St Stephen Lewisham
15th August 2004
Seen Through Her Virgin Eyes
Poetry can be a great help in understanding what we believe. Last week Fr Kirk reminded us of the importance of stories in grasping what the Christian Faith is all about. This week we shall take a well-known hymn which explains in just sixteen lines of verse what might take hundreds of pages of prose to say the same thing.
But first a word about its author, Thomas Ken, Bishop of Bath and Wells, and his times. Ken lived at a time rather like our own, when Christian truths were widely doubted even by those who had been ordained to safeguard them. If you recall the Survey which we did a year or so ago, it demonstrated that nearly half the male priests and over two thirds of the female priests who responded, expressed doubts about whether Jesus Christ was born of a Virgin, and rather less than half of all clergy believe that it is only by faith in Jesus Christ that we can be saved. Well it was much like that in Ken’s time, and the immorality of all varieties with which we are so familiar today was just as rife in the 17th Century.
Ken was one of a number of Bishops who stood up for what he believed and his standing firm led him to be imprisoned in the Tower of London by one King and deprived of his bishopric by his successor. So he was what we call a Confessor of the Faith which we seek to hold secure and someone who suffered for those beliefs, though not to the point of having to die for them.
His poem is about the Blessed Virgin Mary – rather an unusual subject for an Anglican 17th Century writer – and is, to many people’s mind, one of the finest which has ever been written. It begins as follows:
Her virgin eyes saw God incarnate born,
When she to Bethl’em came that happy morn;
How high her raptures then began to swell,
None but her own omniscient Son can tell.
In the first line, then, we have the completely unambiguous statement which is the cornerstone of our faith that Jesus was, and is, God. Not just a Man (however good); not just a disembodied spirit like a ghost or a phantom, but a complete human being, born, as you and I were, of a woman, a baby lying in a manger, who nevertheless is perfect God and perfect Man. In the third and fourth lines Ken emphasises the unique empathy, or unity-of-spirit which exists between Mother and Child. Only Jesus himself, he tells us, can fully understand the bond of joy, echoed by the choirs of angels in heaven, when as they looked down upon the ‘great and mighty wonder’ which had taken place in that stable whilst all the time ‘the heedless world slept on, and only simple shepherds knew that God had sent his Son’, as another poet was to write a hundred or more years later.
As Eve when she her fontal sin reviewed,
Wept for herself and all she should include,
Blest Mary with man’s Saviour in embrace
Joyed for herself and for all human race.
In verse two, Ken takes us back to the story in Genesis of the Garden of Eden and the fatal mistake of the First Woman, Eve, when she took the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. From very early times, certainly by St Irenaeus in the 2nd century, the Virgin Mary has been seen by Christians as the Second Eve, recapitulating or undoing, by her obedience to God’s word, the mischief wrought by Eve’s disobedience and in Jesus himself the Second Adam who, on the tree of the Cross reconciled the world to God from its estrangement brought about through Adam’s sin. The contrast between Eve’s tears and Mary’s delight is the foundation for the joy of all Christians from that day forward as we teach and preach the good news, so simply put by St Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians, namely that in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself… and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation: "be reconciled to God"’
In verse three Ken ‘widens his horizons’ as one might say.
All Saints are by her Son’s dear influence blest,
She kept the very Fountain at her breast;
The Son adored and nursed by the sweet Maid
A thousand-fold of love for love repaid.
It’s not just Mary, Jesus and the angels, who have reason to rejoice at the mystery of God’s redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ. We, his Saints (or Saints-in-the-making if you prefer to call it that), share the privilege of receiving both ‘the means of grace and the hope of glory’. As the Virgin Mary fed the Infant Jesus at her breast, we, like St John the Beloved Disciple, can approach as close to him as is humanly possible to receive his Body and Blood which he gives to all his faithful people, ‘God’s presence and his very Self, and Essence all-divine’ in Cardinal Newman’s well-known words.
But, as we were considering a fortnight ago, what happens to us and to God’s saints in this world is not the end of the story. In fact it is only what today we would call on television an episode or instalment of that story. In this world we can only ‘[kiss] joy as it flies’ as William Blake puts it. The completion or consummation of joy for us, as for the Blessed Virgin Mary, lies beyond the grave. Hence in the final verse Ken writes:
Heaven with transcendant joys her entrance graced,
Next to his throne her Son his Mother placed;
And here below, now she’s of heaven possest,
All generations are to call her blest.
So in those sixteen lines we have passed from Heaven down to Earth and back to Heaven again. Through the grace of God a simple, but virtuous teenager living in Nazareth has been transformed before our eyes into the Mother of God and transported to her allotted place in Heaven. But your vocation and destiny and mine are no less extraordinary than Mary’s. This may be Lewisham rather than Nazareth, and you and I may be seriously lacking in her virtues at the present stage of our earthly pilgrimage; but if, like our Lady, we can bring ourselves to say to God ‘I am your servant O God, do with me according to your will’, then we too will most surely take part with her of those transcendent and unimaginable joys which ‘[God] has prepared for them that unfeignedly love him’.
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