December 22, 2012
(Micah 5, 2-5a; Luke 1 39 – 55) (Advent 4 Year C)
Today on the last Sunday of Advent, as we light the fourth of the Advent candles, our thoughts turn to Mary, the mother of Jesus; and this year, our readings remind us also of the role of another mother, Elizabeth, in preparing the Way for the coming of God’s Kingdom.
Both of them were mothers of prophets who preached about the coming Kingdom of God, and urged people to respond to that coming by changing the way they lived. Both of them must have had a significant influence on the thinking and actions of the children they raised. Both of them are heralds of the Kingdom. Elizabeth, we are told, had her child in her old age, Mary had hers as a young woman.
I wonder how you picture Mary? Most of the pictures and statues of her show her as very young, very pretty, dressed in blue or white, with her eyes either cast down to the ground, or raised to heaven, sitting or praying, cradling her baby or her dead son. She is portrayed as a passive participant in the drama of salvation. That’s the way she has been portrayed in a lot of Christian literature too, starting with the gospel of John, which shows her as the perfect disciple, following her son without question.
In complete contrast is the statue of her by Dame Elizabeth Frink, known as the Walking Madonna. This is the description of it by Elspeth Moncrieff: This is no conventional, modest Madonna lurking in the security of a Cathedral alcove. She strides with singleness of purpose oblivious to the distractions of those around her. There is an integrity in her gaze, a sense of purpose and iron strength in her gaunt frame. Most importantly, she has turned her back on the sanctuary and security of the Cathedral; choosing instead to stride out into the town to meet the world full on and grapple with the fundamental condition of mankind.
This is a mature Mary, who has been touched and changed by the experiences of motherhood and the Crucifixion. This is an active Mary. This is the Mary that Luke presents us with, who questions the angel who announces she is to bear the Saviour and challenges Jesus about his disappearance in the Temple; she is the one who ponders the events of his life in her heart, and is included by Jesus among those who hear the word of God and do it (Luke 8.21) This is the Mary who speaks the words of the Magnificat, proclaiming the coming of her son as the fulfilment of the Old Testament hopes and prophecies, the inaugurator and executor of God’s decisive intervention to transform the world. This is Mary, the gentle revolutionary.
It is sometimes difficult for us to hear the radical message of the Magnificat, especially when it is so often set to beautiful music, and frequently sung by a small choirboy. Perhaps we might appreciate its revolutionary message better if we sang it in the modern version by Fred Kaan, especially when one of the tunes you can sing it to is “O Tannenbaum’ also known as “The Red Flag”
Sing we a song of high revolt;
Make great the Lord, his name exalt:
Sing we the song that Mary sang
Of God at war with human wrong.
Sing we of him who deeply cares
And still with us our burden bears;
He, who with strength the proud disowns,
Brings down the mighty from their thrones.
By him the poor are lifted up:
He satisfies with bread and cup
The hungry folk of many lands;
The rich are left with empty hands.
He calls us to revolt and fight
With him for what is just and right
To sing and live Magnificat
In crowded street and council flat
This is the call to change our ways represented by the Mary who turns her back on the safety of traditional religion and strides out into the messiness of the world, just as her son did, and just as Elizabeth’s son did.
The Magnificat proclaims a religious revolution: that God has chosen a woman to be the vehicle which inaugurates his decisive revelation to the world, and a young, unmarried mother at that. As the prophets have proclaimed, but reality has rarely echoed, God’s favour is shown not to those who hold high positions in the religious hierarchy, nor to members of a Chosen People, nor to those who keep themselves pure and untouched by the world but to those who hear and obey his commands, whatever their background and circumstances.
It proclaims a social revolution: that the proud, those who think themselves better than other people, will be brought down, and the humble, the despised and the outcast will be seen as the true recipients of God’s favour.
It proclaims a political revolution: that the powerful will be defeated and the oppressed will be freed and given fullness of life. It proclaims an economic revolution, that the hungry will be fed, and those who are rich now will feel what it is like to go short.
All this, Mary proclaims, is the fulfilment of everything that God promised, through the prophets of the Old Testament, to those who love and obey him.
Why do we not often hear this revolutionary message?
Perhaps because the Church through the ages has tended to turn this into the proclamation of a spiritual revolution, the exaltation of the spiritually poor, and humble; but it has not lived even that revolution. Once the Christian faith became the state religion of the Roman Empire, and the dominant faith in Europe and Northern Asia, and the lands they colonised, most people in the church reverted to the previous status quo, serving and associating with the rich, the powerful, the wealthy, and reversing the values of the Kingdom. Most used the weapons of the old order to support secular rulers, and to enforce conformity with one interpretation of the faith. The institutional church sidelined the quiet revolution, and forsook the teachings of the gentle revolutionaries who proclaim the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.
