A sermon preached at the mass of the Vigil of the Assumption at Holy Rood, Oxford, by the Rev’d Daniel Lloyd.
These last days have, I think, given the whole country much to reflect on. Rioting and unrest in London and elsewhere has proved disturbing, and this is shown not least in the huge variety of responses, of analysis, and of solutions suggested. Is it a political protest? Is it, in the phrase of the moment, ‘mindless violence’? Is it the actions of bored teenagers who should know better but don’t, or of agents provocateurs, of an overspill of gang violence; is it a reaction to racism, or does it transcend such categories? 110 years ago, Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical Rerum novarum, in which he addressed the social and political conditions of the time. He expressed his fatherly concern for the ‘misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working classes’ – but what meaning does this have today, when class, wealth, and even work are fluid and hazy concepts? His words on material possessions, whether directed at looters of shops or at those who exploit, by financial means, the weakness, the gullibility, the frailty or the desperation of others, nevertheless remain stark and profound:
Therefore, those whom fortune favours are warned that riches do not bring freedom from sorrow and are of no avail for eternal happiness, but rather are obstacles; that the rich should tremble at the threatenings of Jesus Christ – threatenings so unwonted in the mouth of our Lord – and that a most strict account must be given to the Supreme Judge for all we possess.
In the responses of politicians and pressure groups, we have heard something already about their competing ideas of society (big or small), and I don’t doubt we’ll hear more. We might even hear things expressed in terms of such heady political concepts as ‘social contracts’ – although whether we find, in the small print of such a social contract, the truly horrifying gimmick that the families of those convicted of looting should lose the benefits which, through the present democratic process, our society has already agreed they should receive, I don’t know. But Christians don’t deal in contracts: we are concerned with covenants, and above all of the new and eternal covenant, the mystery of faith, sealed in blood, between creature and Creator. Through this covenant, through the bread which comes down from heaven every day, we are set free from slavery to sin and bondage to death, and are permitted a foretaste of the only society in which all is ordered and ordained to the perfect good, namely the Kingdom of Heaven.
And on this feast of the Assumption, our task is to celebrate the mystery of the Ark of the New Covenant, Our Blessed Lady herself. When Moses sets up the Ark, the Book of Exodus speaks of the overshadowing of the cloud as the indication of God’s presence. When the Angel speaks to Mary, he tells her that the power of the Most High will overshadow her. When, in 2 Samuel, we read the account of the transferral of the Ark, the course of events and the words used to describe them remind us of Our Lady’s visit to her kinswoman Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s cry of greeting is like that of the people greeting the Ark; as the infant priest John leaps in her womb before the Ark of the New Covenant, so the priest-king David danced before the Ark of the Old Covenant. David asks how it is that the Ark can come to him; Elizabeth asks how it is that the mother of her Lord should come to her. The Ark remains in the house of Obed-Edom for three months, and Our Lady remains with Elizabeth for three months. And what was in the Ark of the Covenant? As well as the stone tablets containing the Law, the Epistle to the Hebrews informs us that there was also an urn which held some of the manna which the Israelites had eaten in the desert, and the Rod of Aaron, the first High Priest. In the womb of the Ark of the New Covenant is Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ Himself, who is the fulfilment of the law, who is the true bread come down from heaven, who is the true priest. And, to extend the parallels into the realm of devotion: the Book of Numbers tells us that, whenever the ark was to be transported, it was to be covered with a cloth all of blue. Is there a coloured image of Our Lady of Walsingham in which she does not wear blue?
All of these typological parallels, all of these monumental pieces of symbolism, show how, from the very beginnings of our Christian faith, the Mother of God was venerated in what Aidan Nichols calls the ‘deep mind of the Church’. Our Lady’s example speaks to us most powerfully when we doubt our own ability to respond to God’s call. When we feel least able to take up again the particular cross which is ours to bear, her intercession, her motherly care, and her pattern of humility show us not only the path but the reward. She is not only the Stella maris, the star of the sea, guiding us; she is also the Porta Caeli, the gate of heaven, welcoming us when we get there
And in these particularly distressing times, when we sometimes doubt even the humanity of our fellow humans, it is to her that we must turn. That is why the words of the woman in the crowd, which we heard in the Gospel, are so important. We may say, ‘blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked’. We may, in other words, respond to the teachings of a nebulous theological concept called the Historical Jesus; we can even praise him through praising his mother. But unless we grasp that it is not enough simply to admire what he stands for, and that we must grasp hold of the command to hear the word of God and keep it, it can never be enough. If Our Lady had simply admired what God stood for, rather than responding ‘be it unto me according to thy word’, how differently things might have turned out. The true contract, the true covenant between God and man requires of all who call themselves Christians to conform themselves to the mind of Christ, in humility and in praise. We must become victims, as Christ did, denying ourselves and doing penance. We must ‘hang with Christ upon the cross’, as St Paul put it in the Epistle to the Galatians. And, in order to do so, we need the help and intercession of Our Lady, Ark of the New Covenant:
We fly to thy patronage, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin. Amen.