‘This one work has to do’

6 minute read

A sermon to mark Colin Robinson’s seventieth anniversary as an altar server

Preached at St Mary’s Priory Church, Monmouth

Wild air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snow-flake; that’s fairly mixed
With riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air which by life’s law
My lung must draw and draw
Now, but to breathe its praise,—
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity,
Dwindled to infancy,
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest,
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race,
Mary Immaculate.

That is the opening to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem ‘Mary, Mother of Divine Grace, Compared to the Air we Breathe’. It is a poem I come back to, time and time again. In it, Hopkins draws comparisons time and time again between Mary and the air we breathe. Some of them border on the facile: ‘the sky is blue and so is Mary’s dress’. But often, they are very powerful indeed.

‘This needful, never spent / and nursing element.’ ‘This air which by life’s law / My lung must draw and draw / Now, but to breathe its praise.’

What I think I love most about this poem is how it presents Mary as something essential, necessary, needed, fundamental, basic. We cannot have life without air. We cannot speak about air without air in our lungs. We cannot have Christianity without Mary. She is not somehow optional, additional. She is not an added bonus or an extra feature on top of some basic, mere Christianity.

I’ll admit that this seems obvious to me. I came to faith here, in this church, serving at that altar. This is not a church that has ever been shy about celebrating the Mother of God. The first time I ever had the privilege of swinging a thurible it was, I think, for solemn evensong on this very feast, about fifteen years ago, when I led a procession – an entirely pointless procession – on a figure of eight around the building while singing ‘Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary, full of grace.’ Joyous, silly and fundamental.

For many, of course, Mary is not a significant character in their Christianity. This is, I think, a pity, because of what Mary does. If Christ shows us what God is like, Mary shows us what a Christian is like.

She, before anyone else, loved Jesus. ‘God’s infinity, dwindled to infancy’ received welcome in her arms. She loved him perfectly, simply, unconditionally, immediately. She sang with joy at his impending birth in the same words that we have just heard, the words that the Church sings every evening: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord.’ She understood immediately what this birth means: it means the overthrowing of the old order of sin and power and domination and death.

Sing we of the blessed Mother
who received the angel’s word,
And obedient to his summons
bore in love the infant Lord;
Sing we of the Joys of Mary
at whose breast that child was fed
Who is Son of God eternal
and the everlasting Bread.

She was the first disciple. ‘Mary kept all these things and treasured them in her heart.’ She watched this strange, mystifying child. She loved him. She listened to him. She bandaged his knee when he fell over playing with his friends. She learnt from him. It was, of course, at her intercession that Jesus’ first miracle took place at Cana. ‘Do whatsoever he tells you,’ she said to the servants at the wedding. ‘Do whatsoever he tells you.’ We could be given worse advice.

She followed him through his earthly journey. She followed him all the way to the Cross. Even when all others fled, even when the way of Christ became too hard to follow, she did not fall away.

Sing we, too, of Mary’s sorrows,
of the sword that pierced her through,
When beneath the cross of Jesus
she his weight of suffering knew,
Looked upon her Son and Saviour
reigning from the awful tree,
Saw the price of man’s redemption
paid to set the sinner free.

She was there on Easter Day, encountering her son, astonishingly, incomprehensibly raised from the dead. She was there on the Day of Pentecost, praying earnestly with the other disciples, then filled with the Holy Spirit.

Sing again the joys of Mary
when she saw the risen Lord,
And in prayer with Christ’s apostles,
waited on his promised word:
From on high the blazing glory
of the Spirit’s presence came,
Heavenly breath of God’s own being,
Tokened in the wind and flame.

And then, at the end of her earthly life, when her work on earth was complete, in the event we celebrate today, she was assumed, body and soul, into Heaven, to dwell there in all eternity. Her Christian journey ends in the fulness of immortal, eternal life, in the presence of God the Holy Trinity, in the presence of her Son.

Sing the chiefest joy of Mary
when on earth her work was done,
And the Lord of all creation
brought her to his heavenly home:
Virgin Mother, Mary blessed,
Raised on high and crowned with grace,
May thy Son, the world’s redeemer,
Grant us all to see his face.

In birth, in joy, in sorrow, in life, in death, in weeping, and finally in glory, always with Jesus. This was Mary’s path, her Christian journey. And it is our journey too. She shows us how to be a Christian. She trod the Christian path unerringly, by God’s grace. We certainly will not. Nonetheless, our hope is the same as her hope: it is in God’s grace.

Back to Hopkins.

Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through.

When Colin asked me to preach this morning, I promised that I wouldn’t give a eulogy. But I cannot let today pass without recognising his seventy years serving at God’s altar. It is a great gift to God’s church. The week-by-week, day-by-day participating in the Eucharist, joining our small sacrifices of time and attention to Christ’s one, perfect sacrifice, is the supreme means by which we are made holy. By which we, like Mary, come to love Jesus.

An altar server has one task. It is the same task as Mary’s. ‘Let all God’s glory through.’ That is the task, in fact, that every Christian has. Each of us should be like Mary: allowing God’s glory to go through us and flow off us, to point always to Jesus. But an altar server has this calling in a specific way. A good altar server does not call attention to him or herself. A good altar server points always elsewhere, to Him whom we worship and adore in the sacrament of the altar.

To be an altar server is to imitate Mary. To be often unnoticed, perhaps even forgotten, but constantly to point the way to Jesus. By devotion, by prayer, by knowing exactly when to appear at the priest’s side with a glass of water or a purificator or the formula for exorcising salt. In all things to point to Jesus.

And in all this to be a child of Mary, Mother of Jesus, Mother of God, Mother of Divine Grace, Queen of Heaven. To honour her who today is assumed into Heaven and there waits to welcome us, her children, into our home for ever and ever.

Be thou, then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer;
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.