The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year B)
December 20, 2020
We beseech thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation, that when thy Son our Lord cometh he may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
2 Samuel 7:4, 8-16
I was looking through my sermon notes as I was preparing to write my homily for today and found that three years ago I mused on how today’s gospel story of the Annunciation asks us to travel back in our imagination nine months to March 25. Three years ago it was an idle thought, a way to enter into a discussion of the Annunciation and the date (nine months later) upon which we have come to celebrate the birth of Our Lord. This year, thinking back to March 25 and the Feast of the Annunciation, asks something different from us.
It was on Sunday, March 15th that we last gathered together as a whole community, and even then we had begun to put in place precautions that we hoped would stave off the coming pandemic. We had suspended the chalice, changed the way we exchange the peace, and cancelled coffee hour. On Monday, March 23, New York City went “on pause” and it was two days later on Wednesday, March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, that we celebrated our first online service, a small test run of Evening Prayer on Google Meet. The intervening nine months have shown us all the tricks that time can play upon us. When days seem to be crawling past, every hour at home seeming like an age, then, all of a sudden, months have gone by, and we wonder what we have been doing all this time. Some of us have been more closely touched by the disease that has keep us apart than others. But we all have felt the shock with which we found ourselves here, the disquiet and uncertainty that comes with wondering what the future will hold, and the sense of watching and waiting, preparing ourselves as best we can for what will come next.
We have been gestating something for nine months as we wait with expectation for what the world will be like on the other side of these days when we emerge from the wombs we have created that are keeping us, as best we can, nourished, safe and secure. Today’s celebration of the Annunciation, in the immediate contemplation of the Incarnation, is a microcosm of our own experience, our feelings, and sensations and can help us make meaning of this strangest of Advents.
Putting aside our worries about calculating the “correct” dates, and assuming the traditional chronology, as we sit here today in mid-December in the aftermath of our first winter storm, our story takes us back to March. Luke, writing to an audience who clearly accepted the intervention of the divine into daily life, gives us the facts:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favoured one, the Lord is with you!”
Couldn’t be more straight forward, and yet.... Our young protagonist, recently betrothed (and not yet married) to an older man, is at home. Artists often depict her as reading, sometimes specifically in the midst of her devotions, holding a little prayer book. Whatever she was doing, no matter how much she believed that an angel could come from heaven to bring someone great tidings, it is hard to imagine she could have expected an angel to come and tell her anything. And Luke makes that clear, when he tells us “she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.” Indeed, Luke gives us a rare insight into the inner world of the protagonists of our Bible stories. Mary, our hero, our model, our friend, is unsettled by this news. There is no shame in that and, indeed, the Angel does not rebuke Mary for her reaction, rather offering her words of reassurance: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” Although the Divine has literally broken into her world, in a sacred home invasion, if you will, Mary is told that she is special and has nothing to fear.
The Angel immediately begins to explain the reason for his calling so unexpectedly:
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name 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 father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.
Big news indeed. Yet the substance of what the Angel tells Mary would have seemed reasonable to her: that God would send the Messiah to sit in “the throne of his father David, and... reign over the house of Jacob for ever.” She, a faithful Jewish girl of her age, would have recognised in this event the fulfilment of prophesy. What she clearly did not at first believe that this task could fall to her. These kinds of things happen, but not to us.
And Mary says as much, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” We have heard this story so many times, we don’t see that she is unfazed by the premise. Rather she wonders why God chose her, an unmarried girl who could not conceive a child since, it seems, she is still a virgin. The Angel, again without rebuke for her questioning, with no talk of faithlessness and the need to instantly believe, explains:
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 called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.
Explaining how it will work and that God has also ordained her own relative Elizabeth to conceive miraculously, the Angel makes the situation plain. Mary—always believing that this sort of thing can happen—finally accepts that this is happening to her and tells the Angel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” It took her time to process what was happening, to believe that extraordinary things, world shattering events, can sweep her up and, with what seems like an act of will and faith, accepts that this is really happening to her and embarks upon nine months of watching and waiting, discomfort and change, all in anticipation of the birth that lies ahead.
Her unexpected March 25th visitor brought sweeping change and disruption and initiated a period of confinement at the end of which would come transformation. Mary met the news that day in a way to which we can all relate, with surprise, fear, and disquiet. It wasn’t even something for which she could have planned. She met the challenge, however, by mustering up her courage and being open to seeing what would happen as she embarked upon this new adventure. She did not allow her fear to shut herself off from the possibilities this news offered her.
We, who know the whole story, have been warned that we are to be prepared for the moment when God bursts into our world and upends reality to usher in something new. We have been given the example of Mary, who had no such chance for preparation and yet was able to adapt, do her best on behalf of God and God’s emerging Kingdom. Our experience these nine months and especially at the beginning when the coming storm of Coronavirus hit us by surprise, does not correspond exactly to Mary’s story. God did not usher in this pandemic to inaugurate a new age. God did not sicken seventy-five million people world wide and kill 1.6 million to teach us a lesson or punish us. Yet, the world changed (at least from our perspective) practically from one week to the next and God did break into our world with love and compassion as we reacted to the events, we sheltered at home, changed our lives, put on masks, kept our distance from those whom we love, all for the sake of loving our neighbour. Of course there were those who acted out of self-interest, and yet so many of us, so many of you, even though it has been hard, shone forth the love of God over these nine months of watching, waiting, anticipating. Our lives were upended by an event we knew could happen, but never really expected would happen to us. We took the news and have lived with it for nine months and now we see there is an end in sight with the vaccine. We look on this eve of that first Incarnation to the birth of a new era, a rebirth of human activity into the world, a new moment, when we can readjust our priorities, learn from what we have experienced, and apply it to the work of living as baptised members of Christ’s Body who know that loving God is realised in the here and now by loving our neighbour, especially the least and the lost, the marginalised, the poor, hungry, and the prisoner.
This is what Jesus showed us in his life as the one born to that extraordinary girl, who exercised authority by means of love, not coercion and violence, and who overcame death so that we might always be united with him and with God. The Annunciation we observe today takes us from Mary’s house to the Manger and to the Cross and empty tomb, and shows us that Mary’s way of being open to God will give us the strength to face whatever lies ahead in the days and months to come.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Ember Friday after St Lucy, 18 December 2020
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume