Reflection for the fourth Sunday of Advent

Reading: Luke 1: 26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

Reflection

Usually on this fourth Sunday of Advent, we hold our family carol service and the cathedral is packed to capacity. We listen to the story of Christ’s birth through scripture and song and the Nativity story is acted by the children of Saint Patrick’s National School. It is normally the children from the junior and middle classes who act out the parts of the play. And so, the roles of Mary and the angel Gabriel are played by eight- or nine-year-old children.

We know the scene so well, as the angel, dressed in white with shiny wings, appears with the greeting to Mary, the reassurance not to be afraid and the astonishing news that Mary will give birth to the Son of God. When we are so familiar with a scene, we can sometimes hear it read without fully grasping its significance. This remarkable account of the annunciation by the angel has a lot to tell us about Mary, about her son Jesus, and about God’s divine plan for humanity. It is a story of the unexpected.

The location is unexpected in Nazareth – an obscure village on a hillside in rural Galilee, far from the seat of civil or religious power in Jerusalem. Even more unexpected is the recipient of this divinely sent messenger, a young woman named Mary who was engaged to a man named Joseph. Mary is greeted as ‘favoured one’ and this is reiterated in the words, ‘You have found favour with God’.

Mary is one of the most powerless people in society – she is young in a society that honours age; she is female in a world ruled by men; she is poor in a stratified economy; she has neither husband nor child to validate her existence. And yet, she has found favour with God. Her lowly status is very much in line with the Kingdom which her Son would establish, where the poor and humble are lifted up, but the rich and proud are brought down.

The bible contains many incidences of divine calling, almost exclusively men called to roles of leadership and commissioned to fulfil a divinely ordained role. Names like Abraham, Moses and the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah come to mind. The words addressed to Mary by the angel carry echoes of the words to the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament. She is told God is with her, reassurance that Moses and Jeremiah also received. She is told ‘Do not be afraid’, words which were spoken in turn to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. These scriptural echoes underline the importance of Mary’s divine calling.

In our Old Testament reading, we heard the words of the prophet Nathan to King David near the end of his reign when he had intended to build a temple or house for the Ark of God. Nathan was told to remind David of his calling by God from humble beginnings as a shepherd minding sheep, to be a prince over God’s people – again, a reminder that God does not seek out the great and powerful to fulfil his purposes. Instead of David building a house for God, he is promised that God will establish a royal house for his descendants in a kingdom that will be established forever.

That promise was to be fulfilled through the child Mary would bear. ‘He will be great, the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David’. Mary’s divine commission was to conceive and give birth to God’s chosen one, the Messiah.

It is a pattern throughout scripture that divine callings are often met with an objection. Jeremiah objected that he was only a boy; Isaiah felt unworthy; and Moses felt entirely inadequate. Yet Mary does not object, but simply raises the question: ‘How can this be since I am a virgin?’ To which she learns that it will be through the action of God’s Holy Spirit that she will conceive. And here is revealed the mystery of the incarnation – the child she will conceive will be holy, he will be called the Son of God.

In that obscure village, a young woman without status became the means by which God would physically enter our world and take on our human nature and share in our human experience to draw people to the knowledge and love of God. Our words cannot do justice to describe the remarkable event of the incarnation, which we will celebrate soon at Christmas.

The Advent hymn, ‘Long Ago, Prophets Knew’ penned by the Methodist minister and writer, Fred Pratt Green, captures this mystery succinctly in these words:

God in time, God in man,
This is God’s timeless plan;
He will come as a man,
Born himself of woman,
God divinely human.

It continues with Mary’s remarkable role in the following verse:

Mary hail! Though afraid,
She believed, she obeyed,
In her womb, God is laid,
Till the time expected,
Nurtured and protected.

Mary’s calling was to bring into the world God’s son and to be his mother, a role which she thought deeply about, as Luke records more than once. ‘Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart’.

Mary responded to her divine commission with faith, acceptance and obedience: ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’. She is the ideal disciple and she has set an example to all of us who follow Christ, as we respond to his call in our lives – as one who hears, obeys and does the will of the Lord. Amen.

The collect for the fourth Sunday of Advent

God our redeemer,
who prepared the blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son:
Grant that, as she looked for his coming as our saviour,
so we may be ready to greet him
when he comes again as our judge;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Prayers of intercession

Lord Jesus, we praise and thank you for your great love for us. You have entered our darkness with your great light. You come as our God and yet as a child. Help us and your whole church to walk as children of light. Teach us to see your presence in each other: to be aware that what we do to each other we do to you. We give thanks for the word spoken by the prophets, but above all, for the Word made flesh dwelling among us. May your whole church proclaim this Good News with joy.

Lord Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, be born in us today.

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace. We pray for lasting peace in the Middle East and for Bethlehem today. Lord, give peace in the hearts of all, peace in our land, peace among the nations: peace in our homes and peace in all our dealings; peace through him who is the Prince of Peace.

Lord Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, be born in us today.

Lord Jesus, you came to bring healing and hope to our world. We pray for governments and health authorities across the world battling to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Give wisdom to all who make policies and manage our health service. Protect and strengthen all frontline health workers as they care for others. Bring your peace and healing to all who are ill.

Lord Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, be born in us today.

Lord Jesus, born of Mary, you are part of the human family: you share our joys and our sorrows, our hopes and our fears. Bless our homes with your loving presence, be known to be with us, our families and our friends.

Lord Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, be born in us today.

Lord Jesus Christ, you came down to lift us up. You descended that we might ascend. You became human that we could share in the divine. We pray for all who are down at this time: we remember the outcast and the refugee; the homeless people and the street-dwellers. We pray for the lonely and those who are unloved, for all who will find this a sad day or a hard day.

Lord Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, be born in us today.

We pray for all who grieve, that they may be comforted. We give thanks that you have opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. We remember our loved ones departed from us, and pray that we may come with them be one with you in your kingdom.

Lord Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, be born in us today.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ
and the love of God
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit
be with us all evermore. Amen.

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