Every Wednesday at St. Aidan’s church we gather for a quiet celebration of Eucharist. We use each Wednesday as an opportunity to celebrate what we have called a Holy Days and Saints series. This time of prayer is always followed by an informal lunch at Bernie’s in Byron. Over food and an appropriate beverage, we often have very good dialogue and conversation about issues that really matter to us as a people and as a church. Today after celebrating the Feast of the Annunciation to Mary, we had a deep and meaningful conversation over our dinner as we discussed issues around Communion, sin and salvation, the challenges of mental illness, and the miserable weather, just to name a few. It is a wonderful time together where those who come out feel drawn closer in community and closer to God. We invite any and all who can join us to be with us at 10:30 on Wednesday mornings.
In discussing the nature of sin and how we participate in it, our conversation today turned to the Sacrament of Eucharist. We discussed people we have known in our own lives who have not taken communion for many years because of how they felt unworthy to receive the sacrament. A couple of people around the table were discussing recent comments by Pope Francis about the sacrament and how it is offered to the week, the vulnerable and the broken – in fact, Pope Francis was discussing the refusal of Communion to people who are divorced. His response was; “[The Eucharist] is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”
While the Book of Common Prayer takes great pains to remind us that ‘we are unworthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under God’s table,’ it also reminds us that our God ‘whose property is always to have mercy’ provides the Eucharistic Meal for us as a means of grace, atonement, and communion with brothers and sisters. My own father explained to me that the many years that he did not take communion were because of that ‘Prayer of Humble Access’ in the Book of Common Prayer. While the prayer is a reassurance of the mercy of God, its heavy language around unworthiness was more than Dad could get past. My father took his first communion from me on June 5, 1998 – the Feast of St Boniface – at my ordination to the Priesthood. He was 82. He remained a regular communicant for the rest of his life. In fact, one of the last things we did together was share Communion shortly before he died at age 93 – Moments of Grace that I treasure.
I was so proud of Dad for getting to a place where he could receive the sacrament. For the last years of his life he took great comfort in the sacrament. He did not talk about it with me again but I like to think that he accepted that he was more than worthy. Communion is not for measuring up. The Eucharist is most certainly not a prize for those who have reached some state of perfection. It is not for those who view themselves holy. It is indeed powerful medicine to the faithful gathered around the table on a weekly basis. It is a powerful medicine for the weak, the broken, the sinner. It is nourishment for the community of saints who have gathered themselves around the table each week. It is nourishment for the baptized who gather bringing their own sins, their own faults, and dare I say, even their own unworthiness. Each and everyone welcomed, embraced, fed, and given healing by the Body of Christ. It’s God gift, given to us and is not a gift to simply deny or refuse – it’s not our place to say ‘O no, I shouldn’t have …. That is very kind of you really but…. Just take it back. I cannot accept your gift.” God has a way of letting us know that we are God’s beloved. Has William Willimon puts it – God has a thing for sinners. Lucky for us!
Which brings us back to our celebration of the Feast of the Annunciation to Mary. Mary does not expect to be given such great responsibility in God’s story. Despite the ‘lowliness of this handmaiden,’ God uses her to deliver love and redemption. Mary’s ministry, and her call to service were not dependent on whether or not she was worthy. We had a great discussion at church about a sermon written by my colleague and friend The Rev’d Daniel Brereton, who wrote –
There is nothing in Luke’s telling of the story to indicate that Mary deserved such favour or that she should be specially chosen. We aren’t told she was especially devout. We aren’t told she was particularly kind, or loving, or intelligent. Despite the fact that her image has been reproduced artistically more than any other woman in history, there is no mention of Mary even being especially pretty.
Mary herself tells us that she is nothing special:
“My spirit rejoices in God my saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.”
In the eyes of her people…in the eyes of most people…in her own eyes, Mary is a nobody. Or perhaps a different way of saying it, is that Mary could be anybody. Someone no different in any significant way from the millions who lived on the earth then, or have since. In a sense, this nobody, is everybody.
We agreed that Mary could be anybody – God is at work daily announcing favour to ‘nobodies.’ God calls on you and calls on me – no matter what we do to put bread on the table, no matter what our title is, no matter our bank account, or what kind of house we live in, or car we drive. It does not matter to God. God is busy called you favoured. God announces that you are beloved. We can choose – how we respond to God who so bolded decides that, even if we feel unworthy, we can be a difference maker in delivering love to the world. Now we must decide, as much as Mary had to decide – how should we respond.
In the words of Father Daniel Brereton, God has spoken to us –
Greetings, my favoured one. You are blessed. I am with you. And with your consent, here’s what I’d like to do…
Heaven holds its breath for our response.