I don’t believe the Magnificat and the Gospel of Luke are just speaking about a spiritual revolution; nor that the reversal of the old order is just something that will come after death, or at the end of time. I believe it is speaking about a change that Jesus urged his followers to work for in the 1st century; that he and John the Baptist urged the people who came to hear him to put into practice, challenging the rich, the powerful, the soldiers and the tax collectors to repent and change their ways, working for change through peaceful means. I believe it was a revolution that Jesus lived, as he touched the unclean, women, lepers and the sick, as he associated with those outside genteel society, and as he allowed himself to be abused and killed, rather than physically resisting violence.
I believe the Magnificat is speaking about a gentle revolution that the Church should be proclaiming and living today, and that the yearly observation of Advent reminds us about.
It is a reminder that our Christmas is not like the world’s Christmas. It is not an escape from the world of poverty and violence and conflict, it is a commitment to do something about it, in Jesus’s name. It is not about tradition or about buying and getting, it is about change, and giving away possessions and privilege. It is not about getting away from struggle, it is about struggling in the right way to change the way people see the world, about leading people to ‘repent’ in the proper Biblical meaning of the word, and about seeing the world through God’s eyes.
Today Christians often complain, especially in the USA, that there’s a ‘War on Christmas’. But I give you the words of a minister who recently wrote that he would sign up to support the War on Christmas because: I’d make the argument that the dominant face of Christianity, as it is seen on television and promoted through news programming, is itself far from what Christianity is supposed to be. It is a sort-of white-washed, sanitized version of Christianity that every year presents an increasingly cleaned up version of the Christmas story to the viewing public.
You see, the baby we remember this time of year was not part of the dominant culture the way the religion he started now is. The religious stories that were told in those days were told under the shadow of the dominant culture. They were stories of oppression and hardships, stories of overcoming unthinkable odds, stories of hope for a people living in times and cultural positions that, quite frankly felt hopeless.
But today, our stories are told from places and positions of power. Today, Christianity is the dominant culture. So, instead of story of a olive skinned middle-eastern, unwed, pregnant mother, who was seen as little more than property, giving birth to what the world would surely see as an illegitimate child who was wrapped in what rags they could find and placed in a smelly, flea-infested feeding trough in the midst of a dark musky smelling animal stall, we end up with a clean, white-skinned European woman giving birth to a glowing baby wrapped in impossibly white swaddling clothes and laid to rest in a manger that looks more like a crib than a trough, in the midst of a barn that is more kept and clean than many of our houses.
So, “War on Christmas?” Sure, sign me up. I’m pretty sure I’d prefer the elimination of what our modern “celebration” has become to the increasingly white-washed version we hear every year.
The Christmas story has been hijacked by a dominant culture. Places of power and positions of prestige have warped the comeuppance sensibilities of the original Christmas story.
God’s vision of liberating the oppressed, the downtrodden, has been slowly replaced year after year with a story that no longer brings fear to the Powers that Be, but rather supports the big business agendas of profit and mass consumerism.
Perhaps many of you would not go as far as Pastor Mark Sandlin; and the celebration of the traditional Christmas does give a lot of joy to families, and promote a good deal of charitable giving. But if the coming of Christ into the world is supposed to be a life changing experience, and if what we are celebrating is not just that Christ has come 2000 years ago, but also that Christ is coming now to change the world, we ought to open our ears and minds to hear the challenge of the words of the Magnificat anew, and ask ourselves how we can join Mary and Elizabeth and their sons to become God’s gentle revolutionaries to bring in his Kingdom afresh this Christmas.
December 2, 2012
Advent 1. Yr. C. jeremiah 33, 14-16; 1 Thess. 3, 9-13; Luke 21, 25-36
Do you ever get a song or a piece of music on the brain? It is something that happens to me frequently ( to the irritation of other members of my family, as I go around the house singing it!)
At this time of year it is often a song from the musical West Side Story. The words go like this:
Now, it’s not a religious song, but it seems to me that it encapsulates what we Christians call “The Advent Hope”. The feeling that we express in lighting Advent candles, opening Advent Calendars, buying presents, preparing food, practising carols and nativity plays. It is the sentiment that runs through our Old and New Testament readings from Jeremiah and Paul. The anticipation, the expectation, the excitement of preparing for a surprise and the confidence that, when it comes, it will be marvellous.
But this year another piece of music has been running through my mind ( perhaps because I often listen to it on my iPod as I did the ironing last week). It is the ‘Libera me, Domine’ from Faure’s Requiem.
The words say ( in English translation)
‘Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death
on that dreadful day
when heaven and earth are moved,
when you come to judge the world by fire.
I tremble and am afraid,
I fear the trial and the wrath to come’.
