Sunday 24 December - Advent 4 - Eucharist - Clephane Hume

Advent 4 / Christmas Eve 2017

2 Sam 7.1-11, 16;   Rom 16 25-27; Luke 1 26-38   

It was difficult to gauge how many people would be here – you must be super organised or planning to have a day away from church tomorrow…… How cynical!

But here we are. The shortest day is past! (I am a happy person). How appropriate as we look forward to the coming of the light of the world.

Today is officially, according to the Anglican Church website, a ‘liturgical conundrum.’ I don’t think we actually had any problem with that here, but it seems to be causing consternation in other parts of the world.

Many people have been saying it has been a strangely short advent this year, the 4th Sunday in advent  this morning, Christmas Eve after midday, leaving very little time to consider the role of Mary before we reach the mystery of the incarnation.

The gospel story of the annunciation has inspired many artists and different interpretations. Our whole understanding of angels can get people tied up in new agey discussions. Have you ever considered that Gabriel might be female? I hadn’t, until I was doing some investigations this past week.

So, according to my thinking, here he is, on the front of our service sheet, addressing the young virgin, who is swooning at the impact of his presence. In other depictions we see that she has fallen to her knees, or sits with her arms clutched to her. Some artists portray her calmly seated, with small children round her feet.

For my own part, I can never hear the story of the annunciation without thinking of the wonderful paintings in themuseumofSan MarcoinFlorence. Fra Angelico’s depiction of the angel speaking to Mary is not over ornate; it conveys the simplicity of a young girl, but also a deep spirituality.

The news that she hears from the angel is challenging. This is the messenger of God, specifically named in Luke’s gospel, sent toNazareth. So what might her feelings have been? Puzzlement, terror, wonder? Am I going mad?

As a young girl, probably in her early teens, she has already encountered a world in which things are being turned upside down, and I don’t just mean the consequences of living under Roman occupation.

Her much older cousin is to have a baby – news that Mary heard and probably thought ‘in the future perhaps I too shall be a mother’. Because, remember, she is herself betrothed – a contract meriting serious consideration. But the time frame she would have envisaged does not match what is to happen!

Would her first reaction be one of fear of what her parents and her fiancé would think? Brought up to be a respectable girl, does this mean the end of her prospects and an earful of parental wrath?

After all, she’s human. And not much more than a child. Perhaps she did sometimes get into trouble for going, with the other girls, to talk to the boys helping the shepherds tending their flocks on the hillsides around Nazareth, - you can imagine her saying ‘but mum, the lambs are so cute.’ However, she didn’t do anything ‘naughty’. She can voice that with certainty.

But how to explain to anyone that this is the will of God? She would be familiar with the prophecies of the first reading we heard – she would have heard them read many times. Without ever thinking that she might be the means of bringing them to fruition.

What a responsibility!

As the verses make clear, Mary is a lass of faith, so she is able to respond, accepting that this is God’s purpose for her, with confidence to face the reactions of her parents and fiancé. As the carol we shall shortly sing states - ‘To me be as it pleaseth God she said, my soul shall laud and magnify his holy name’.

And so she will bear this child, and is consequently venerated throughout the world, especially in the Roman Catholic church as opposed to our post Reformation protestant denominations. This innocent but not naïve girl was chosen specifically to reverse the sins of Eve. Another woman given a message by an angel, but who chose to ignore it and yielded to temptation, with disastrous consequences. (You hear all about that in the readings at the seasonal carol services) But God is merciful. The prophecies are about to be fulfilled.

Mary is the person elected by God for this enormous responsibility. We know the story but we love to hear it again. And as one of my friends (not a church goer) said, after our nine lessons and carol service, ‘it’s good to be reminded of what Christmas is really about’.

And what of things to come?  When she visits her cousin later, and Elizabeth greets her with words which acknowledge the significance of Mary’s unborn baby, she (Mary) responds  with a mature and prophetic answer, predicting what her child will do in challenging the world to accomplish God’s will. Does she have an inkling of what will happen to him? How he will turn all sorts of things upside down and atone for the sins of Eve?

She doesn’t shy away from controversy.  Not if the words of the Magnificat are anything to go by. We say or sing that daily in evening prayer, and there is great profundity in those verses. Revolution in fact. Reflected in the change of chant we sang just now. A regular reminder of the justice we have been taught to seek.

We celebrate the annunciation itself on March 25th – which must have been a careful calculation somewhere along the line. Now the wait is nearly over and we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Lord. And for that you must come back later, this evening, or tomorrow.

Deo gratias.