The Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes at the International Mass of 24 September 2008 (the feast of Our Lady of Walsingham).
The sermon text in full:
‘The babe in my womb leaped for joy.’ (Luke 1.44)
Mary comes to visit Elizabeth, carrying Jesus in her womb. The Son of God is still invisible – not yet born, not even known about by Elizabeth; yet Elizabeth recognises Mary as bearing within her the hope and desire of all nations, and life stirs in the deep places of her own body. The one who will prepare the way for Jesus, John the Baptist, moves as if to greet the hope that is coming, even though it cannot yet be seen.
Mary appears to us here as the first missionary, ‘the first messenger of the gospel’ as Bishop Perrier of Lourdes has called her: the first human being to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to another; and she does it simply by carrying Christ within her. She reminds us that mission begins not in delivering a message in words but in the journey towards another person with Jesus in your heart. She testifies to the primary importance of simply carrying Jesus, even before there are words or deeds to show him and explain him. This story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is in many ways a very strange one; it’s not about the communication of rational information from one speaker to another, but a primitive current of spiritual electricity running from the unborn Christ to the unborn Baptist. But mission it undoubtedly is, because it evokes recognition and joy. Something happens that prepares the way for all the words that will be spoken and the deeds that will be done. The believer comes with Christ dwelling in them by faith, and God makes that current come alive, and a response begins, not yet in words or commitments, but simply in recognising that here is life.
When Mary came to Bernardette, she came at first as an anonymous figure, a beautiful lady, a mysterious ‘thing’, not yet identified as the Lord’s spotless Mother. And Bernardette – uneducated, uninstructed in doctrine – leapt with joy, recognising that here was life, here was healing. Remember those accounts of her which speak of her graceful, gliding movements at the Lady’s bidding; as if she, like John in Elizabeth’s womb, begins to dance to the music of the Incarnate Word who is carried by his Mother. Only bit by bit does Bernardette find the words to let the world know; only bit by bit, we might say, does she discover how to listen to the Lady and echo what she has to tell us.
So there is good news for all of us who seek to follow Jesus’ summons to mission in his Name; and good news too for all who find their efforts slow and apparently futile, and for all who still can’t find their way to the ‘right’ words and the open commitment. Our first and overarching task is to carry Jesus, gratefully and faithfully, with us in all our doings: like St Teresa of Avila, we might do this quite prosaically by having with us always a little picture or a cross in our pockets, so that we constantly ‘touch base’ with the Lord. We can do it by following the guidance of the Orthodox spiritual tradition and repeating silently the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me, a sinner’. And if we are faithful in thus carrying Christ with us, something will happen, some current will stir and those we are with will feel, perhaps well below the conscious surface, a movement of life and joy which they may not understand at all. And we may never see it or know about it; people may not even connect it with us, yet it will be there – because Jesus speaks always to what is buried in the heart of men and women, the destiny they were made for. Whether they know it or not, there is that within them which is turned towards him. Keep on carrying Jesus and don’t despair: mission will happen, in spite of all, because God in Christ has begun his journey into the heart.
And when we encounter those who say they would ‘like to believe’ but can’t, who wonder how they will ever find their way to a commitment that seems both frightening and hard to understand, we may have something to say to them too: ‘Don’t give up; try and hold on to the moments of deep and mysterious joy; wait patiently for something to come to birth in you.’ It certainly isn’t for us as Christians to bully and cajole, and to try and force people into commitments they are not ready to make – but we can and should seek to be there, carrying Jesus, and letting his joy come through, waiting for the leap of recognition in someone’s heart.
Of course, as often as not, we ourselves are the one who need to hear the good news; we need people around us who carry Jesus, because we who call ourselves believers all have our moments of confusion and loss of direction. Others fail us or hurt us; the Church itself may seem confused or weak or even unloving, and we don’t feel we are being nourished as we need, and directed as we should be. Yet this story of Mary and Elizabeth tells us that the Incarnate Word of God is always already on the way to us, hidden in voices and faces and bodies familiar and unfamiliar. Silently, Jesus is constantly at work, and he is seeking out what is deepest in us, to touch the heart of our joy and hope.
Perhaps when we feel lost and disillusioned, he is gently drawing us away from a joy or a hope that is only human, limited to what we can cope with or what we think on the surface of our minds that we want. Perhaps it’s part of a journey towards his truth, not just ours. We too need to look and listen for the moments of recognition and the leap of joy deep within. It may be when we encounter a person in whom we sense that the words we rather half-heartedly use about God are a living and actual reality. (That’s why the lives of the saints, ancient and modern, matter so much.) It may be when a moment of stillness or wonder suddenly overtakes us in the middle of a familiar liturgy that we think we know backwards, and we have for a second the feeling that this is the clue to everything – if only we could put it into words. It may be when we come to a holy place, soaked in the hopes and prayers of millions, and suddenly see that, whatever we as individuals may be thinking or feeling, some great reality is moving all around and beneath and within us, whether we grasp it or not. These are our ‘Elizabeth’ moments – when life stirs inside, heralding some future with Christ that we can’t yet get our minds around.
It’s very tempting to think of mission as something to be done in the same way we do – or try to do – so much else, with everything depending on planning and assessments of how we’re doing, and whether the results are coming out right. For that matter, it’s tempting to think of the Church’s whole life in these sorts of terms. Of course we need to use our intelligence, we need to be able to tell the difference between good and bad outcomes, we need to marshal all the skill and enthusiasm we can when we respond to God’s call to share his work of transforming the world through Jesus and his Spirit. But Mary’s mission tells us that there is always a deeper dimension, grounded in the Christ who is at work unknown and silent, reaching out to the deeply buried heart of each person and making the connection; living faithfully at the heart of the Church itself, in the middle of its disasters and betrayals and confusions, still giving himself without reserve. All that we call ‘our’ mission depends on this; and if we are wise, we know that we are always going to be surprised by the echoes and connections that come to life where we are not expecting it.
True mission is ready to be surprised by God – ‘surprised by joy’, in the lovely phrase of C. S. Lewis. Elizabeth knew the whole history of Israel and how it was preparing the way for God to come and visit his people – but she was still surprised into newness of life and understanding when the child leapt in her womb. Bernardette’s neighbours and teachers and parish clergy knew all they thought they needed to know about the Mother of God – and they needed to be surprised by this inarticulate, powerless, marginal teenager who had leapt up in the joy of recognition to meet Mary as her mother, her sister, bearer of her Lord and Redeemer. Our prayer here must be that, renewed and surprised in this holy place, we may be given the overshadowing strength of the Spirit to carry Jesus wherever we go, in the hope that joy will leap from heart to heart in all our human encounters; and that we may also be given courage to look and listen for that joy in our own depths when the clarity of the good news seems far away and the sky is cloudy.
But here today, with Elizabeth and Bernardette, we say, in thankful amazement, ‘Why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’ And we recognise that our heart’s desire is met and the very depth of our being stirred into new life.