Sunday, 23 December 2018

‘He has brought down the powerful …
and lifted up the lowly; he has filled
the hungry with good things’

The Visitation … a panel in the 19th century altarpiece from Oberammergau in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 23 December 2018

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

11 a.m.
, United Group Service, the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Castletown Church, Kilcornan (Pallaskenry), Co Limerick.

Readings: Micah 5: 2-5a; the Canticle Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55; Hymn 712, CD 40); Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1: 39-45.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit

This has been a very short Advent. There are four Sundays in Advent, but this year had Advent had just three weeks.

So, I got caught again – I was so late in sending Christmas cards that many are probably not going to arrive until well into the New Year.

I kept on ignoring all the advertising from An Post claiming Christmas begins when the first card is sent. But that sounds as ridiculous as saying Easter begins with the first crème egg.

Once again, too, we have all got caught in preparing for Christmas, so much so that many of us forgot about Advent as a time of waiting, a time of preparation, a time of anticipation.

We have been busy preparing ourselves in December, busy with the cards and the carols, the songs and the shops, Santa and the decorations. But Advent is important in itself too.

The Advent Wreath and the four candles in a ring around the white candle– three purple and one pink candle –remind us, week-after-week, of those who prepared us in the past for the Coming of the Christ Child: first the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, including Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob; then the prophets of the Old Testament; then it was Saint John the Baptist.

Then, today, the fourth and final candle reminds us of the Virgin Mary as she anticipated and prepared for Christ. We are reminded of that with the Canticle Magnificat, normally appointed for Evening Prayer, and the Gospel reading, both telling us the story of Mary and her visit to her cousin Saint Elizabeth.

The Virgin Mary stands with the Christ Child, a Christmas scene carved by Mary Grant in the centre of the west door of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


The great German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), in an Advent sermon in London 85 years ago in 1933, said the canticle Magnificat ‘is the oldest Advent hymn.’ He spoke of how the Virgin Mary knows better than anyone else what it means to wait for Christ’s coming.

When the Virgin Mary visits her cousin Saint Elizabeth, they are both pregnant – one with the Christ Child, the other with Saint John the Baptist.

When she arrives, although he is still in his mother’s womb, Saint John the Baptist is aware of the presence of Christ and the unborn child leaps for joy.

Saint Elizabeth too recognises that Christ is present, and she declares to Mary with a loud cry: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.’

The Virgin Mary responds immediately with the words we now know as the Magnificat, one of the best loved canticles. We sang it as Hymn 712, ‘Tell out, my soul.’

So we see, side-by-side, two women, one seemingly too old to have a child, but destined to bear the last prophet, linking the Old Testament and the New Testament; and the other, seemingly too young to have a child but about to give birth to a new beginning, a new age that is not going to pass away.

I find it sad that the Virgin Mary can be divisive for those in the Protestant and Catholic traditions, in the wider Church and within Anglicanism.

There are numerous cathedrals and churches in the Church of Ireland and throughout the Anglican Communion dedicated to Saint Mary, including Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and many Anglican cathedrals have Lady Chapels.

Article 2 of the 39 Articles is a traditional Anglican affirmation of the Virgin Mary’s title as Theotokos, the God-bearer or Mother of God: ‘The … Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man …’ Any other interpretations quickly lead to the heresies of Arianism, Nestorianism or Monophysitism.

The divisions among Anglicans over the place of the Virgin Mary are probably founded on perceptions of Mariology within the Roman Catholic tradition. On the other hand, many of my neighbours who come out with statements that reflect what they have been told since childhood – such as ‘You don’t believe in Mary’ – are surprised when they are told the canticle Magnificat is a traditional part of Anglican Evensong ever since the Reformation.

The Virgin Mary of the canticle Magnificat and of the Visitation is a strong and revolutionary woman, unlike the Virgin Mary of the plaster-cast statues and the Rosary.

The Mary I see as a role model for belief and discipleship is the Mary who sets off in a hurry and a flurry to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the Mary with a gob on her who speaks out of turn when she comes out with those wonderful words we hear when she sings the Canticle Magnificat.

What a contrasting pair these two cousins, Mary and Elizabeth, are!

How much they speak to so many of the dilemmas we have in Irish society today!

Elizabeth is the older woman. She has been married for years. Because of social and family pressures, she had started to become embarrassed that after all those years of marriage she has not become pregnant.

In those days – even in many places to this day – this was an embarrassing social stigma. She had no son to inherit her husband’s lands, his family position, the place of Zechariah as a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem.

