Sunday, December 18, 2011

Thoughts Delivered on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2011

Does it feel like Christmas yet?

It does! Even though, as Andy Williams once sang and wished, there’s not yet much mistletoeing, hearts are not yet glowing, and loved ones are not yet near. Thank God! I hear some say.

It may feel like Christmas in the stores and on the streets, but in church? Can we be “of good cheer?” There are no signs of decorations, but the candle posts are a hint of things to come! So are the readings. The Gospel reading in particular.

For these verses from Luke’s Gospel, traditionally called the Annunciation, or Announcing. A divine message given to a young girl, and her response. It is a pivotal moment, and a poetic moment - a story that is both moving and mysterious.

A church hymn of the early fourth century sang:

Today is the beginning of our salvation,
And the revelation of the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin
As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the God-bearer:
"Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you!"

And so, given the beginning of a new story, and the expectation (literally!) that fills the air, I think it only right to announce that Christmas may now enter our hearts and lives.

Mary’s life had been quiet up to that moment. The moment when she received a message.

What was that scene really like? How did the angel Gabriel appear to Mary?

For two thousand years we have used our imaginations. We have painted, sculpted, engraved, carved and sung about the angel’s visit – and it’s all wonderful fun. So much interpretation and variety – but let’s not take any of it too seriously. Most of these images and ideas belong in Renaissance Europe and not in First Century Palestine. So let’s forget the wings and the haloes!

Mary had an encounter with an angel. An angelos. (Masculine, singular.) A messenger.

And that angelos/messenger would have looked quite normal, like you or me (if that is normal) – but his message was anything but normal.

You will conceive and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

All of a sudden normality has disappeared, for the significance of this meeting has now become apparent. This is now God’s act. God’s decision. God’s plan to enter into the world and change things forever. For life and faith would never be the same again.

Yet it took a human response to make all this happen. The response of an eighth grade girl who said “yes,” knowing the consequences of her decision. For she risked shame, humiliation and death by stoning.

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.

This is the traditional image of a servant, echoing the verses of Psalm 123:

As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters,
and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the LORD our God,
until he show us his mercy.

There is so much to do these next seven days. For Christmas comes but once a year, but it always takes us by surprise! And in church and out of church we are preparing for a day, a time, a season of celebration – and yet a time of personal, thoughtful reflection.

For we do more than celebrate a birth of child in humble surroundings, powerful though this event was. We consider our response to God’s astonishing act.

For if an angel (an angelos/a messenger) gives us a message that we know to be divine and in need of an answer, and we are asked to do something that involves obedient risks - what answer do we give?

Will it be that of Mary?

Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess's
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do--
Let all God's glory through,
God's glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

As we now enter the Christmas season we are given the story, the question and the answer. That is why it is the most wonder-full time of the year!

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