19 December 2021
St Mary the Virgin, Rye
Readings Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-55
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, we are nearly there. The fourth Advent candle has been lit and this is the last Sunday before Christmas.
During the last few weeks of Advent, in fact for all of my ministry in Rye so far, it feels as though our readings have been largely about John the Baptist, preparing the way for the Lord. Well, John does appear again this morning but we are stepping back about 30 years in time – he is no longer a rough figure clad in animal furs and living in the wilderness, rather he is in his mother Elizabeth’s womb as Jesus is in Mary’s.
Elizabeth, as I am sure you recall, was married to Zechariah the priest. They were a good, God-fearing, couple but they had never had children and they were now very old.
However, one day, Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the Holy of Holies in the temple to offer incense before the Lord. Whilst he was there an Angel appeared to Zechariah. This wasn’t any old Angel but was the Archangel Gabriel who was soon also to appear to Mary. Gabriel said that God had heard their prayers and that Elizabeth was to bear a child, and, yes, that child was destined to prepare the way for the Lord.
Despite being a priest and despite being in the Holy of Holies and in the presence of an Archangel, Zechariah doubted the words of this first annunciation and was struck dumb for his disbelief.
Nonetheless Elizabeth conceived as promised, and used her voice to thank God. So, Elizabeth was beyond normal child-bearing years and her husband, the priest, was unable to speak.
Then Gabriel visited Mary, an unmarried virgin, and said that she too was to bear a child – the second annunciation. Her reaction contained rather more faith than Zechariah’s – “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.”
This acceptance by Mary of God’s plan for her, and for the world, is usually referred to as the fiat or the ‘yes’ of Mary and is used as an example of faithful acceptance of God’s will. Sadly, it has also often been used to portray Mary as holy but also submissive, and this submissiveness held up as a Christian virtue. Anyone who has seen The Handmaid’s Tale will appreciate where that theology can lead.
So, we have a story of two women – one married but beyond normal child-bearing years and the other young and unmarried and therefore not supposed to be bearing children at all. Good, upstanding, religious folk would have treated both pregnancies with suspicion, indeed Mary would have been in real danger of being stoned to death for pregnancy outside marriage. Where are the men in this story? Disbelieving Zechariah struck dumb and, in Luke’s account, Joseph is not mentioned at this point at all.
Isn’t it interesting that the church has so often and for so long required women to keep quiet and yet here it is the women who are front and centre, filled with the Holy Spirit, as their wombs were filled with John the Baptist and Jesus, God the Son. God chose these women, highly favoured and blessed, and today we see them rejoice and sing, whilst the men are absent and silent.
We are reminded today that whilst the church may be guilty of side-lining women that God does not do so.
We are also reminded that our faith is not a purely spiritual matter, but is based in the physical and real.
Our faith is about the Word becoming flesh, which is the meaning of incarnation. It is centred on one born of a woman to save us through the offering of his body once and for all.
The visitation to Elizabeth by Mary is about bodies: pregnant bodies, a kicking foetus, sounds reaching ears, and mouths speaking. Elizabeth hears and believes and proclaims.
Elizabeth greets Mary in the words that now form part of the Hail Mary:
“Blessed are you among woman and blessed is the fruit of your womb”
We may think of many titles for Jesus – the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God – but here he is expressly called the fruit of the womb of Mary. So, I would urge you, never fall into the trap of thinking of Mary simply as a submissive girl acting merely as a vessel for God’s plan – all generations shall called her blessed and Jesus is the fruit of her womb.
Too often, in this part of the world and at this point in history, we reduce Mary, like the Angels, into little more than primary school children in nativity plays. Whilst I’m not knocking nativity plays, heaven forbid can you imagine the headlines, I think that we do run the risk of losing a lot from our faith by sidelining or infantilizing Mary. We run the risk not only of losing sight of Mary’s example of faith in saying yes to God and in sticking close to Jesus all the way from the annunciation to the cross and beyond, but we also run the risk of losing sight of the sheer physicality of the incarnation. This young woman was chosen by God not to play the lead role in the nativity play but to actually become pregnant, to give birth in demanding circumstances, to breast feed this real baby, to flee to Egypt when Herod started to slaughter the innocents, to bring up this child and see him grow into a young man who was ultimately killed by the Romans. It was all incredibly physical and yet God was at the centre of it all. Don’t think that God is somehow ‘up there’, above and beyond the physical. He knows us fully not only because we are created in his image but because he has taken on our image and our physicality.
And, as for being submissive, we now come to the Song of Mary, called the Magnificat, which shows a personality and an agenda which is far from submissive – a radical agenda that reflects the Kingdom of God:
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Christianity has been an establishment religion for so long that we lose sight of its radical, biblical roots. The coming of Jesus, the fruit of the womb of Mary, into the world was not meant to comfort the comfortable, perhaps give us something cosy and predictable to do before having lunch. God broke into the world in the person of Jesus in order to change the world, to challenge oppression of the poor and outcast, including woman young and old, to bring down the evil structures that flourish everywhere and to show us a different way of relating to God and to one another.
We may be guilty of making Christianity in this country the religion of old white men who treat everyone else as second class citizens but today we are reminded loud and clear by these Jewish women that God has very different ideas both about who can proclaim and bring forth his message and what the values of that message really are.
In less than a week we celebrate the birth of Jesus, God the Son, who came into the world as the fruit of the womb of Mary. For these last remaining days of Advent let us really prepare our hearts and minds for what that means for us and, as Mary waited for the day of his birth to come too, we should take some time to dwell on the words of her song and, perhaps, thinking up what needs casting down and what needs lifting up in our lives and in this world.