Last Thursday was the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary – also known as the Assumption in the Roman Catholic Church and The Dormition in the Orthodox Church. We transferred the feast to the following Sunday. Here’s what I said.
It’s not easy knowing whether someone is called to be a priest in the Church. For the Church is not like other careers. It doesn’t matter how highly qualified you are or how able you might be – the Church has to decide whether God actually wants you to be a priest regardless of what your other qualifications might be. Important, of course, for the church to be able to discern the kind of people that God is calling. So the Church provides a very helpful 24-page document entitled Criteria for Selection for the Ordained Ministry in the Church of England. And the introduction to the guide covers such aspects of the selection procedures as:
- The vocation criterion
- Gathering evidence
- Assessing potential and risk
- Developmental and non-developmental issues
and the guide goes on to cover various aspects of a person’s makeup: spirituality, relationships, personality and character, leadership and collaboration, faith and so on – and I particularly like this one – quality of mind. All important stuff, of course. I wonder whether God’s ever read it?
Start looking at the kind of people that God chose in the Bible, for example, and you soon realize that God doesn’t play by the rules when it comes to choosing the people that he wants for a particular purpose. Or at least, he doesn’t play by our rules.
What was it about Mary that led God to choose her to be the mother of his Son?
When you look back at the people that God has called for some special purpose, and particularly those he has called to be his prophets, priests and prelates and so on, you realise that he often calls some very dubious or unsuitable people – at least in our terms. We have to assume, of course, that God knows what he is doing. Because if he followed the processes that we have in place for selection for ministry most of his candidates would be turned down! Our procedures are important – don’t imagine I’m saying they’re not. But it’s a salutary lesson to realize that God so often sees the potential in people that we would reject.
These days, of course, everyone has to have a check through what is now called The Disclosure and Barring Service – what used to be called the Criminal Records Bureau. Well, that would exclude some key people from the Bible. Moses wouldn’t have led the people of Israel out of Egypt to the Promised land: “Sorry, Moses, you can’t lead the people of Israel as there’s this little problem of you having murdered an Egyptian!”
It goes on: “I’m sorry, David – you can’t take up the post of ideal king and ancestor of the Messiah – apparently you’re a murderer and an adulterer!”
“Paul – this post of apostle to the Gentiles – you’re not very suitable as there’s this slight problem of aiding and abetting the murder of Stephen!”
See what I mean?
And what about their qualifications for the jobs in question? A common practice in non-conformist churches is for potential ministers to be invited to ‘preach with a view’, after which the deacons or elders will make a final decision. It’s a good job that didn’t happen to Moses. Moses was so shy that God had to appoint his brother Aaron to speak up for him. I don’t think that would go down well: “I really want to be your minister – but I never preach, I always get someone else to do it for me!”
And as for the modern obsession with looks – you have to look the part, after all – well, what about Paul. The New Testament implies that his personal appearance wasn’t particularly impressive – in fact, an early document describes him as “a man of little stature, thin-haired upon the head, crooked in the legs, of good state of body, with eyebrows joining and nose somewhat hooked.” If God were as image conscious as so many are today then Paul’s looks would have ruled him out!
And what about giving people a period of probation before confirming them in post? “I’m sorry, Francis, you can’t go on to be the founder of a religious order – how ever much you may want to, taking off all your clothes in public the middle of Assisi with everyone watching wasn’t exactly a good idea and is not what is expected!” And you’ll be on the sex-offenders register for some considerable time!
It’s a good job that God knows what he is doing. If God were only to call those whom human beings thought were acceptable such people as Moses, David, Paul, Francis, would never have been chosen – obviously completely unsuitable from a human point of view.
Mary is a case in point. Why choose Mary in the first place? Why complicate things by choosing an unmarried young teenage girl to be the mother of Jesus? We don’t know exactly how old she was, but certainly no more than 13 or 14. If God were to ask us today about the kind of person who should be the earthly mother of his Son we’d never suggest a poor unmarried teenage girl engaged to someone that we think, although the Bible doesn’t tell us, was substantially older. Today we’d say she was far too young to be a mother and in any case her relationship with Joseph, a much older man, was surely quite inappropriate! Surely it would have been far less complicated for Jesus to be born into a well-off, stable family, where he could have a good up-bringing, the best education, and no-one would ask questions about the dubious nature of his birth?
But this is the person that God chose to bear his son! And today we honour this remarkable young Jewish girl who bore Jesus into the world, who stood by the cross and watched him die, who was in the upper room with the other disciples when the Spirit came, and who – as we remember especially today – was taken into heaven and crowned as queen, as our first reading reminded us. A young teenage girl whom since the earliest days Christians have honoured as not just the mother of Jesus but as the spiritual mother of all the faithful.
And yet, we still struggle with the reality of the kind of people God calls. How many statues of Our Lady do you see that show her as she really was in life – a teenage girl from Palestine – much more acceptable, of course, to portray her as a respectable middle-aged blond Anglo-Saxon. But God didn’t choose a respectable middle-aged blond Anglo-Saxon – he chose a young teenage girl from Palestine, a girl that he knew was the right person to be the mother of our Saviour.
The issue we need to grapple with is surely this. When we look at a person and are tempted to think “Surely God can’t be calling this person?” or “They can’t be the kind of person God could possibly want?” the two questions we need to ask are “Has God called this person?” and “Does this person show that God has called them by pointing people to Jesus?”
As far as the first question is concerned there is no doubt that God called her. And as for the second, it is clear that she received God’s call because Mary always points people to Jesus, to our Saviour. This, surely, is – after her complete acceptance of the calling that God gave her to bear his Son, “let it be to me as you have said” – the greatest lesson that she has to teach us. That like her, we must always point people towards Jesus. At the wedding of Cana she said to the servants as she says to us “Do whatever he tells you”. Those saints whom we honour in the Church today in our Calendar have always been people who, like Mary, have received God’s call – sometimes willingly, sometimes reluctantly – but who have gone on and have pointed people to Jesus – through their teaching, perhaps; through their lifestyle; through their commitment; through the manner of their death.
Mary says to us “Do whatever he tells you”. As we honour Mary – the unmarried teenage girl that God chose to be the mother of the world’s redeemer, let us commit ourselves to follow her example – to accept God’s word to us, to accept God’s will no matter what it may mean, and to seek always to point people to Jesus.