Advent 4 ~ Looking Forward With Mary
It seems like only a few weeks ago that a group of us went to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth and stood outside it and sang ‘Gabriel’s Message’. Well yes, it was only a few weeks ago - well 19 weeks in fact. There we were in the sunshine of the middle east, singing a Christmas Carol:
The angel Gabriel from heaven came,
his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame;
“All hail”, said he, “thou lowly maiden Mary,
most highly favoured lady.” Gloria.
Or as so many choristers know it - ‘most highly flavoured gravy’. And I hope yours is, come Christmas Day.
The story of the Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary is one of the most famous stories in world culture, and no Christmas service is complete without it. A carol service must have the annunciation, the birth, the shepherds, the wise men, and the reading from John 1 - ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’. These are the Biblical ingredients of our modern Christmas. Cowboy carols, ding dongs and drummer boys can play their part, but these scripture readings are the the sine qua non of a carol service. And for many people they must be read in the authorized, King James version too.
So these texts will be - already have been - read many times at carol services over the coming weeks, in many languages and in many places, from schools to old people’s homes, in mediaeval churches and baroque cathedrals; at beach services in the southern hemisphere and under trees in Africa. Some, like us will follow the ‘Service of Nine Lessons and Carols’, pattern, others will have more informal worship. A church down the road in Swiss Cottage even conducts baptisms at its Crib Service on Christmas Eve, in what is an unusual, unexpected, but rather lovely juxtaposition of birth and hope and commitment.
Birth and hope and commitment are in fact what the annunciation and the subsequent visit of Mary to Elizabeth is all about. And also, perhaps, fear and trepidation. Fear and trepidation are what we associate Advent with, and joy and hope with Christmas - and here we are as the two seasons meet, with a bit of a mixture of both.
Mary must have been a little dazed when the angel Gabriel came to see her, wondering whether this strange occurrence was actually happening, or was a dream or an illusion: ‘Who is this stranger coming to see me?’ Having wondered what on earth was going on she soon composed herself and heard news of something which has both already happened and is about to happen: that her cousin Elizabeth is pregnant, when by all accounts, she should not be, being both above what was considered childbearing age and childless to date. So Elizabeth has already begun her impossible journey of pregnancy, and will give birth in three months’ time. It seems Mary did not already know this, but this birth of the boy who will be called John will happen really quite soon. So one of Mary's first actions after the Annunciation is to go and visit her, and it is that which we hear about in today’s gospel reading.
This part of the story does not feature in the Christmas Carol Service readings and so is is not so well-known. On the surface Gabriel tells Mary she will have a divine child and having told her about Elizabeth being in a similar situation, Mary simply says ‘Okay then’ and goes off to visit Elizabeth, perhaps to find out if what she has been told about her being pregnant already is true. Meeting Elizabeth and seeing that the angel Gabriel has told the truth, must have been something that made her heart leap too: a confirmation and an underpinning of everything she had believed but perhaps not fully grasped. Seeing Elizabeth would have brought it all home to Mary, with, dare I say it, a bump!
And all that is recorded of the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth are the latter's words, praising Mary and expressing delight at her visit. We might also imagine them having the kind of conversation that any two pregnant women might have: a frank and friendly exchange of anecdotes, hopes, fears and details that any woman experiencing the ups and downs of pregnancy might endure. Yet both had rather unusual, miraculous stories to share, and while the details of such a conversation are not available to us, the complete humanity of both women encourages us to assume that their encounter was one of mutual support, admiration, delight, trepidation and humility.
And that trepidation relates to what lies ahead for Mary: she will face a gruelling journey to Bethlehem and the ignominy of birth in a crude animal house. After birth comes motherhood, another huge responsibility with which an unexpectedly pregnant mother must come to terms in advance. It may not have dawned on her immediately, but single motherhood would not be easy, physically, emotionally, socially or culturally. Racing through her mind might have been the niggling question, “what is Joseph going to say and do?”. So while the angel Gabriel focused on the fulfilment of past prophecy, Mary was probably projecting her mind forward to the changed, unknown life of love and care that was to follow.
And there is also an eternal dimension. For Gabriel used words like ‘forever’ and ‘without end’ in describing the Kingdom that this as yet unconceived divine and human being will inherit. In this birth-to-be the hopes (and fears) of all the years are met together in one small package that will change the direction of the world, like a theological ‘Big Bang’. All that is needed is commitment: Mary’s commitment.
One might be reminded of a similar story way back in the book of Genesis when visiting guests tell Abraham’s wife Sarah that she will have a child. Sarah laughs at this. But unlike Sarah, Mary does not laugh, but accepts the will and call of God. This does not make her weak, but strong, and it betokens a depth and kind of commitment that is almost unknown to modern society. Most people nowadays will abandon anything to which they have committed themselves, given the right (or wrong circumstances). In relationships, parenthood, military action or business life, loyalty and commitment are not what they used to be.
This is why Mary's commitment is so revered in every time and place. Those of us who visited Nazareth in August will remember the modern basilica of the Annunciation, built by Giovanni Muzio in 1969. It replaced an eighteenth century church, which had itself surmounted the ruins of both a crusader-era and before that a Byzantine church marking the place where the Annunciation is supposed to have actually occurred. Although there is also a well in Nazareth, revered by the Orthodox church and both are now holy sites - and we visited them both. But inside the Roman Catholic Basilica are many mosaics and depictions of the Annunciation, from different countries and Christian traditions. Some are artistically better than others, but it is remarkable to see how wide is the influence and inspiration of this singular event in history: imagery from all corners of the globe adorn the church, all depicting the same story of how a young first century Palestinian girl became the theotokos (‘the bearer of God’) to the world.
And it is from her commitment to that bearing of God, that our hope and our salvation springs. May we, like her, be able to commit to God utterly, and may our hearts also leap as we approach the Christmas Season in which we truly celebrate the birth of the Son of God and Saviour of the World, our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 20/12/15