The Ballymena Parish Novena

What fine weather we have enjoyed these past few weeks of ‘Lockdown.’ Indeed, I have found not only the day beautiful, but also the night carries a charm and a peacefulness during the pleasant weather. Last night in fact the Moon shone so bright and the sky was so clear you would be forgiven for thinking it was evening and you simply forgotten to take your sunglasses off!

There are a few things in God’s good creation that can be as thought-provoking and contemplative as in a beautiful night. And though St Paul reminds us that we are ‘children of the day’ (1Thess 5:5), the night and the dark can also be our friend.

It is only in the night that we can see the full splendour of the universe, the blanket of stars and the solitary glow of the near planets. It was the night that allowed the wisemen to find this star that guided them to where the Christ Child lay. In the darkness of night Mary and Joseph were able to flee with the infant Jesus to safety in Egypt – with the dark providing relief from the cruel relentless sun.

In the darkness of the womb, we have all been nurtured and protected. In the darkness of sleep, we are soothed, restored and renewed.

Ever since I was a boy, I have held a fascination for the stars that are above us, their movements and constellations. Whether they are covered by night cloud or hidden by the glare of the day, they are there, they are with us. Those before us, without the advantages of technology, used the stars as guides on their journey. One, the North Star was known as Stella Maris, the Star of the Sea in honour of Mary the Mother of God.

A church I knew well in my childhood was the old St Bernard’s, in Glengormley, since rebuilt after fire in 2001. Above the tabernacle there was a window dedicated to Mary, the Star of the Sea.

The Star of the Sea appears fixed, in the same location throughout the night and serves as a sure reference point in the heavens. The North Star remains steady!

In her role as a caring Mother, Mary is likewise. Mary is always there, with her gentle light and presence. As with Sailor or pilgrims of the past, we are travellers along the road of life, the road that leads to our heavenly homeland.

As in any journey, life can be full with ups and down, blessings and challenges. We may incur the feeling of being lost, when sickness is visited upon us or those we love. In battling with anxiety, upset or depression we may experience life as too difficult, the road too long, the journey too lonely that we do not know what lies ahead.

And yet, as the darkness sets in and all around us seems night, our faith inspires us – fix not your gaze on the black or absent but, As the prophet Isaiah encourages us, ‘Lift your eyes and look to the heavens’ (Isaiah 40:26). There you find the guiding light of the North Star, the Stella Maris, comforting us with Mary’s loving presence, reminding us that in the midst of the darkness we are never alone – and though the road is tough, our fears real and our concerns challenging, we will not give into despair.

Mary who encouraged her cousin Elizabeth, will encourage you and me when the circumstances seem to overwhelm you or me. When we feel alone or lost, Mary who found her twelve-year-old in the Temple, will take our hand and lead us safely home. Mary, who looked out for the young couple of Cana, sees our struggles and prays earnestly and endlessly for you and for me. The Mother who took every painful step with her Son to the Cross, will be by you side and my side on our darkest and

frightening day. As she sat before the day of Pentecost with her Son’s disciples, so too she waits with us in silent stillness and expectation.

The lesson of Scripture and the learning of life inspires us – as we walk in the footsteps of Jesus her Son, Mary walks with us. Her gentle and guiding presence never leaves us.

I know that many praying with me this evening are in need of reassurance and hope. We have a mother in Mary, the Star of the Sea. Our Mother’s heart was pierced and so in your dark night, lift your gaze to the heavens in prayer and find comfort.

I finish by borrowing words from St Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the patrons of my home parish and of the church I spoke of earlier. He once preached:

‘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.

In danger, in difficulty or in doubt,

think of Mary, call upon Mary,

Keep her name on your lips,

Never let it pass out of your heart.

Following in her footsteps,

you will not go astray:

praying to her, you will not

fall into despair: thinking of her

you will not err.

While she keeps hold

of your hand,

you will not fall …

you will not grow weary …

you will have no fear …

Enjoying her protection,

you will safely reach the goal.’