What I said on Sunday – Advent 4

Today the gospel reading is Mary’s visit to Elizabeth following the Annunciation. Here’s what I said.


Botticelli – Annunciation

Luke 1.39-55

When I first looked at today’s gospel reading last Monday morning there was a bit of me that thought: Perhaps I should put off any sermon preparation until after the 21st – after all, no point in putting a sermon together if it turns out I don’t need one. As it is, the end of the Mayan calendar on Friday didn’t result in the world coming to a sticky end, as some were predicting. And we all woke up on Saturday morning to find the world still here, and much the same as it was the day before. So, here we are, with yet another failed end of the world prediction behind us, considering once again the reaction of a young Jewish girl to the news that – for her, at least, the world was never going to be the same again. For most people, the day following the Annunciation was much the same as the day before. For Mary, the visit from God’s messenger, Gabriel, meant that her whole life was to be turned upside down and she was projected from unknown Jewish teenager to eventual global fame.

There are those who think that receiving the blessing of Simon Cowell and winning X-Factor is a big deal. Believe me – Mary’s blessing from God puts her in a whole different league. And even Mary grasped the reality of it all when she said:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed!”

No fleeting stardom for this young girl – two thousand years later we come together to worship today and remember her. We come together to join with Gabriel in saying “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you “ and with her relative Elizabeth in declaring “Blessed are you among women, blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Now, those of you who have been here for the last two weeks will be prepared for what comes next – yes, it’s time for this week’s pop song. We’ve been thinking about John the Baptist and I linked his call to repentance with Brenda Lee’s “I’m sorry”; and then last week John the Baptist’s message with Eddie Cochran’s “Three Steps to Heaven”. After last week’s mass, in the Church Hall, I was asked about this week’s song by two of you who were wondering what it might be. And immediately, off the top of my head, I declared that The Beatles would be appropriate. And for those of you who haven’t immediately guessed let me tell you – it’s Let It Be. One of The Beatles most famous songs, with Paul McCartney singing:

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

McCartney wasn’t singing about the Virgin Mary – he wrote the song after he saw his own mother, who had died when he was fourteen, in a dream during a difficult time in his life. But the words seem so apt when we reflect on the role that Mary, mother of Jesus and spiritual mother to all Christians, has to play in the life of the Church. Today we hear how Mary, having received the news that she was going to bring God’s Son into the world, goes to visit her relative Elizabeth, and speaks words of wisdom – the song we now know as the Magnificat.

And what amazing words they are. Surely, at this point, Mary cannot have fully appreciated the import of the role that was being thrust upon her. She cannot have known what the future would bring – the heartbreak of the cross, the joy of the resurrection. And yet she knows that God is doing a wonderful thing. Somehow she is inspired to declare in this great song of praise the deep truths of God. She knows that she is truly blessed and that from this point on everyone – all generations – will honour her. And she knows that this amazing news, brought by Gabriel, means that God is bringing to fruition his desire to see justice in his world – to see the humble and the poor lifted up and the powerful and thrown down, the hungry fed and the rich sent away with nothing.

This young girl and her words of wisdom – this Magnificat – are so important in the life of the Church that they are said every day at evening prayer. Each priest repeats them daily. In them Mary proclaims a deeply radical agenda for God’s work – and therefore our work – in the world. For Mary proclaims a gospel, a good news, with a bias. The poor, no matter their circumstances or way of life – no matter whether they are what society might call the deserving poor or the undeserving – will be filled. The powerful, the rich, no matter their circumstances or way of life – no matter whether they are what society might think of as deserving or underserving of their wealth or position – will be brought down and sent empty away.

And yet – if it hadn’t been for this young girl’s wisdom in recognising the blessing that came from God when she received her angelic visitor, God could not have achieved all that being brought into the world, becoming incarnate, would mean. What tremendous courage, amazing insight, to respond to the message of the angel with those words: Let it be to me according to your word.

The Early Church didn’t take long to realise that Mary, as the God-chosen mother of him who was to be Immanuel, God-with-us, was worthy of a special honour, a special place, in the life of the Church. At this point a bit of history. After Christianity became the official religion of the Empire at the beginning of the fourth century, a number of Ecumenical Councils were held to discuss and determine various matters of doctrine. There were seven of them over the next few hundred years up until the Great Schism in the year 1054, when the Church split into its Eastern and Western halves. The Nicene Creed that we use each Sunday was formulated as a statement of doctrine at two of these councils. As part of the Western Catholic church the Anglican Church has always recognised the status of these Great Councils and accepted their teaching – hence our continued and regular use of the Nicene Creed.

What concerns us this morning is the third of these Councils. At the  Third Ecumenical Council of the Church, held at Ephesus in the year 431, one of the main items on the agenda was the discussion about Jesus being at one and the same time completely human and yet completely divine. God, born into the world a human being. And to emphasize this Mary was given the title Θεοτόκος (Theotokos). A strict translation of this Greek word is ‘God-bearer’ – however, it is usually translated into English and other languages as ‘Mother of God’ and this is the title by which Mary has been honoured ever since. For it reminds us that through the child-bearing of Blessed Mary, God became incarnate and lived and died as one of us.

And now he is risen. And we rejoice that Mary, chosen by God, is now truly blessed for she is with her risen and exalted Son in heaven, joining with all the saints in the eternal worship of God and in prayer for those of us still on earth. And as she prophesied we continue to call her ‘blessed.’

We heard earlier those words of Paul McCartney about Mother Mary coming and speaking words of wisdom. Today, in our gospel reading, we have been called to reflect again upon those words of wisdom in the Blessed Virgin Mary’s great song of praise. It is part of the ministry of the whole of the Church today to listen to those words that proclaim God’s justice and to live them out. But perhaps we also, today, should reflect on those words of wisdom that she spoke to the servants at the wedding at Cana of Galilee, “Do whatever he tells you.” The problem, of course, is that the wine had run out. And Mary says to the servants, “my son is going to sort out your problem of having no wine, just listen to him and do what he says.”

Those are words we all need to hear. For Mary, the God-bearer, she who is blest by all generations, speaks to each of us words of wisdom as she points us to her Son and reminds us that he is the answer to all our needs: “This is my Son – do whatever he tells you.”

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.