Sermon for Advent 4, Year B - Mucknell Abbey
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Sermon for Advent 4, Year B

Sunday 24th December, 2023

The Community here at Mucknell is, as with any group, made up of diverse individuals with varying opinions on just about everything! As such, sermons posted on our website represent the ideas of the preachers who wrote and delivered them, not necessarily those of the entire Community.

The calendar this year gives us the slightly odd experience of keeping the fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve on the same day.  In a matter of a few hours or so we shall be beginning our celebrations for Christmas, but just for the moment we will stay with our advent focus, and on this fourth Sunday our focus is on Mary.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, has always been an incredibly important figure in the life of the church. In the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican traditions she has had a place of focus and devotion expressed in liturgy and in doctrine as well as popular devotion. Meanwhile, in the non-conformist tradition Mary has largely been contained to her role in the story of Jesus’ birth. She has a clear role in the celebration of the Nativity, but is largely forgotten apart from that; sometimes deliberately ignored of course as a means of contrasting the theology of the different churches.

Those contrasts and differences cannot and should not be overlooked, but one of the important elements that the fourth Sunday of Advent gives us is an encouragement to listen to the voice of Mary, not just in the birth narrative, important though that is, but in the other ways in which Mary witnesses to faith in God.

Whatever background and tradition we are from there is the danger that we don’t truly listen to her voice, or perhaps we make assumptions about what Mary is saying and doing without spending the time to reflect anew on what her witness tells us. Where does Mary fit in our faith? What do her words and actions say to us about being a follower of Christ?

Throughout history we can see that certain voices have been ignored or at least talked over. Often of course it is a voice that represents a certain vulnerability or apparent weakness. The dominant voice wins either though a deliberate refusal to allow other voices or through a lack of investment of listening to the one who is for whatever reason thought of as in some way tainted. Benedict is clear in his Rule that these voices that are often overlooked or go unheard are in fact the ones we need to pay most attention to. He states in his Rule that the youngest in the community should be heard for the wisdom they bring.

Of course in some churches Mary’s voice has been heard loud and clear over the centuries, although even here we might say that the layers of dogma and devotion over time have sometimes clouded and obscured her witness. It seems that to me that wherever we sit most naturally within the traditions of the church we need this reminder to truly listen to the life of this young Jewish woman and let her wisdom, her challenge, and her joy speak to us today.

In today’s well-known passage from the gospel of Luke we read of one instance of Mary’s witness and voice. Perhaps we often focus here on her obedience and acceptance in responding to the angel, and there are of course important things to say about what it means to be obedient in our own response to God’s call in our lives. However, we shouldn’t miss the point that Mary’s first spoken words to the angel are a question, ‘How can this be’ or in some translations ‘How will this happen?’; Mary asks what is an understandable and sensible question. What is going on here? Her obedience as a servant of God is clear, but also clear is her desire to understand and explore. I think Mary is surely standing within the Jewish tradition of dialogue and question and investigation. The sovereignty of God is accepted and understood, but in her encounter with the angel this doesn’t result in a superficially pious religion, rather it creates the space for the desire to know more deeply the one who is creator of all. The majesty of God and the wonder of the annunciation are not I think simply about following a passive model of faith, rather they show to us the dynamic of engaging with God who is alive and who calls out to us. The question and promise within the annunciation are in some ways a model for our own discipleship showing us that into each of our lives the living God makes Godself known to us, and we might say it is only with our questions and our response that the promises and covenant are fulfilled.

In as much as we seek to reflect Mary in our own lives then we need to ponder whether we can risk the obedience that she lived, and whether we can show the same exploration and questioning faith which she clearly proclaims. As advent is a season of preparation it seems to me that Mary’s words are incredibly important in honing what our faith is about and making connections in our daily lives. What is faith if we are not able to be obedient to its challenges and costs, and what is faith if we cannot go deeper by our investigation and our curiosity?

As the conversation and annunciation story continues Mary affirms her place within the birth that is to come. Mary is not the only person in scripture to say ‘Here am I’ or something similar. Several of the most powerful witnesses in the Bible are women and men who stood before the Creator of the heavens and the earth and said words to the effect of, here I am. Those three simple words root them and us in the only place where we can know and respond, that is the present, the here and now. Here I am we cry with hope or fear or joy or pain. Here I am with my questions and dreams and desires. Here I am hesitant and weak and afraid. Here am I ready to do God’s will in the only moment I can do it which is now. Not trapped in the failures of yesterday or escaping to the fantasies of tomorrow, but with hearts and minds open today.

This principle I think is vital and says more to us than perhaps we see at first. ‘Here I am’ is almost a   counter-cultural proclamation in a world where so much is trying to divert us and distract us either through fear or fantasy, at least in the Western world. Here I am is a proclamation of courage, confidence and truth which lives out the message that we are about to celebrate, in other words, God made flesh, God in the here and now, God come to earth. Our advent journey is coming to an end, and very soon we will be celebrating the light that comes into the world. Mary’s voice speaks us to both in advent and Christmas and indeed beyond that. It is impossible to know precisely her thoughts and experience, and that is surely not the point. Instead let us prepare our hearts and minds that he may come and dwell in us, that God may be announced daily in and through our lives, that we may be able to say with Mary, ‘my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.’ Amen.

Br. Ian

Image: The Annunciation, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56336 [retrieved January 8, 2024]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/2052404610/ – Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P..