Mary the refugee mother

The new academic year has begun and that means that the choir was back in force at the Cathedral, which was particularly good because this first Sunday in September is always kept as our Patronal Festival. In fact, we have two – both happen to fall in this term.  Up until the Reformation the dedication of the Priory and the convent that preceded it, was St Mary Overie.  At the Reformation the church became St Saviour’s.  When we then became a Collegiate Church in preparation for becoming the Cathedral of the new Diocese of Southwark in 1905 the two dedications were added together.  So we are now the Cathedral Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie.

The ‘Overie’ part of the dedication we think means ‘over the river’.  The fact of the matter is that London was across the river from us, on the north bank and we were out of it in many ways.  So this St Mary’s was the one ‘over the river’ as far as the good citizens of London were concerned.  And the name stuck.

So we were celebrating the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary today and on the Feast of Christ the King in November we will be celebrating the St Saviour element.

I was preaching today and you will be able to find my sermon on the Cathedral website and I don’t want to repeat what I said there.  But last week, ever since seeing that dreadful picture of the body of the little Syrian boy, who we now know was called Aylan Kurdi, lying, washed up on a beach, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him.  It is amazing; that image became so quickly an icon of the disaster that is happening and a shocking wake up call to so many in our country, not least our politicians, who have so far responded to such obviously pressing and desperate need so dreadfully and in such a mean-spirited manner.  The tide that brought his body to the shore has turned public opinion.

But I was thinking about Mary and how she too had to carry her child to a place of safety.  Mary, Joseph and Jesus became refugees, as St Matthew reminds us.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’ (Matthew 2.13-15)

The fled for safety, back to the place where the Hebrews had found food and sanctuary from their famine-gripped land in the days of the patriarch Joseph. The Holy Family were looking for a safe place for their son just as the parents of Aylan were looking for a safe place for their two sons.  Only the father, Abdullah, has survived.

In an interview he said this

‘I don’t want anything else from this world – everything I was dreaming of is gone.’

It is heart breaking and so is every image that we see from Calais and across Europe and Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and every place around the world where people are seeking safety and a better life.

Our Lady of Southwark - Mother of Refugees

Our Lady of Southwark – Mother of Refugees

I came into the Cathedral and said my prayers by the statue of Our Lady.  She is there holding on to her son, holding him out to us yet holding him close as a mother would.  Perhaps she was dreaming of what the future held for him.  She would hold him later as his body was taken from the cross and laid once more in her arms. He was a man but still her child, but he was cold and dead and her dreams and hopes and desires were dashed.

I can understand what Aylan’s father says and if I was him I would probably feel the same.  But I feel that on his behalf and on behalf of everyone suffering so terribly, I must want something more from this world, I must hang onto my dreams.

Mary saw the tomb empty, she saw her son raised in triumph.  It was no dream but the new reality and the world for her was reborn in the dawn of Easter.  I have to believe that after Good Friday comes Easter Day, that death is followed by resurrection, that it is right to dream and hope and work for something better for everyone.  To achieve it will mean being as open and as generous and as welcoming as Egypt was to the Holy Family, an oasis of safety at the moment they needed it.  Then, when the threat was gone they travelled home, like every refugee hopes to do, to pick up the threads of life and create something better and more beautiful.

I’ve quoted this poem before but I will do again.  It’s ‘The Kingdom’ by R S Thomas.  No one describes the dream as well as he, the dream of the kingdom, the better dream to dream.

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only, and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

It might be a long way off, and seem so far off at times, but Mary, the refugee mother reminds us to keep hopeful and faithful and to dream the dreams of the kingdom.

may your kingdom come
in which all are welcome
all are safe
all are loved
and may we work
for its coming.

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