Sermon for Advent 4 2016
This is the sermon from last Sunday, slightly edited to make it more readable!
Through Advent we have been anticipating an event that is often described using the very technical name of The Incarnation. As my friend Bob once observed, most people when they hear the word ‘incarnation’ are immediately reminded of how they used to eat tinned fruit in the 1970s.
OK – I’ll get my coat…
Today on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we particularly focus on the person and role of Mary, the mother of Jesus in that unfolding story. And it's not easy - Mary has become the church equivalent of a political football over the centuries as theologians and clergy tried to describe her place in the Christian story.
In Roman Catholicism, Mary has a very high and exalted place. She is described as the Queen of Heaven, the Mother of God (we’ll come back to that one, btw), she is described as having been immaculately conceived – without the taint of original sin (our human nature), perpetually a virgin – never having a sexual relationship with her husband, and they also believe and celebrate that she was assumed bodily into heaven. And as you will probably know, Catholics use prayers devoted to her in order to seek her intercession to God. Most well know is the ‘hail Mary’, which quotes the words of the angel Gabriel when he comes to tell Mary that she will bear a child – what we call the Annunciation. Similarly, in the Orthodox churches of Greece and Russia, not all of these doctrines are expressed in quite the same way, but Mary is still held in very high esteem.
Meanwhile, in protestant churches Mary often occupies very little attention outside the readings we use at Christmas. She is pretty much overlooked apart from that.
For Anglicans, as always we are somewhere in between. Back in 1662 the Book of Common Prayer, heavily influenced by Protestant thinking, just had special days in the calendar for events in Mary’s life that are recorded in the Bible and no further. The Annunciation, the visit of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, Christmas etc.
Later, especially in the 19th century when more Anglicans became influenced by Catholic traditions, some churches started to mark more festivals. So much so that our current calendar is a change from the one we had in the Alternative Service Book published in 1980. Then we marked Mary on Sep 8 – traditionally the feast day marking her birth. Now we do that on August 15, when the Catholic Church celebrates her being assumed into heaven.
In some Church of England churches Mary is still low profile, whereas in others more ceremony takes place on her behalf. I have even heard of Anglican churches processing with statues, casting flower petals and making a great spectacle of it all.
So what do we make of all of this? Should we go 'Catholic' or 'Protestant', or is there another option? I'd like to suggest that there is.
What John's gospel describes as the Word becoming flesh – God coming amongst us as a human caused fierce debate for over 400 years after the time of the Bible. If you think present controversies about sexuality and gender are going on a bit, we haven't seen anything yet! Jesus fully God and fully human was so difficult to describe accurately, and yet was so vital. Why? Because the early church had a very simple way of describing God's saving action in history: "He became what we are that we might become what he is." And it's important to describe him becoming what we are correctly, otherwise it goes wrong - a bit like putting the wrong number in a mathematical equation.
So here's my take on Mary.
1. Mary wasn’t some kind of angelic being.
Part of the point is that Jesus genuinely became like us – so it seems to me that it is necessary that Mary is an ordinary girl. If Jesus’ mother is completely different to us – unusual birth, unusual death, etc– then has Jesus really become one of us? I’ve always thought there was something strange about that. Jesus must be born of a real human being like us, or God hasn't really entered this world properly.
And why can’t she have other children? The Bible refers to brothers and sisters, although they are explained as cousins in traditions that hold she was ever-virgin. What does it say to the rest of us if even a sexual relationship with her own husband is off-limits?
I had a friend who was brought up in Ireland as a Catholic. She once described how she had been taught that Mary was the example of motherhood to aspire to; the problem was that no mother was ever-virgin, and neither could they have a child so special. She talked about it as being set up to fail by the person teaching her.
2. Mary can’t be discarded – she’s a strong character
Protestants, on the other hand, often make Mary a bit part, subserviently doing what God asked of her at the relevant moment and then conveniently disappearing from history. But consider these stories:
The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) - Mary's song when she discovers she will have a child. The mighty toppled, the rich brought low, the humble and poor exalted. That sounds more like the slogans of a protest for social justice than a meek and mild subservient girl.
The wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12). Mary isn't put off by Jesus' initial response of 'what is this to do with us', and makes him respond by pointing the servants his way.
Who are my mother and brothers (Matthew 12:46-50) Mary and the family turn up, as Jesus has been away with his followers. He has to account for that, by explaining that he is there for all people
At the foot of the cross (John 19:25) What a terrible anguish it must have been for any mother to see their son crucified. And yet she is there.
Praying with the disciples (Acts 1:14) Jesus' followers are meeting behind closed doors, for fear of being caught, yet Mary is there praying with them.
3. Mary is an example to us all
...but not the kind of example that spooked my friend.
Remember I said we’d come back to ‘mother of God’? In the ancient church, the word they used was 'theotokos', which literally means bearer of God. I think that’s a much more helpful term to reflect on and it’s more inclusive. No-one – Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox etc can object to that, as all those varied and different traditions hold to the belief that in Mary’s womb was God incarnate. She carries God in her own body.
And here’s the exciting bit. Regardless of our biological ability to have children, or even our gender, we can all follow her example to be bearers of God. Not in the same way, but in a very real way. The events of Pentecost moved the focus from God being in the world specifically in one person to being in the world by his Holy Spirit in all who receive him. So each of us who have received that spirit are bearers of God too.
Different people will have different opinions about the formal beliefs about Mary. Perhaps we need to focus more on Mary’s example.
· Her faithfulness to God’s call
· Her strength in speaking out against the oppression of her people
· Her courage in following Jesus even to the hardest place.