That music typifies the other aspect of Advent – a season of the Church’s year that has a sort of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ character. It is the aspect which runs through our Gospel reading – part of the ‘Little Apocalypse’ that we find in all the synoptic Gospels. It reflects the traditional themes of Advent – The Four Last Things – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell, and the liturgical traditions which say we don’t have flowers in church, or sing the Gloria, and use purple hangings during this season. It expresses the anxiety, perhaps even the terror, as we await the Second Coming of Christ, bringing with it the end of life as we know it, and judgement.
The dual faces of Advent show themselves also in the hymns we sing during the season – some hopeful like “Hark a thrilling voice is calling” and ‘Wake O Wake’, and ‘The advent of our King’, others with a mixture of anticipation and terror, like ‘Lo, he comes with clouds descending.’ Though no-one, I think, will countenance singing the hymn I found in a very old version of The Methodist Hymnal, one verse of which goes:
The ungodly, filled with guilty fears
Behold his wrath prevailing.
For they shall rise, and find their tears
And sighs are unavailing.
The day of grace is past and gone,
trembling they stand before his throne,
All unprepared to meet him.
Both these faces of Advent have their place in the Christian tradition. Advent as a penitential season has its roots in the days when baptisms took place at Christmas and Epiphany, so there needed to be a season of fasting and discipline in the weeks preceding them to allow the candidates to prepare to receive the sacraments.
All the indications are that, nowadays, we’re much more at ease with the ‘Something’s coming, something good’ Advent, than the ‘Prepare to meet thy doom’ Advent. But our hymns and readings face us with both themes; and since the secular world places all the emphasis on anticipation, we Christians really do need to pay some attention to the theme of judgement.
As the old hymn I quoted shows, previous generations seemed to be much more comfortable with thoughts of judgement. Many of the Old Testament writers seem quite happy to speak of a God who unleashed his wrath against those who broke his laws, and everyone associated with them however, innocent. The Messianic age to which many of the prophets look forward is conceived of as a time when justice – seen in terms of the punishment of the wicked in an eternity apart from God – will be done. This is God being ‘fair’ in purely human terms – dealing out retribution to the unjust and goodies to the righteous.
But modern Christians tend, on the whole, to have more tender consciences. We expect God to behave in a more ethical way. We expect punishment to be reformative, rather than retributive. We find difficulty in reconciling the idea of a God who decrees eternal punishment for some with the idea of a God of love.
People try to avoid the problem of these conflicting ideas in various ways. Some reject the Old Testament picture of a vengeful God, and say it is mistaken. Some avoid thinking about the Second Coming and judgement at all. ( Isn’t this what the great majority of nominal Christians are doing when they avoid coming to church in Advent and Lent, but turn up in droves when the Church gets back into celebratory mood at Christmas and Easter? And isn’t their God a celestial version of the kindly grandfather who turns up at weekends and holidays dishing out fivers and sweeties, but is never around to make demands or to exert discipline at any other time?)
Other people split God into compartments and only think about one aspect at a time: The Creator God when they read Genesis; Baby Jesus at Christmas; Jesus, Friend of Sinners most of the time; and the ‘Judge Eternal, throned in splendour’ only when their thoughts turn – as rarely as possible – to their own death and the end of the world.
Yet, if we are to be honest in our faith, and faithful to the tradition, we need to try to live with these contradictions, difficult though that may be. We have to hold in tension God as Judge and God and Saviour. Whether we hold the traditional picture of the second coming as a time of judgement, or believe we face judgement at death, or that we face judgement every time we make a decision which involves moral choices, we need to present the secular world with the uncomfortable truth that actions have consequences and we cannot simply do as we like, because we are all answerable to a divine judge.
It is difficult to keep to the traditional solemnity of Advent, when the world around has been preparing for Christmas since the end of October. In the Church Times last week, a sister from a religious order suggested we should move Advent to November to cope with the reality that the secular world celebrates Christmas from the beginning of December. But I think the Church has an important role in teaching the world about the importance of waiting for what is valuable; and the need to prepare properly for the coming of Christ. And it has an important function in providing a place of respite from the frenetic activity of the weeks before Christmas, a quiet space in which we can prepare spiritually.
We need to learn to cope with an Advent Season which is both joyful and penitential – and to be able to explain to the world why we keep Advent in the way we do.
From time to time we may discover a thought or a story that enables us to rest, even if only for a short time, in some sort of equilibrium. I offer you one such thought now – one of Rabbi Lionel Blue’s ‘Bolts from the Blue’. (Hodder and Stoughton 1986)
“In case the Last Judgement terrifies you, I give you this forecast of it, given to me by my teacher. “All that will happen”, he said, “is that God will sit you on his knee, so to speak, and explain to you what your life was really all about. Then you will see it all without illusion – and that will be your heaven and your hell”.
Love and judgement.
May we prepare ourselves this Advent to receive both.