Theotokos

by Frances Novillo
Posted at 03:26am on 9th March 2016

Training liturgical ministers, I invite participants to reflect on images around the church where Christ is held, embraced or cradled, since when distributing Communion or proclaiming the Word, ministers will likewise be holding Christ.  A statue of St Joseph might depict Jesus as an eager, lively toddler, while by contrast, the 13th station of the cross shows Jesus’ body laid in Mary’s arms after his crucifixion.  The variety of images of God being carried by ordinary human beings reminds liturgical ministers that we may encounter God in any circumstance of life.  Ministers may be in a good mood or a bad mood, feel like all is well in life, or that life is a trial.  Some congregants come to Mass joyful and enthusiastic, others approach in distress; most fit somewhere in between, including the bored and dutiful.  Whatever the circumstances, God is present in the Eucharist, Word, priest, and people at Mass. 

Yet when God’s presence is recognised, people can react strongly!  When Jesus proclaimed the word of God in the synagogue, his hearers reacted with astonished praise (Luke 4:22) then murderous rage (Luke 4:28-29).  In this country during the run-up to Christmas 2015, cinemas refused to screen a Christian advert.  One reason given for banning the advert was that the Lord’s Prayer could be understood as offensive, and some Christian commentators objected to this description.  In reality, these words of prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) are challenging.  God’s kingdom is not a kingdom of this world (John 18:36), so praying for its establishment undermines existing sovereignties.  The prayer commits us to relinquishing our will (in order that God’s will be done) and forgiving others.  Authors more qualified than me have wrestled with the implications of praying that God forgive us as we have forgiven others.  These words are far from inoffensive, and may be life-changing.  Encountering God (even in a well-known and apparently straight-forward prayer) may lead us in a direction we had not planned to travel (Matthew 2:12; John 21:18).  That challenge or change of direction can be surprising and confusing.

Good liturgical ministry creates a safe atmosphere for worshippers to experience vulnerability, seek intimacy and express praise, but some worshippers can be confused about where to direct the strong feelings that can emerge in that environment.  Liturgical ministers are visible, audible, tangible vessels through which God reaches out to his people at Mass, so sometimes Mass-goers reach out to liturgical ministers in return.  Some Mass-goers feel very close to particular liturgical ministers because of the words we have spoken or sung, or the gifts they believe we have given to them, so they want to praise us.  This can feel very affirming, but it’s not us these worshippers are really seeking to connect with - it’s God whose Word they have heard, whose Body they have shared.  There are times when the ministers present at the moment when a worshipper had a deep encounter with God is given more credit for that profound spiritual experience than is rightly ours to receive.  Liturgical ministers may be highly skilled capable people but we put our talents and gifts at the service of God and the community, who also have to put up with our flaws and failings.  Although we hold God and share God during Mass, liturgical ministers are most definitely human, not divine!

However, the incarnation is a reminder that God wants to be among ordinary people, to reveal himself as one among us, God-with-us, Emmanuel.  The Mass takes ordinary human activities and elevates them in the service of God, just as the presence of Emmanuel was often recognised in ordinary activities.  When Mary visited Elizabeth after they both found themselves pregnant, their conversation would have looked like any other meeting between two expectant mothers, but was elevated by a conscious awareness of the presence of Christ, expressed by John the Baptist in utero reaching out towards Jesus his Saviour (Luke 1:41-42).  Elizabeth felt it and was inspired by the Holy Spirit then to affirm Mary’s decision to accept her vocation to be the Mother of God (Luke 1:42-45).  As this theotokos, Mary is the exemplary God-bearer, to whom every liturgical minister can turn for guidance as we take on the responsibility of carrying God to others in the course of our ministry. 

Antiphon II for the procession during the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, 2nd February:

Sion, adorn your bridal chamber and welcome Christ the King; take Mary in your arms, who is the gate of heaven, for she herself is carrying the King of glory and new light.  A Virgin she remains, though bringing in her hands the Son before the morning star begotten, whom Simeon, taking in his arms announced to the peoples as Lord of life and death and Saviour of the world.

Encounter with God may occur anywhere, but we enter into liturgy in the hope and expectation that people will meet God there, served by the action of his ministers.  The Directory for Masses with Children explains that at Mass we engage in common social activities (DMC9) also undertaken outside of church, but at Mass, they acquire heightened significance because worshippers are conscious that God is present.  Ministry at Mass is not the same as waitressing or entertaining, even though we may be similarly laying a table, sharing food, or singing.  At Mass, as liturgical ministers we undertake these tasks deliberately intending to make God’s presence known, or at least seeking not to obstruct God’s revelation of himself.  As an adult, John the Baptist served Jesus, even baptising him, drawing the attention of many crowds.   John presented Jesus to others as the Lamb of God and Saviour.  Likewise, liturgical ministers present God at Mass, not because he needs us to, nor because we feel like it, but because, like Mary, we are called to be God-bearers.  Mary received the ‘singular grace’ of giving birth to God, but all liturgical ministers imitate her as did John the Baptist in holding, carrying, presenting and sharing God.   

Reproduced from Issue 356, Volume 41, Number 3 of Music and Liturgy, February 2016, by kind permission of the Society of Saint Gregory https://www.ssg.org.uk/

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