Sermon: Sunday 21 December 2014
The Revd Canon Rosy Fairhurst, Canon Chancellor
Getting to Mary’s ‘Let it be to me according to your word’
‘Among you stands one who you do not know.’
Beset by the lurgey last Sunday, all I could think of from the passages set was this line of John the Baptist. I’m very grateful to David taking over the preaching and I shall have to trust that the Holy Spirit weaves in the themes which he introduced last week.
There are so many reasons why it’s hard to see Jesus. We have a lovely nativity set, and Jesus has to be chained down for most of the time as he has a tendency to disappear – perhaps it’s a metaphor for what tends to happen at Christmas. We want to have the cute baby for ourselves. We want to keep him the cute baby. There are so many reasons why Jesus stands among us as one who we do not know, so many things which get in the way of us beholding the revelation of the mystery in those we meet – from our fear, to our complacency.
This week we turn to consider Mary. The appearance of Gabriel to Mary comes in a long line of miraculous birth stories in the bible, from Sarah and Hannah through Elizabeth to trace the most obvious. And yet Luke’s account of how Gabriel and Mary meet carries a revolution within it – the very theme which Mary proclaims in her ‘Magnificat.’
For a start, angels don’t often appear to women in the Bible. Gabriel has appeared to Zechariah, not to Elizabeth; Matthew has him appear to Joseph, not Mary. Hannah has Eli as her intermediary in dealing with the divine visitation, Sarah has Abraham, the widow of Zarapeth has Elijah. When Gabriel appears to Mary it’s very different from how he appears to Zechariah – and in a good way.
When the angel comes to Zechariah, the residentiary canon on duty in the temple, standing amid the incense, he has to announce his presence. ‘I am Gabriel.’ Terrifying. The professional ordained one doesn’t get it straight away, and gets struck dumb. But with Mary, Gabriel seems to think that she will know who he is straight away. ‘Greetings, favoured one, the Lord is with you.’ And immediately after the encounter instead of being struck dumb like Zechariah she breaks into that great hymn of praise and revolution, the Magnificat – ‘my soul doth magnify the Lord.’
The angel says ‘Do not fear’, as so often with divine visitations – but Mary isn’t overwhelmed by fear; she is full of grace, and she is able to think and ask the angel a question – ‘How can this be?’ – before she responds with the ultimate example of the obedience of faith: ‘Let it be to me according to your word.’
I want to name how the way that the church treats Mary, and all the emphasis on being ‘saved through childbirth’ – usually miraculous – can often seem hard to those who haven’t had children for whatever reason. Is this the only way God really blesses? It’s at Christmas especially with the full on message of the gift of a child. Mary is not blessed because of her fertility – though she is blessed through her fertility – but because of her faithfulness.
Her kinswoman Elizabeth says, ‘blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken by the Lord’ (1:45). In Luke 8:21, Jesus tells a crowd of people, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’ Finally, look at Luke 11:28-29. Here, Jesus is teaching a crowd or people when a woman calls out, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you.’ This is a colourful way of saying, ‘How blessed to be your mother.’ This woman thinks it would be wonderful to be Jesus’ mother because Jesus is a great man and the worth of women is often determined by the quality of children they produce. Jesus completely rejects this and declares, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear God’s word and obey it!’
The birth of any child is a miraculous thing. This residentiary canon (duty priest) had a visitation in the form of a young woman, mother of four and pregnant with the fifth, who came in, terrified by the prospect that the growth which had been discovered might be malignant. She was terrified for her children. She wanted to be blessed. It was insistent, imperative, holy, coming from deep within.
The birth of this child will be completely transformative. And everyone can be part of the transformative miracle of God’s intervention in the world. All can respond with the obedience of faith. And all can belong to the family of faith. Everyone gets invited to Christmas dinner and to abide with the holy family of the church.
‘Let it be to me according to your word.’ How do we say yes to God? First we have to get over our amazement that God actually speaks into our lives, and calls something forth from us – get over our perplexity, our fear of the unknown, and of what we might be asked to leave behind.
As we’ve been discovering through Advent, we need to find what Benedict calls stabilitas – stability – how we recognise and welcome the presence of Christ in the everyday. Find that rhythm of prayer which keeps the eyes of our heart open in our daily busy-ness. We’re not to be inclusive just for the sake of being inclusive – but because that’s what happens when we learn to recognise how Christ is present in every person and every situation. ‘Among you stands one who you do not know.’ As John reminds us.
Our sin is the stuff which stops us from recognising the presence of Christ, and responding accordingly. Whether it’s fear, or complacency, or being too invested in ourselves to be open to the other. As we come to the opportunity for the prayer of confession and anointing this morning, let’s respond to the call to prepare a way for the Lord in the wilderness, in the very place of our desolation and overwhelming. So that we may become those who can see the revelation of the mystery, the divine secret, the presence of the one whom we did not know. ‘Let it be to me according to your word.’ He won’t be chained up, and despite the fragility of our lives, he can’t be stolen from us.
© The Revd Canon Rosy Fairhurst