Preached by the Prior of Pluscarden at Rydebäck Karmel
Occupying pride of place in our refectory at Pluscarden is our statue of St. Anne. We inherited the statue from Fernham Priory when it closed. It’s an unpainted oak figure; carved, I understand, probably somewhere in Northern Germany, round about the year 1500. The Anne it shows is an ordinary married woman of the period. She has a very strong face, perhaps a little battered by age and care, but striking I think above all for its quiet dignity. She is seated, supporting on her right arm her daughter, the Blessed Virgin Mary. The child Mary, crowned as a princess, already has a womanly figure. Tumbling off her knees into the middle of Anne’s lap is Mary’s own Son, scarcely smaller than herself: a rather mature looking baby Jesus. Anne is holding an open book on her left knee: presumably the holy scriptures of the Old Testament; one of its pages is being lifted up by Jesus. The group of three figures in one carving is rather typical for the period, when there was a great deal of devotion to St. Anne. If you look at it from behind you can see how the artist took a piece of oak tree with two branches coming off it, from which he made the figures of Mary and Jesus.
The whole statue seems to me to be a figure of contemplative prayer. Here is St. Anne, silently pondering the word of God, yet intimately close to the very child it foretells, or foreshadows, who is Himself the Word made flesh, and the divine Son of her own all holy and Immaculate Daughter.
The statue could have been specially carved to illustrate the meaning of today’s feast, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s a feast that’s particularly important for us at Pluscarden, because on this day, 69 years ago, monastic observance was formally restored.
At the time when the statue was carved the Feast would have spilled over into the eight following days, and the Sunday within its Octave would have been celebrated as the feast of the Holy Name of Mary. When I was growing up in rural Herefordshire, the Anglican Church we regularly attended had kept its mediaeval dedication to the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was a huge Church, in a tiny village, miles from anywhere. But it needed to be huge, because it once had a statue of Our Lady, maybe a bit like our Refectory statue, and it became a place of pilgrimage for the sake of that. The Statue was destroyed at the time of the Reformation, but the Church survived, as did its dedication, beautifully intact.
Is it all a bit excessive to make such a fuss of Our Lady’s birthday? Is this allowing an unscriptural legend to obscure or somehow diminish the Church’s proper focus on Jesus Christ alone?
On the contrary! One of the fundamental insights of Catholic theology is that we cannot have a proper understanding of and relationship with Jesus if we leave His Mother out of the picture. God did not give us Jesus without Mary, and she is not to be separated from Him. Her divine motherhood was not the work of a moment, or of 9 months, or of 33 years, only. The divine Motherhood of Mary was predestined from all eternity, prepared immediately by the Immaculate Conception, begun at the Annunciation, made formally universal at the foot of the Cross, confirmed and ratified eternally at the Assumption. So it’s a gift that God, who commands us to honour our father and mother, will never take away from her!
The Magnificat Antiphon we sing for Second Vespers of today’s feast has been shared since at least the 8th century by the Churches of East and West.
“Nativitas tua Dei Genitrix Virgo, gaudium annuntiavit universo mundo...” - “Your birth, O Virgin Mother of God, has brought joy to the whole world: for from you has arisen the Sun of righteousness (Mal 4:2), Christ our God. Taking away the curse, he has bestowed blessing; defeating death, he has given us everlasting life.”
We continue to celebrate this ancient feast largely because three great Doctors of the Church forcefully promoted it, precisely to defend faith in the full and true humanity of Jesus. First, in the East, in the 8th century, during the Iconoclast crisis, St. John of Damascus. Then in the West, as part of the great monastic revival and reform of the 11th and 12th centuries, St. Peter Damian and St. Bernard of Clairvaux.
The modern Roman Office gives (but in a rather poor English translation) for its 2nd nocturn reading a homily by St. Andrew of Crete. “Today” he cries, “a shrine has been built for the Creator of the Universe. The creature is newly made ready as a divine dwelling for the Creator.”
The words of course refer to Mary. Perhaps you will allow me to apply these words also to my own monastery at Pluscarden. St. Andrew of Crete calls us to joy and thanksgiving, simply because of the existence of Our Lady, on her birthday. I want to add today also my thanksgiving to God, simply for the existence of Pluscarden, on its birthday.
Mary had a central, irreplaceable, absolutely unique role in God’s plan of salvation. Pluscarden’s role in that is very tiny and strictly temporary. But for those who live there, and for many who come there, its role is a very big one indeed. Of course you would say the same about your own monastery.
Through Mary, the human race has been given a new and wonderful access to God; its wounds are healed; peace is restored; a life of holiness is opened up; an invitation is extended for all to enter into eternal joy. How many people would say also that they have found intimations of all that through our monastery: a felt intimacy with the God who dwells here; peace; healing; a vision of holiness; the certainty that God is good? Like Our Lady, like St. Anne, our monastery’s existence is justified because it points beyond itself: to Christ, to God, to eternity. But it is God who has given us this pointer: we do not receive it without love and gratitude.
Like Our Lady, like St. Anne, Pluscarden does not seek the limelight. At the heart of monastic life, as at the centre of our refectory statue, is the quiet contemplation of God’s word, especially His Word made flesh in Christ. Leaving to others the task of governing the Church, or taking the Gospel and the works of mercy into the world, our business is to live out that contemplation in the Benedictine, cenobitic monastic life: abiding at home with Christ: making manifest the Church’s praise of His glory; with Mary magnifying the Lord, and rejoicing in His salvation.
So may the Blessed Virgin whom we honour today bring it about that our monastic life continues to flourish with many new vocations, for the praise and glory of God’s name, for our good, and the good of all His holy Church.