20 December 2009- Advent 4
Readings Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-55
Well, we are nearly there. The fourth Advent candle has been lit and this is the last Sunday before Christmas.
I have a confession to make this morning. In fact I have two confessions to make. The first is that on Thursday I stole some rock salt from the bin on Susan’s Hill to put on the paths around the church. I slipped over and cut myself on the paving slabs and I wanted to make sure that no one else hurt themselves and the quickest way to do that was to go and grab some salt out of the council bin. If anyone feels duty bound to turn me in to the rozzers so that I can spend Christmas in the cells then I quite understand.
In fact that brings me to my second confession. Whilst I love the Christmas season in many ways this can be a very wearing time of year and the thought of being locked up for a while without access to shops, the computer or one’s diary is quite attractive.
But actually, should we feel ashamed or embarrassed about admitting that sometimes all we want to do is rest? We live in a society that is very driven and results oriented and our church is not isolated from that, in fact we even have a Protestant work ethic. Actually, if you are Anglican then it is easy to be torn between Catholic guilt and the Protestant work ethic, both of which militate against having a truly guilt free rest. Yes, God wants us to have life in all its abundance and our call to be disciples of Christ is also a call to change ourselves and the world, none of which can be done without effort, but we should also never forget that God cares for the whole of our being which includes our bodies and we should not neglect our physical health, including our need for rest. Don’t forget that God himself established the principle of rest on the seventh day and Jesus often withdrew from the crowds to spend time with his Father in prayer. In fact I have no doubt that we become better disciples of Christ if we take the time to rest in God with neither guilt nor worry.
And that brings me to a much larger point and one that brings home much of what is going on in today’s gospel reading. Christianity as we have inherited it and as we practice it in this part of the world and at this point in history is too often simply a religion of the mind and the intellect. It is about what we read and about things that we believe but that is all going on in the head and, so often, it feels as though our faith does not involve the whole of our person including our bodies.
That is a strange development because, actually, Christianity is a physical at least as much as it is a spiritual religion.
It is about things that happened, and things that happen, in and through particular human bodies, in particular places such as Bethlehem or Woodchurch and at particular times such as the days of King Herod of Judea or December 2009. Our faith is about the Word becoming flesh. It is centred on one born of a woman to save us through the offering of his body once and for all.
The ministry of Jesus is to poor human bodies. He opens eyes so that they see, ears so that they hear, and he loosens tongues so that they speak. The visitation of Elizabeth by Mary is about bodies: pregnant bodies, a kicking foetus, sounds reaching ears, and mouths speaking. Elizabeth hears and believes and proclaims.
Faith is established in Elizabeth through physical events: her meeting with Mary, their conversation, John the Baptist leaping in her womb, with the Spirit working through these things.
Elizabeth greets Mary in the words that now form part of the Hail Mary prayer: “Blessed are you among woman and blessed is the fruit of your womb” and Mary responds with a wonderful God-given song, which we call the Magnificat, that sets out the radical agenda that is 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.”
Mary then spent the next three months of her pregnancy in the company of Elizabeth. We are not told anything more about the time they spent together but it must have been a time full of God-filled rests as they drew closer to their respective nativities.
I mentioned two weeks ago that I believe Mary is too often sidelined by the Churches that came out of the reformation which includes, at least in part, the Church of England. Too often we reduce Mary, like the Angels, into little more than primary school children in pretty dresses in the nativity play. 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 manger to the cross, but we also run the risk of losing sight of some of the sheer physicality of the incarnation of Jesus. 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.
God takes our bodies seriously – we were created in the image and likeness of God and, at the birth of Jesus, God was created in the image and likeness of us. We should not make the mistake of divorcing our spirituality from our physicality – we are whole persons, mind, body and soul and I think that to recapture that sense that God cares about the whole of us is incredibly important to our wellbeing.
This Christmas don’t just worship God with your minds but bring the whole of yourself before him both in church and in everything else that has to be done. But, when you are feeling worn out and in need of a rest remember that God is in that too and that you can and should find time for God-filled rest without guilt or worry. In an activist and often Godless society such as ours don’t neglect the possibility that just stopping and taking a Sabbath days rest with God may be the most counter-cultural and powerful witness to your faith that you can give.