Fourth Sunday of Advent


Today’s Readings

Psalm 89, 2 Samuel 7: 1-11,16, Romans 16: 25-27, Luke 1: 26-38


After today there are only four more shopping days to Christmas… Just a few more days of frenetic activity as we dash out to the shops to get that last minute present for Uncle Bob that we’ve been putting off taking the trouble to buy…Tomorrow will be the last day for 1st class post for Christmas, so any cards sent after that may be accompanied by an anxious uncertainty that they may not arrive in time….Yesterday one arrived from a long lost cousin who hadn’t been seen for many years, leaving that lingering feeling that one ought really to send one back by way of reply….The turkey has been hopefully ordered… the children or grand-children are complaining that it’s high time we decorated the Christmas tree, although this year with the gloom brought on by a global pandemic many are decorating them early to give us a bit of cheer…..but for those of us who are traditionalists and leave tree decorating to Christmas Eve, we’ve just checked the tree lights and yet again they’re not working this year….So here we are again, yet another year caught up in the mad frenzy that we associate with the count-down to Christmas. Caught once again in the commercial helter-skelter of Christmas extravaganza. It does all feel very different this year, with decisions having to be made as to how many people we invite to Christmas dinner and still be safe…..but for many the pre-Christmas rush is still on. Why do we do it? From a purely secular point of view it makes a lot of sense. The days are long and dark and dreary and this bonanza of activity gives us all something to occupy us and distract us from the cold winter that lies ahead. Although of course in these days of global warming and for those of us who are a little older, the winter ahead may not be anything like as cold as the harsh, snowy winters we tend to associate with our youth. One can though understand why there may have been a major pagan festival in ancient times at this darkest time of the year. But how do we make sense of all this as Christians? Where in all this frenzied activity lies any spiritual significance? Can we – do we – allow ourselves at least a few moments of quiet reflection in order to focus on the real meaning of it all? And to let God in?


At the heart of the Christmas story lies a two-way activity: giving and receiving. A gift isn’t a gift unless there is someone willing to receive it. At Christmas we will remember that God out of love for creation gave God’s very self to us in the birth of Jesus – in the form of human flesh. God became flesh…through a loving self-emptying, God became a human being. But this inestimable gift of God born as a human being only makes sense when humanity in response receives and acknowledges the Gift. For a gift to be truly a gift it has to be graciously received. At Christmas we take time to give presents to our nearest and dearest. And in this is great joy. But what of receiving? Especially when we receive those presents we would really rather not have? Do we hide them in a drawer or do we receive them graciously and thankfully? I would like to suggest in the run-up to Christmas in these next few days that we concentrate not so much on giving as receiving. And that can be harder.


Today, on this Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Church particularly remembers and celebrates Mary, the mother of Jesus. We have just heard the gospel account from Luke of the Annunciation. It is the beautiful story of the announcement by the angel Gabriel to Mary that she has found favour with God, and that she will conceive a child in her womb who will be called Jesus: he will be the Son of the Most High, whose kingdom will have no end. Mary, betrothed to Joseph but sill a virgin, is bewildered. It is at first all too much for Mary to take in the angel’s message, and she expresses doubt:

“How can this be…?”

The angel Gabriel assures her she need not fear:

“For nothing will be impossible with God”.

Then Mary’s perplexity, her fears, her doubts all give way to her obedient “yes” to God – her “fiat”:

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


Mary is here willing to receive from God. She will receive that most extraordinary of gifts, the gift of God made flesh within her womb. And it will be costly. People will jeer at her and mock her as a result. Nonetheless, Mary and Joseph remain quietly determined on acceptance of God’s mysterious will for their lives. There are some beautiful Italian Renaissance paintings of this mysterious scene of the Annunciation and I am particularly fond of those by Fra Angelico, the Italian artist. They are very evocative of the solemnity of the occasion, when Mary gave her consent to be the mother of the Son of God. And so the history of the plan of humankind’s salvation by God was set in motion.


The feast of the Annunciation which happens in the Spring of each year is now technically a feast of our Lord, but Mary is right at the heart of its meaning. Her obedience was crucial to God’s loving purposes as carried out in Jesus Christ. Down the ages so many attributes and qualities have been ascribed to Mary. She has been seen as the pre-eminent saint, the “Queen of Heaven”. She has been called “Theotokos” – the God-bearer. Mary has been believed by countless Christians to be particularly efficacious in her powers of intercession.


Traditionally in these last days of Advent leading up to Christmas the Church sings the Great “O” Antiphons at vespers, before and after the gospel canticle of the Magnificat, Mary’s great song of praise. Today’s Great “O” antiphon for 20 December is taken from some verses of Isaiah:


“O key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;

you open and no one can shut;

you shut and no one can open:

Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,

those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death”.


There has been much darkness and death for so many in this year of global pandemic. Nevertheless God our light is with us. I would like to close with some lines – the source is unknown – that sum up the relationship of Mary and Jesus and who they are for us in the unfolding of our salvation:


Mary the Dawn, but Christ the perfect Day.

Mary the Gate, but Christ the heavenly Way.

Mary the Root, but Christ the mystic Vine.

Mary the Grape, but Christ the sacred Wine.

Mary the corn-sheaf, Christ the Living Bread.

Mary the Rose-Tree, Christ the Rose Blood-red.

Mary the Fount, but Christ the cleansing Flood.

Mary the Chalice, Christ the Saving Blood.

Mary the Beacon, Christ the haven’s Rest.

Mary the Mirror, Christ the Vision blest

Amen.


Rev Sister Margaret Anne ASSP