Today is the Eve of the Feast Day of St. Mary, mother of our Lord Jesus Christ. This monastic church is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and tomorrow, August 15, is the 75th anniversary of that dedication. So a great cause for thanksgiving.
You may not have ever looked behind the organ, but there, on the wall, is a very large and splendid plaque with these words: “To the glory of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In veneration of our Lady St. Mary the Blessed Mother of God, this conventual church of the Society of St. John the Evangelist was built in the year of Our Lord, 1936.”
In England, there are so many churches dedicated to Mary, and in the Middle Ages, England was known as “Mary’s dowry.” I was ordained priest in the Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin in Salisbury, and before coming to America, I was rector of the church of St. Mary the Virgin in Welwyn, Hertfordshire. And so in my own Christian pilgrimage it seems providential to me that the church, in which so much of my life is now spent, is also dedicated to Mary.
Looking around, what I think speaks most powerfully of Mary are the windows, especially now they have been so beautifully cleaned. The beautiful blue, so reminiscent of the blue found in the great cathedrals of the Ile de France which were built to honor Mary – Notre Dame, in Paris, Rouen, Reims, Amiens.
Our lovely rose window representing heaven, with Mary being received into heaven, right in the center of the window. Then below the Rose, in the central panel the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child: robed in sapphire blue and as described in the Book of Revelation Chapter 12, with the crescent moon at her feet, golden rays about her and 12 stars surrounding her head. In the Lady Chapel there are 5 lancet windows representing the 15 mysteries of the Rosary. Mary is in the window behind the high altar on my side, with John the Evangelist on the other.
What I really like is in the small window to my right dedicated to Luke the Physician. Traditionally, Luke was also a painter, and here he is painting a portrait of Mary. It is Luke alone who describes the Annunciation, Mary’s extraordinary encounter with the divine. The Angel Gabriel imparts the wondrous news that she is to be the mother of the Lord. Such encounters with God are not things that can be easily hidden. After Moses had encountered God, his theophany, his face continued to shine with reflected glory. And when Mary went to visit her cousin Elisabeth, the glory of God shone in Mary, so that even as she approached the house, Elisabeth’s child leapt in the womb. Even before Mary had said anything Elisabeth knew. She saw her cousin and cried out “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (Lk 1:42)
Mary’s encounter with God at the annunciation, her theophany, was to be the means by which God’s life entered the world in Jesus Christ. And so for me, Mary is an extremely appropriate patron for a church, because a church, set apart and consecrated as a house of God, is supremely a place of encounter – encounter with the divine. “Surely the Lord is in this place,” said Jacob. “This is none other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen 28)
And this monastic church has, over the decades, been for many, many people, a very real place of encounter with the divine. At the heart of our sense of mission as Brothers of SSJE is that the doors of the church are open to everyone – whoever you might be, you have a home here – for this is the house of God and God’s love embraces all of humankind. In our reading from Isaiah today (Isaiah 56:1, 6-8), we hear that marvelous vision of God’s salvation offered to all. “My house,” we read, “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” says the Lord. You may remember those words displayed in many different languages on a board just inside the narthex, welcoming everyone in. That board is being renewed and will again be placed at the threshold of the church, welcoming everyone in the name of the Lord.
And yet, I rather wonder if we should put another notice up next to that one. “Enter at your own risk.” For to encounter the divine can be a risky and even fearful thing!
When I was a student, I remember my first visit to Notre Dame in Paris. The organ was playing, and it was a bright spring day, and the glass shimmered brilliantly in the clear light. Suddenly, I saw on the floor next to a pillar some words engraved: “Here Paul Claudel was converted.” I was intrigued and read about the life of this French playwright. He was not a believer but wrote that one day he was standing in Notre Dame half hiding behind a pillar and watching the Mass taking place. He felt that the pillars were like great trees in a forest, and as he stood there, something extraordinary took place. He said it was as if the Holy Spirit was hiding in that forest, and it suddenly came out and ambushed him, and he believed, and fell to his knees.
Churches can be dangerous places! God can ambush you here! My first ever visit to this monastic church, I sat as a visitor at a midweek Evening Prayer – and quite unexpectedly felt that I had come home. And I’m still here. Dangerous places!
Because of course it’s not just aesthetics that gives this church its power. It is the very real presence of God. This is the place where thousands upon thousands of prayers have been offered. It is a place where solemn vows are made: monastic vows, baptismal vows, marriage vows, ordination vows. A place of encounter: men and women who, like Mary, have encountered God, have been ambushed by God, and can never be the same again. An encounter is so real that we long to express and enshrine it through the making of vows, binding us to God and to each other.
Have you ever known what it is to be ambushed by God? Have you had an encounter with the divine, which changed your life?
At worship, we are often at our most vulnerable, and most open to such an encounter with God. But worship can be dulled by repetition. I think one of the most important ways of revitalizing our experience of worship, is through anticipation – coming to worship full of expectancy that we are about to encounter God. Coming into church many people take holy water on their forefinger to remind them of their baptism, make the sign of the cross, or bow, or simply pause on the threshold, aware of entering a holy place. “This is the gate of heaven” – a place of encounter. So come with expectancy.
Another way of reawakening expectancy is to come to each Eucharist with what is traditionally called an intention: something quite specific that you long for, for yourself or for someone else. It might be a desire for healing, forgiveness: ask the Lord for some particular gift or grace, and offer that desire to God during worship, full of faith and expectancy. I wonder what that might be for you today? What do you most long for – what is your deepest desire? When you come forward to receive holy communion, offer that prayer, that intention to God. For it is in the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ that we can know the most profound moment of encounter with God.
Praise be to God for this monastic church which has glorified God for 75 years.
Praise be to God for Mary the mother of our Lord, to whom this church is dedicated.
Praise be to God for inviting us into this church where God longs to encounter us – for this is none other than the house of God – the very gate of heaven.
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