If you've read your notice sheet you'll know that we can now claim our Trinity altar frontal was overseen by a prize-winning textile artist [Mrs Viv Rowett](though she doesn't know what the prize is yet). But lest this sounds like a fond husband paying tribute to his wife so that he doesn't have to sleep in the coal-shed, we should remember that we're also able to sing a mass setting written specifically for us, that we're quite used to being able to commission music for special occasions, and that we can usually find someone or other with the skills and talents to do something we need doing, and to do it well. The murmurs of envy which the Barton clergy are used to getting in diocese and deanery have to be experienced to be believed. And what has that got to do with a patronal festival in a Church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin? Well, quite a lot.
The Benedictine offices for the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is the date on which we hang our patronal festival, include two interesting texts. One is from St Andrew of Crete: “Let all creation sing and dance, therefore, and contribute its fullest measure of joy to the day's celebration.” And the other is from Isaiah 61: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God.” And perhaps you see why learning to exult in what we have here is part and parcel of what it is to be St Mary's Church.
There is a long and dismal tradition of discipleship which tries to suppress our real nature and encourages us to become grey, one-dimensional beings – sober, restrained and good, but somehow lacking the exuberance that we recognize as being Life. One of the teenagers who nipped into Church during Friday's choir practice knew only too well what that monochrome moralising looked like, as he said, 'I've only one life, and I'm not going to spend it in Church' – in other words, he had fallen for Christianity Miserable, the sour-faced sanctity which St Teresa of Avila (among others) found so off-putting. And yet the authentic Christian tradition finds that dour puritanism incomprehensible to the point of blasphemy.
At yesterday morning's 'Lectio Divina' I found myself drawn into the first line of the Magnificat, this morning's Gospel reading — 'My soul magnifies the Lord' . And over the course of that half-hour I came to see what a profoundly astonishing claim that is – that we human beings can, through pursuing our callings and our gifts, can make God loom larger and more real in the world in which we live, enlarging his presence on the stage on which we act and move. By being what, at depth, we most solidly are, we can make God himself more present.
This is a very long way from the unambiguous presence of the pagan Gods, who are prone to sling thunderbolts whenever they think they're not getting enough attention, but this is our inherited gift, a calling to make God more visible in the world, more transparent to the world, by being our very selves. As the great early Christian writer and martyr Irenaeus of Lyons observed, 'The glory of God is a human being fully alive'. And, maybe significantly, he said that in a work against heresy – so we can assume that, for Irenaeus in the second century, to be less than alive, to be dull, joy-avoiding, puritans, verges on the heretical.
So it's actually a part of our Christian discipleship to learn to rejoice in our gifts -and in those of others – and to pursue them. CS Lewis observes that there's no merit in an intelligent person pretending they're foolish, and to deny the gifts and talents we -and others have – is to deny ourselves the opportunity of magnifying God. Oh yes, it can be hard work – you should hear the choir trying to master new music, or the occasional hiccups when you walk in and hear one of our organists trying a trying piece – but learning to live gloriously, fully as we are called to be, is central to our calling as the life-enhancing people of God here.
In a few days, the New Life Church from Scunthorpe will open a cell here, and we wish them well with prayers and love. And from them we might learn, not to use their brand of music, or preaching or worship – but perhaps to remember their exuberance and their joyfulness and rejoicing in what they are — and remember, especially when it all starts to get on top of us, that we too are called to that rejoicing, that magnifying, that enhancement of ilfe which makes the presence of God more real to those among whom we live.