“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”
If you were tasked with assessing the health of a church—any church, this church—how might you go about doing so? One way might be based on bums in pews. At a diocesan level we call this ASA or Average Sunday Attendance. The oft unstated assumption seems to be that the higher your ASA the better off you are. Or, you might consider the financial health of the place. You could, for example, take a look at the budget, paying special attention to the givings coming out of the pews each week. While looking at the budget you might also consider how we, as a parish, spend our money. If you want to take another tack altogether you might want to look at the various ministries we’re involved with—what are we doing with all of the talents God has gifted us with?
This is all well and good and these particular indicators may indeed tell us something about the health of a church. Though, they might not. For example, if we do a thought experiment together we could imagine a church that is full of generous rich people. While the place is packed, they are there as consumers of religious goods and services and while they may be very generous, giving lots of money to the poor, it could be that their wealth inhibits them from actually being with the poor. And while there may be lots of different sorts of ministries happening it could be the case that they are simply busy, busy meeting and gratifying their own felt needs. But more than that, the real challenge with these indicators is that what they measure is, essentially, external. I think we all want to be part of a healthy parish. And I’m sure that we all have that desire for this new parish of St. Mary and St. Martha’s. But how do we get there? What are some of the root virtues and practices that make for a healthy parish? A parish in which our faith is nourished, into which new members are being invited and welcomed, a parish in which we are challenged and pushed to understand our life in new ways, ways which may well open us up to being more generous with our resources—financial, time, presence, and so on. How do we become that sort of parish?
Well, I’m not sure that there is a formula for such a desired outcome but if there is I want to suggest one thing that I’m sure is part of it all. That is, joy. The joy of knowing that we are on the receiving end of God’s abundant grace. The joy of the gospel. The joy of the gospel that simply cannot be contained or suppressed.
Twice this week I was confronted with images of this gospel joy. The first was in our Wednesday Bible Study and Eucharist. During our conversation around the Scriptures someone said that when they thought of the joy of the gospel they pictured that Ikea commercial. You know, the one where the woman runs out of the shop yelling at her husband to start the car because she thinks the deal she just got was too good to be true. There is something of the task of the Church in here, she said. A community full of the too-good-to-be-true joy of the gospel running out into the world as heralds of that joy. The second time this week that I was afforded a glimpse of the joy of the gospel was on Thursday evening as a number of us gathered together for ComSup. What a wonderful time. What a joyful time, as we got to serve our neighbours a hot meal and not only serve them but take the time to sit down together with them, to eat together around tables, to hear one another’s stories, offering a listening ear, a prayer, sharing a laugh or a word of comfort. Perhaps a glimpse of the heavenly banquet which Jesus Christ our Lord is preparing.
Our gospel reading this morning is full of this same joy. God’s “good news of great joy for all people,” (2:10) which the angel Gabriel announces to Zechariah and Mary and the shepherds in the field. Behold the wonder of this encounter between two holy women. Our reading picks up after Gabriel has announced to Mary—the young and as-of-yet unwed Mary—that she will conceive and bear a son who is the Son of God. This will be a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit. Then, after receiving this news Mary sets off on a long walk to see her relative Elizabeth. And as she travels on that dangerous road she literally bears in her body the Saviour of the world.
After some time she arrives at her destination and greets Elizabeth. To greet in this sense is to say that Mary drew Elizabeth to herself, embraced her, kissed her, enfolded her in her arms. At this, John the fetus jumped for joy, did sanctified summersaults and blessed bellyflops. And Elizabeth his mother, filled with the Holy Spirit, gave voice to her sons uterine gymnastics: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” (1:42).
Blessed is Mary because of the fruit of her womb. Blessed is Elizabeth whose barren womb was sanctified. Blessed is John who gets a visit from Jesus before his eyes could see. And then Mary sings and what a song it is! Blessed are the weak and the lowly. Blessed are the poor and the hungry. Blessed is Abraham and blessed are his descendants forever. Blessed are you, blessed am I, blessed are all those who trust in the fruit of Mary’s womb—He who restores the wreckage of Israel, who rebuilds the ruins of our world, who redeems and remolds our erring and callous hearts, he who is the light of the world shining upon us that we might be saved. Magnify the Lord, O my soul! Rejoice in God your Saviour!
Mary’s embrace of Elizabeth is sacramental, that is, in it we see a sign of a deeper reality. That in and through the embrace of this young, unwed mother-with-child, God was embracing us. In and through this child and his mother God was enfolding us in His arms, drawing us to Himself as He drew near to us. In other words, what this story makes clear is that the Lord God takes the initiative. He has loved us first and therefore we, like Mary, can respond in love. He has come near to us, therefore, we can draw near to Him. We are called, thus, to give up all our vain attempts to reach him on our own terms, and to come before Him in thanksgiving and joy for the great gift of salvation given to us in Jesus Christ. Like Mary, we are pure receivers of the richness of God’s grace. Thus, like Mary, we can move forward, boldly taking the initiative to go out to others, to seek those who have fallen away, to stand in the streets and welcome the outcast. This coming year, what if we were to try a little bit harder to take the first step and become involved in the work of God in the world?
Mary was obedient to the will of God and thus from her comes forth the ruler of Israel, the Lord of all creation, Jesus Christ the Son of God. And through the offering of her body to God’s will, and through the offering of the body of her son Jesus Christ—whose body was offered once for all on the cross—we have been sanctified, set apart as brothers and sisters of Jesus, children of God, co-workers in the kingdom.
We, like Mary, are called each day to embrace God’s will by the power of the Holy Spirit, to hear and believe, and be filled with the joy and grace of our salvation.
Is that an overwhelming prospect for you? Do you feel inadequate? Not up to the task? Anxious? Ashamed of things that you’ve done? So did Mary and so did Elizabeth and yet, they trusted. For the son which Mary bore took away the disgrace of Elizabeth’s barren womb and upended the shame of Mary’s lowly position. So too, the fruit of Mary’s womb takes away our disgrace. Whatever ways you may have been cast aside by others. Whatever sort of headlines or labels others view you through, or through which you view yourself, Jesus Christ takes all of our disgrace, all of our sources of shame, all of our pain and our suffering. On the other hand, he takes all of our pride, all of our self-righteousness, all of our presumed strength, all of our confidence in ourself and our abilities which cause us to think more of ourselves than others and he tears it down, levels it out, turns it on it’s head. He takes all of it up into himself, he absorbs it all into his human flesh, and sets us free—from our disgrace and from our pride—to live anew with him and with one another. And this is, simply, a gift. The gift of Mary’s son. The Son of God. God in the flesh of Jesus Christ—then in Mary’s womb and now in his Body the Church. God’s very life given for us and to us. May we like Mary, recipients of God’s grace, go from here in thanksgiving and with haste to bring the love and joy of Jesus to all we meet. Amen.