A Homily for the Feast of the Birth of the Mother of God
being also the end of the Octave of Saint Giles of Provence
Church of SS. Mary & Nicholas, Littlemore, Oxford
Thursday, 8th of September 2011, 7.30 p.m.
Readings: Psalm 113 & John 19:25-27
This evening we keep the Feast of the birth of Mary, the Mother of God. It is also the end of the “octave” of Saint Giles of Provence (octave means eight days in which a special day is remembered and observed). Technically, that is cheating, because Saint Giles doesn’t qualify for an octave, because he isn’t important enough. But here in Oxford we have Saint Giles’ Church, Saint Giles’street – the widest in our city, and Saint Giles’ Fair, so we can do the Orthodox thing, and claim a special local consideration. As luck would have it, we can combine the two, and here is how:
Saint Giles is the patron saint of many things – of lepers and cripples, of those with a secret sin, of blacksmiths and cobblers, and of nursing mothers. As a preacher, I personally take comfort in knowing there is a patron saint of cobblers, but that a celibate monk should be the patron saint of nursing mothers is more interesting. The legend is that Giles lived as a hermit in a cave, and one day the King of the Visigoths (remember them?) was out hunting with his cronies and they wounded a hind. She came to Saint Giles’s cave and he nursed her back to health. In return when she gave birth to her fawn, she shared her surplus milk with Giles. And so he became the patron saint of nursing mothers. I once served in the parish of Saint Giles-in-the-Fields in London, and for many years we had in our parish the first hospital for new mothers.
I’m not a mother, and only tenuously a father, unless you count two cats and a stepson in the Amazon, but it seems to me that motherhood is about welcome. Welcoming a stranger. I have noticed how sometimes when children are born, the mother seems to know precisely who they are already, so the stranger can be welcomed long before breathing the outside air, but at whatever stage, we all start off as strangers.
Our Gospel reading tonight speaks of welcoming the stranger – the Beloved Disciple takes Jesus’s mother, Mary, into his home. There is no evidence to suggest they had even met before the momentous event that gave birth to our redemption. I hope, being fond of my mother, and indeed, of many people’s mothers, that Jesus’s mother didn’t have to live in a cave. But I am glad that in her grief and loss, God gave her someone else to love, for “He maketh the barren woman to keep house, and to be a joyful mother of children”.
God, give us grace and kindness, to open our homes and our hearts to the stranger, that joy may abound, and life together may be life more abundant indeed. Amen.
Richard Haggis, Littlemore, Oxford, September 2011