Advent 4 year B 2020 St John’s Upper Norwood
The long history of Scripture reveals time and again the patient long-suffering of God, and his abiding respect for our wayward humanity- allowing us the freedom to take him, or to leave him. Later today that first reading from the service of Nine Lessons and Carols will set out the impatient, self- seeking behaviour that the human race so often indulges in; blindly wreaking our own destruction. God longs to share the paradise garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, happy to share his creation, honours us with his presence, walk with us as friends in the cool of the day. But our hell-bent determination to have our own way inevitably propels us out into the wilderness. Turning away from God’s purpose, grabbing at quick fixes, stubbornly hanging onto our own half-baked fantasies, clumsily struggling within our own limits, we choose to go our own way; isolate ourselves from our true destiny and potential. It could be a hopeless state of affairs. Yes we are free to remove ourselves from the plan God has for us, but it will propel us, as it does Adam and Eve in Genesis, into a cold climate. Sadly it takes us a long time to understand that it is only cooperation with God that we will achieve our true freedom, or a world that begins to work.
One of Fra Angelico’s paintings of today’s Gospel story, the Annunciation, sets out to illustrate these themes when he depicts the meeting between Gabriel and Mary just outside the gates of Eden, and not in Nazareth. Mary’s ‘yes’ to God’s call begins to repair that damage, and distance. In the background the naked Adam and Eve skulk away shame-faced. The angel still brandishes his sword. All seems lost. Is there no way back to fellowship with God ? But in the foreground it is another angel who kneels before Mary, as she bows her head in humility as well as acceptance, acceptance that she is willing to open her life out in the service of God. The ‘openness’ God shows is matched by her own. Her ‘Yes” will re-open paradise, re-direct the dialogue between God and humanity. At the high point of the canvas we see the hand of God opening out to release a shaft of light, and from it flies a dove, the Spirit, about to create life within Mary’s womb. He just awaits her “Yes”.
We have learnt a lot in the past few months of the harm that isolation does to our well-being, whether that isolation is meant for good or not, whether it is going off in a huff, or seeking out short term safety. And isolation is never one sided. It has implications for both parties. The prophets and the Psalms are full of initiatives made by God to be heard, to restore his fractured relationship with his people.
“Hear, O mountains, the LORD’s indictment, you enduring foundations of the earth. For the LORD has a case against His people, and He will argue it against Israel.” “The LORD stands up to plead, and stands to judge the people.”
ST Paul speaks to us about the ‘openness” of God. “As truly as God is trustworthy, what we say to you not both yes and no. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, who we proclaimed to you was never Yes and No. His nature is all “Yes”. ( 2 Corinthains 1: 18ff) God is desperate to work at the relationship he has with us. And that pleading and challenge of God makes to us is not just for himself, but for others that we have chosen to isolate and dismiss within our own community. Eden is an earthly garden, not an other-worldly never-never land. God wants to walk with us, work with us, in our present broken reality. The Social marginalisation, the division and inequality we have created by our greed and possessiveness not only affects the well-being of our world, it affects the health of our relationship with God as well. In coming among us as man, entering a potential paradise, God has to challenge our values as individuals and as a society. God wants to restore creation, but in ways that are just. God chooses to identify with those who are forgotten and dismissed.
“Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise,” says the LORD. “I will protect them from those who malign them.” The wicked freely strut about when what is vile is honoured among men.” Psalm 12.
Why on earth are we given this Old Testament lesson from the Book of Samuel today you might ask!!!! In this passage we overhear a disagreement between the prophet Nathan, the leading man- of- God in the royal court, and the King, David. David, fresh from his exploits to achieve power, and capturing the stronghold of Jerusalem, sets about building himself a palace. But he also wants to create a permanent dwelling for the Ark, the symbol of God’s abiding presence with his people, which until now has been journeying wherever Israel has travelled, sheltered in a tent, but always amidst the pilgrim people of God. Nathan champions the traditional idea that God journeys wherever his people go, while David wants to fix his political powerbase firmly in one place, with a Temple that houses the Ark, making Jerusalem the pivot of the nations life, and, hopefully, his lasting dynasty. This is a radical re-invention of what sort of God Israel’s God might be, putting religious influence firmly in the pocket of the King, and making the sign of God’s presence static and fixed, and with a preference for the powerful. In his Gospel Luke deliberately reworks the image of the Ark of God’s presence, undoing that sanitized version. God once more fixes his presence firmly among his people, and not in some remote shrine. Gabriel tells Mary “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” The Greek word for “overshadow” describes that bright cloud of glory, the Shekinah Glory – the visible Presence of God – which dwelt in the Holy of Holies above the Ark of the covenant (Exodus 24:15-16, 40:34-38, 1 Kings 8:10). Gabriel reveals that God’s presence, once presumed to reside in the Sanctuary, is now replaced by Mary. And, when Mary goes to visit and help her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, Luke once more hints at the parallel between the Ark of the Old Covenant, and mary the new dwelling place of Glory. He echoes the moment when David danced for joy before the cart carrying the Ark as it is finally brought into Jerusalem to rest in the palace compound, and reworks it into the arrival of Mary in Ein Karem, Zechariah and Elizabeth’s house, carrying the Anointed Messiah in her womb. In the book of Samuel ” David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the horn.” (2 Sam 6:15) And in the Gospel Elizabeth tells Mary that her unborn child, John, has rejoiced in her womb “For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1:44)
The word Luke uses here for rejoicing is not a common or garden word. In scripture it is only used in the context of a liturgical celebration, and even then only when the Ark of the Covenant is present. Now this word is used about Mary, Luke tells us that Mary must be the Ark of the New Covenant, the place where God is now. Luke is telling us not only that God in Christ is present where we really are, mess and all, but that Mary, and all who want to be God-bearers, bringing Christ and his Kingdom to birth will be there too, in reality, challenging all that does not speak of paradise.
Being God- bearers, (a precious title we share with Mary, through our baptism), asks us to be in those same challenging places, working and living out in our daily lives the values and actions of the reign of God. Our Christmas cards, when they have anything at all do to do with what Christmas is really about, usually romanticize the Nativity; and our images of Mary usually get the same treatment. On his travels is the Holy Land one spiritual writer, Carlo Carretto, was confronted with the sight of a young, terrified girl in a village- cowering against a wall, She was pregnant, and unmarried. The elders of the village were deciding her fate. It didn’t look good. In a flash Carlo saw the real Mary, stripped of glory and myth, as she must have been after news of her pregnancy got out. Mary is our sister, and above all the sister of the poor, and the hungry, as her cry of joy that we heard as the psalm today celebrates.
Jesus, the living ‘Yes” both to his Father’s will and to humanity’s redeeming, and Mary, responding to the call of God with her own open ended ‘Yes”, set before the model for our own living, living with tenacity and courage the bracing and life-giving dynamic of the Kingdom.
The Jesuit priest -poet Gerard Manley Hopkins begins one poem with the riddling title-
‘The blessed Virgin compared to air we breathe.”
Mary has opened up a new atmosphere for us, filling our lungs with divine energy. Like Our Lady, the Sprit filled woman, we are called to create new atmospheres, breathe new life into our fallen world, our broken communities. And so Christ will be born in our own places, continuing his work of restoration and healing and hope.
“Of her flesh He took flesh, He does fresh and fresh. Though much the mystery how, not flesh but spirit now;
And makes, ( O marvellous!)
New Nazareths in us, where she shall yet conceive Him, morning, noon and eve;
New Bethlems, and be born there evening, noon and morn-
Bethlem or Nazareth, men / (we) may draw like breath, more Christ, and baffle death.”