Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent 2018
23rd Dec 2018
Sermon for Advent 4 Year C (2018)
“The almighty has done great things for me and Holy is His name”. Luke 1.49
As a child I remember my Sunday school teacher. She was very short and stout and used to sing from her hymn book using a very large magnifying glass. This was because she was partially sighted and wore a glass eye, which seemed always to gaze at you with the completest and fiercest attention. She looked rather like some portraits of Henry VIII with a face that was at once big strong and determined, but she could be gentle and kind, too.
This same woman taught me the Christian Faith and was tireless in her determination that we children should know the contents of the Bible. When we returned to church there was a question and answer session with the curate, and we were awarded stamps for correct answers, and stuck each stamp in our attendance books with the name of the particular Sunday on it. It often falls to the most unlikely of persons to be given the title of ‘magnifier of the Lord’ – someone whose example and bearing brings God and God’s love nearer.
In this morning’s Gospel we learn of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, in St Luke’s Gospel. How like Luke the physician to include the fact of the baby leaping in Elizabeth’s womb at Mary’s greeting! The baby’s kick draws from Elizabeth a blessing and a prophecy; that what has been promised to Mary by the angel is to be fulfilled, and that Mary is ‘Mother of my Lord’. The exchange between the two women contrasts the ordinariness of their meeting in the little Judean hill town with the coming of salvation promised by God spanning across past, present and future time. Mary responds not meekly and demurely as with the annunciation from the angel Gabriel. Here, in Elizabeth’s company, she bursts into song, and the song is called ‘The Magnificat’. St Augustine once said that to sing is to pray twice, but to sing is also to experience a deep joy and the sense of the spontaneous joy in Mary’s Magnificat is very apparent. Mary sings of the favour God has shown to her, and of her own lowliness. She boldly declares herself to be most blessed over future generations, and then she speaks of God who through her own ‘yes’ makes immediate and present something that is expressed in the past tense:
‘He has scattered the proud’, ‘He has raised up the lowly’, ‘He has brought down the powerful’ ‘He has filled the hungry with good things’ and ‘He has sent the rich empty away’…
The Magnificat is a songful cry from a lowly peasant girl who has recognised and accepted God’s call for her life. Mary not only magnifies her God like my teacher with the glass eye; she sings the Magnificat in the joy of the fact that God will, through her and through the child she will bear, magnify God to the world ‘throughout all generations’. Though we are still in purple, though Advent is still with us, the note of impending joy is well and truly struck.
‘Of the Father's Love Begotten’
Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore! Prudentius (348–413)
As we continue to reflect on Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, two things emerge. The first the idea of the visit or visitation offering something momentous and surprising. The second is the idea of a relationship that emerges between the divine and the human disclosures. During the Christmas season, there will be many visits to friends and relatives. People will be travelling to get back to family or friends, or travelled to get away on their own. The promise with a visit is that the encounter will be gracious. Visiting has been very much a staple of the Christian ministry, and it would be a pity if our Christian ministry, both ordained and lay, were to forgo home visits and replace them with grand mission strategies which did not touch the hearts and lives of the many.
As a priest, I find myself visiting many people whom I hardly know and am welcomed unquestionably into people’s homes. I am invited into a special place of trust and it is a privilege to be shown family photographs and to talk in the comfort of the home in a way not so easily possible in other environments. The promise with a visit, and its encounter is what I understand to be ‘the sacramentality of conversation’, and of good conversation allowing for trust and understanding in our knowing of one another. Mary’s sings her Magnificat as a song of joy in the experience of the God whose presence is rich in loving mutuality. St Athanasius reminded the Church that “God became human so that we might become like God”. He visits us through Mary’s child-bearing – He expresses himself in ‘lowly’ form so that we can understand our own relation to Him as one of beckoning trust and of intimacy.
As we come to the end of this Advent Season, typified as one of hopeful waiting, we come also to its climactic point this morning in the Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat. A simple visit to a cousin in a small village in the Judaean hillside leads us into the joy of Christmas as the divine presence and the simple humanity of the narrative mix and merge. “God has become like one of us so that we might become like God”. God’s disclosure of himself is not only one of word and song but also of life, a life which is about to come to birth, as Emmanuel, God-With-Us. The Almighty has done (and is doing) great things for us, and Holy is his name.