St Malachy’s Church, Armagh
Choral Vespers
Live broadcast by BBC Radio 3
20 August 2008
Address by
Cardinal Seán Brady

Last Sunday I was down in the West of Ireland.  I met there, Brian and Mary, a couple whose wedding I celebrated almost twenty years ago.  Mary was holding in her arms their beautiful daughter, Ciara.  Mary’s mother was also there and she said to me, “You know that child is greatly treasured.  They waited fourteen years.”  Indeed, I could easily see the joy on the faces of those parents at the presence of their beautiful and long awaited daughter.

Today, we celebrate the birth of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.  I am quite sure that Mary’s parents Joachim and Anne, were truly delighted when their child, Mary, was born.  I am sure her arrival brought immense joy to their hearts.  They would have thanked God sincerely and often.  For, along with the rest of the people of Israel they too had been waiting.  They were waiting for God to keep his promise – the promise he made to Abraham and to his descendents.

Mary was the bearer of that promise for each of us and for all of mankind. Speaking of this feast of her birth, one of the Fathers of the early Church said: “Let the whole creation sing praise and dance and unite to celebrate the glories of this day. Let everything that is, in the world and above the world, join together in rejoicing, for today a Shrine is built for the Creator of the universe.  The creature is made ready as a divine dwelling place for the Creator.”

This evening, here in St. Malachy’s Church, Armagh we are very well placed to sing praise in honour of the Virgin Mary’s birth. We are joined by the Charles Wood Singers and by those attending the annual Charles Wood Summer School for music.  We are also joined by members of the Ulster Orchestra under the direction of Conductor, David Hill. The Church Organist this evening is Daniel Hyde co-director of the Cambridge University Chamber choir.

Charles Wood, a native of Armagh, was also closely associated with Cambridge University. It was as professor of Music at Cambridge that he pursued his life’s work. It culminated in a legacy which included over 250 pieces of sacred music plus a large number of hymn tunes. One of those tunes remains popular today in the famous carol which runs;

Aye- maiden child of
Joachim and Anna.
Archangels chant Hosanna!
Come weal, come woe, our
hymn shall never vary.
Hail! Blessed Virgin Mary!
Hail! Blessed Virgin Mary!

Charles Wood was happy to acknowledge the debt we owe to Mary for her part in the great symphony of salvation. His life overlapped by some quarter of a century with that of Cardinal John Henry Newman. While still an Anglican, Cardinal Newman wrote this of Mary:

She is doubtless to be accounted blessed and favoured in herself, as well as in the benefits she has done us. Who can estimate the holiness and perfection of her, who was chosen to be the Mother of Christ? What must have been her gifts, who was chosen to be the only near earthly relative of the Son of God, the only one whom he was bound by nature to revere and to look up to; the one appointed to train and educate him, to instruct him day by day, as he grew in wisdom and in stature?

Cardinal Newman paints a very human picture of the daily intimacy between Mary and Jesus. This must have been such an important influence on our Lord’s early life. It made me wonder about something that I had never asked myself before. Would Jesus have celebrated the birthday of his Mother Mary? I am fairly certain that he did, even though it is not mentioned in the Scriptures. I am sure that, on the birthday of His mother, he would have thanked his Father in heaven for having given him such a wonderful example of what it is to be human, to be gentle and to be generous in the service of others.  I am sure He would have prayed for her that her faith in Him would never fail despite the temptations and the trials and tribulations which lay ahead.  I also wonder did Jesus always remember Mary’s birthday or did He sometimes forget? I wonder did He always make sure to be present in Nazareth with her on that day? 

I also wonder what part Jesus’ grandparents Joachim and Anne played in his early life? Grandparents have always been an important part of that intimate circle of family love which provides the most nurturing and stable environment  in which children grow.

Recently I received a letter telling me that a Sunday has now been set aside at our National Shrine to Mary at Knock here in Ireland specifically to honour grandparents. In an age when the traditional family unit is facing such pressure and change, it is grandparents who are increasingly called upon to provide the only realistic and affordable source of support for parents and children alike. It is often grandparents who are the sole voice offering children and couples wisdom and values beyond the prevailing mores of a materialistic society.

There are so many stars in our world – pop stars, film stars, sports stars. In his recent encyclical on hope, Pope Benedict reminds us that the real stars are those who have shown us how to live our lives well.

As we were reminded in our Office Hymn, since the early centuries of the Church, Mary has been known as a ‘star’ – the morning star – the ‘Stella Maris’ – the star of the sea.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, close friend of St. Malachy, once wrote of this Star:

“If the winds of temptation arise; If you are driven upon the rocks of tribulation look to the star, call on Mary; If you are tossed upon the waves of pride, of ambition, of envy, of rivalry, look to the star, call on Mary. Should anger, or avarice, or fleshly desire violently assail the frail vessel of your soul, look to the star, call upon Mary.”

Today, in spite of their new technologies, sailors will often look to the stars for guidance. As we look for guidance amidst whatever darkness, storms or challenges we face in our own lives, let us call upon Mary. The feast of the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary invites us to hold a steady course as this Stella Maris beckons us to the light of her Son, the eternal light of our heavenly home. Her birth is the prelude to the great symphony of salvation. Its crescendo is the union in her womb of the Divine Word and human nature.

We ask the help of Mary that this union will bear fruit in us.

Ave Maria, gratia plena – Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb – Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, Pray for us now – and at the hour of our death. Amen.