Sermon preached by Rob Barber (Reader)
on Sunday 24th December 2017 (Fourth Sunday of Advent)
2 Samuel 7.1–11,16; Magnificat; Romans 16.25–end; Luke 1.26–38
A few years ago, when some of us were on the parish pilgrimage to Walsingham, Bishop Lindsay Urwin, who was Shrine Administrator at the time, spoke very passionately about the statue of Our Lady that takes pride of place in the shrine. He said that what he loved about the image was that the face on the statue doesn’t portray a beautiful or pretty woman, but rather a strong, confident, determined woman – someone worthy to give birth to and raise the son of God.
We have a replica of that statue in our own Lady Chapel here in St John’s and I urge you to go and have a look at it. Although it’s considerably smaller than the one on display at Walsingham, if you look at the face I hope you’ll get an idea of what Bishop Lindsay was getting at.
Some pictures of Mary do depict her in a sort of syrupy sweetness, but these can distract us from who she really is. When we read the words of the Song of Mary, usually referred to as the Magnificat, a version of which we sang a few minutes ago in that wonderful hymn Tell out, my soul, we see something radical, something revolutionary. We see Mary talking about casting the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, about filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. All of us have probably been influenced in some way by our parents, and it would be fair to say that reading the song of Mary we could come to the conclusion that Jesus could well have developed many of his own radical ideas from his mother.
This is Mary as I see her depicted in the statue: someone who is strong, but also obedient to God, as we see in this morning’s gospel reading. This reading teaches us about the God we are dealing with, and what can happen when a human meets God. Mary’s story is as much about us as it is about her.
It shows us how God acts, not by forcibly breaking into our world, but rather filling it from within. There’s nothing in the gospels to suggest that Mary was anyone special in terms of her background. She was a lone woman in a man’s world, due no respect because of her age or social position. She’s not even a wife yet, but God chose this ordinary girl from an obscure village on the edge of the Roman Empire to bear his son, and this humble and obedient servant of God gave birth to a child who was going to turn the world upside down and change everything. It’s worth bearing in mind that the most powerful person in the world at this time was Caesar Augustus who, if it wasn’t for a very brief passing reference in Luke’s gospel, would now be pretty much forgotten, yet it was the child born to a humble peasant girl who would change the world and still be worshipped over two thousand years later. As we sang in the hymn, “powers and dominions lay their glory by”.
Mary knew, just as we know, that we can’t just make spiritual things happen by our own strength or our own cleverness. But she knew, just as we do, that we can receive trust and allow God to act in us and through us. Through Mary, we learn that waiting on God isn’t just about staring up at the sky and hoping to see a thunderbolt, but instead it’s about allowing God’s presence to take root in us and grow within us. The same God that visited Mary visits us today. Are we prepared, like Mary, to allow God to grow within us?
When Mary met God through his messenger Gabriel, this was the spark of a revolution, but a revolution that started very quietly in humble beginnings. Not with rioting or violence, but with a defenceless baby. This was God’s way. He came to us not by winning a battle, but in undefended love, and Mary chose to be caught up in this way of undefended love. This is how God still comes to us today, and by allowing ourselves to be part of that love, we are part of that peaceful revolution and allow God to grow not just within us, but in others too.
So we look towards Mary for inspiration. An accusation often thrown at us in the Catholic tradition is that we worship Mary, almost putting her on an equal footing with God. This, of course, is not the case. Nothing could be further from the truth. We recognise Mary for who she was and is – an ordinary, fallible human being who risked all by saying “yes” to God. The statue of Our Lady of Walsingham depicts Mary with the Christ-child on her knee, and if you look closely you can see she is pointing to her son. She is saying, “This is the one. This is the saviour. Follow him.” Today, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we give thanks that Mary said yes to the angel, and in so doing points us to God.