photo: Mary with Jesus, dove and cat! bas-relief statue by Josefina de Vasconcellos
commissioned for the Lady Chapel of St. John the Baptist Parish Church, Epping
A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, preached by my friend, The Revd Beth Joss-Pothen in St. Mary-at-Latton, Harlow.
May God be in all our heads, in all our minds, in all our hearts, and in all our understanding. Amen
I’m going to start, much as we often start proceedings as a church, with a confession. I wrote a lot of notes for this sermon. Notes about hope, and resilience, about the bravery of Mary and the dawn of Christmas that we are just beginning to see peeping through the darkness and anticipation of Advent. I even had an admittedly tenuous Taylor Swift reference lined up and ready to go.
However, then 4pm yesterday rolled around. We were all introduced to the brave new world of Tier 4, scuppered Christmas plans, I suspect many tears and fresh, acute, crushing disappointment, at the end of a year that has dealt a so many people so many blows in such quick succession. Reminiscient of the first lockdown back in March, there is fear and uncertainty about what lies ahead of us, frustration, despair, worry and anger. It felt and still feels difficult to offer the hope of Advent, and of Christmas, into this. Optimism, hope, a light at the end of a tunnel have to be searched for that bit harder.
So here I am to offer you my own version of that search, that dig into ourselves we all must do sometimes to find the will to go on, and forage for the light with uncertain prospects. And who better to help us with that than Mary? She is arguably our resident expert in how to make the best of a new, terrifying, confusing situation. And she is not alone, everything about the Gospel story of the Annunciation has shared properties with the prophetic calls of the Old Testament. In this, Mary joins the illustrious company of Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jael, Miriam and others, being moved to say and do what the Lord commands. The words ‘The Lord is with you’ has echoes of these very same people, prophets and warriors and visionaries, being told to do various things, go and liberate, go and preach, go and strike through the head with a tent peg. Maybe not that last one!
And yet Mary’s call as described to us here is distinct. We hear how Gabriel offers no qualification for Mary’s favour, only that she has it, that it is of God. She already has everything that God requires, all that is needed is her acceptance, her choice, to become the God-bearer. We hear how Gabriel painstakingly lays out what her acceptance would mean for her people. We hear how, for all the shock and confusion, there is also gentleness and patience, as Mary is told of another, her cousin, who may be able to shed light into her situation and offer her love and solace in the magnitude of what has taken place.
And finally, we hear her yes. ‘Here I am, a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.’ Her response rings with the response of Isaiah 6, of Moses at the Burning Bush, and yet it is different through its unconditionality. Her response is radical not just because she agrees, but because she agrees after hearing what will happen, rather than before. She hears Gabriel out, realises the task is vast, almost beyond comprehension and will cost her greatly, but accepts nonetheless. She does not object or change her mind, as Isaiah and Moses both did at various points, she continues, steadfast and dignified. Gabriel leaves, our reading ends. But for Mary, all at once, everything is different. The world is a changed place. In a very real sense, that moment marked the beginning of her own unique solitude. Forever afterwards, she bore a son only she and God would fully understand. Only she knew what it was to carry Him, nourish and love him.
I often wonder what she did in the liminal, fragile space immediately afterwards. Did she run outside? Feign going to the well so she could be alone with her thoughts? Did she long for a friend? Did she run to the Temple and pray? We will never know, we can only imagine, but the image remains. What do we do in the aftermath of such news? What did Mary do in what could only be considered her own personal Advent? One thing is for certain, life was never the same, and the biggest step had already been taken. In a very real sense, Mary’s yes was the ultimate experiment in not fully reading the terms and conditions, the biggest gamble in all of human history. A yes, offered with thought, but with no other foundation other than faith in God to see her through.
Perhaps we read this and think we could never do such a thing, that we aren’t brave enough, but I’ll warrant in some way we have all had those moments of pure courage, stalwarted by faith in God. Marriage and partnership or indeed leaving a marriage or partnership, becoming a parent or guardian, moving home or job. These are all gambles that we sometimes hold together and follow through on with little else other than our faith to anchor us. We cling on as best we can, and say to God in our own way; Here I am, let it be with me according to your word.’
Mary was no different. Much of Western art and indeed a lot of Western theology around Mary centres around her perfection, her purity, her unblemished-ness. She is rarefied, held aloft as an example of perfect womanhood, perfect motherhood. Some writers have even proclaimed that angels helped her with housework and chores, such was the level to which she was no longer preoccupied with the human things of life after birthing Christ! But I think this is erroneous. After all, just as those prophets and visionaries before her, Mary, remained an ordinary human woman, called to a life she didn’t fully understand, and like the rest of us, feeling our way through with faith. Only her son, Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus Christ, fully knew the depth of what it was to be both human and divine.
I started off today by saying that all my notes about hope and resilience and the dawn of Christmas felt harder to deliver than ever. And I promised to offer up the results of my own digging, my own confusion and searching. So here goes:
I have concluded that getting a blessing is not the same as getting a present. God’s favour doesn’t always feel good, and whilst following our callings in life will change our circumstances and who we are surrounded by, faith will not protect us altogether. For this, Mary is our example. Whilst her faith and her favour led her to bravery, and the world to salvation, I imagine she may not have felt all that blessed when Joseph planned to leave her, when she laboured on a stable floor, or when she watched Jesus die.
Our own struggles of hope and optimism does not mean that hope or optimism cease to exist. If anything, what Advent and Christmas ought to teach us is that God is constantly present. Remaking, renewing, rebirthing. What we celebrate every year is this reappearance into the world, and the reminder that no matter what, the dawn is coming. In many ways this whole year has felt like an Advent . We are waiting, in the wilderness, in the darkest part of the night. Anticipating a dawn that we are getting glimmers of but cannot yet see our way with. We know it’s there, but there is still a road to go, and it’s rocky and bleak. More and more is being asked of us emotionally, physically, at work or at home, and perhaps we are increasingly running on less and less. Where usually the harder days of life are buoyed and padded by moments of joy and connection, special occasions and days together, this year has meant a lot less is keeping us emotionally afloat. And the background to this toil are tales of unprecedented hardship, woe, and devastation.
And still into all this, our yesses to God, to renewal, to carrying on, to life itself, to the miracle of the incarnation must still resound. May it resound for all of us here today, with those we love and who we cannot be with, and especially today as we prepare to admit our own wonderful Cliff and Ruth to baptism. What joy and what happiness this is, that we are still permitted. What an admission of hope and life in Christ, foretold by John, brought to birth by Mary and baptised with water and the Spirit.
May you know the truth, that as Gregory of Nyssa wrote ‘ What was achieved in the body of Mary, will happen in the souls of all who receive the Word.’