, the homeless and the refugee. We will be betraying that quality of the love which the Holy Family had for one another; the love which overflowed so generously to the whole world and into history.

And who can doubt that this kind of loving was Mary’s own gift to Jesus? That he was able to love as he did because he himself had been loved in the same way? We honour her who taught him the language of love and gave him his first image of it – a truly creative love which stimulated and encouraged his own loving, a love which never needed to possess, a love which could let go.

One of the most moving things that are recorded of Our Lady is this, that having loved Jesus and having given him to the world, she received back that love in full measure, pressed down and running over, as one of that group of first Christians who knew the love of the risen Lord. It was her heart that had been most pierced by the sword of his death; her heart that must have been the most lifted up by his resurrection. It could never have been easy, that voyage of discovery into the meaning of love; at times it must have been agonizingly painful, and as the voyage continued through the death and resurrection of her son, it must have been sustained entirely by faith: love and faith, love into faith.

So we discover that devotion to Mary is not a celebration of what makes her different from us, but is a celebration of what makes her like us, what makes her the first Christian disciple, embodying that faith and love in which we may find for ourselves God’s way to be human, in which we discover that that life of the world to come has already broken into the life of our world. And as the Son of God grew in her and grew in her love, so may he grow in us. ‘So let the Son of God grow in you too, for he is formed in you too. Let him attain the fullness of his stature in you and from you. May he become to you a great smile and laughter and perfect Joy – which no man can take from you’ [St. Isaac of Stella]. Amen to that, I say: Amen.