She reminds us too of Sarah, who is so embarrassed at the thought of becoming pregnant in her old age that she laughs in the face of the three visitors, she laughs in the face of the living Triune God.

Today, a woman who became pregnant at her stage of life might not laugh. She might quake with fear. She might ask for amniocentesis or an amniotic fluid test.

And yet Elizabeth takes control of her situation. She turns a predicament into an opportunity, a crisis of a pregnancy so late in life into a blessing for us all.

She is so filled with joy when her cousin Mary arrives that as soon as she hears the knock on the door, as soon as she hears the sound of Mary on her doorstep, her joy is infectious, so infectious that even the child in her womb leaps with joy in her womb.

Elizabeth’s action is radical. Life is tough enough for her. Her husband has been struck dumb. A dumb priest was unlikely to be able to continue to earn a liturgical living in the Temple in Jerusalem. How was she now going to provide for her child when he was born?

But Elizabeth’s action is even more radical than that.

How many women of her age, and her respectable background, would have been so quick to rush out and welcome her much younger, single and pregnant cousin?

How many women would have worried: ‘What if she stays here and has the child here? Could we ever live with the shame?’

How many women might have suggested instead that Mary goes off and finds a home where they can find someone else to take care of her child when he is born?

Instead, Elizabeth welcomes Mary with open arms. Elizabeth’s joyful greeting, ‘Blessed are you among women …,’ echoes the greeting of the Archangel Gabriel (see Luke 1: 28), ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’

It is almost as if Elizabeth is saying: ‘It doesn’t matter what others think of you. It doesn’t matter how other people are going to judge you. I love you.’

Which is precisely what God is saying in the Incarnation, in the precious gift of the Christmas: ‘It doesn’t matter what others think of you. It doesn’t matter how other people are going to judge you. I love you.’

Mary for her part is such a wonderful, feisty person. She is, what might be described in the red-top tabloids today as ‘a gymslip Mum.’ But, instead of hiding herself away from her family, from her cousins, from the woman in her family who is married to a priest, she rushes off to her immediately, to share her good news with her.

And she challenges so many of our prejudices, and our values, and our presumptions today. Not just about gymslip mums and unexpected or unplanned pregnancies, but about what the silent and the marginalised have to say about our values in society today.

And Mary declares:

‘He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

It is almost like this is the programme or the agenda we can expect when the Christ Child comes among us on Christmas Day.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

An icon of the Visitation by the Romanian icon writer Mihia Cocu in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Luke 1: 39-45 (46-55):

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

[46 And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’]

‘The Visitation’, by James B. Janknegt

Liturgical colour: Violet (Purple).

The Collect:

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.

The Advent Collect:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Heavenly Father,
you have given us a pledge of eternal redemption.
Grant that we may always eagerly celebrate
the saving mystery of the incarnation of your Son.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain,
whose day draws near,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Advent Wreath:

The Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) offers this prayer for lighting the Fourth (Purple) candle on the Advent wreath:

Lord Jesus, your mother Mary
carried you with tender determination
on the dangerous road to Bethlehem.
May the same flame of love
that drove her on, now bring
courage and hope
to all who carry and nurture children today.

Penitential Kyries:

Turn to us again, O God our Saviour,
and let your anger cease from us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Show us your mercy, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Your salvation is near for those that fear you,
that glory may dwell in our land.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

In the tender mercy of our God,
the dayspring from on high shall break upon us,
to give light to those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1: 78, 79)

Preface:

Salvation is your gift
through the coming of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ,
and by him you will make all things new
when he returns in glory to judge the world:

Blessing:

Christ the sun of righteousness shine upon you,
gladden your hearts
and scatter the darkness from before you:

Hymns:

158, God rest you merry, gentlemen (CD 9)
712, The Canticle Magnificat, Luke 1: 46-55 (CD 40)
174, O little town of Bethlehem (CD 11)
198, The first Nowell the angel did say (CD 12)

The Virgin Mary and the Christ Child in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, in the style of the Italian ceramicist Lucca della Robbia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Praying in Advent with USPG
and Lichfield Cathedral
(23): 23 December 2018

The Visitation … a panel in the 19th Century neo-Gothic altarpiece from Oberammergau in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, and we have almost reached the end of the Advent season this year. Later this morning [23 December 2018], there is only one service in this group of parishes, and I am presiding and preaching at the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2) at 11 a.m. in Castletown Church, Kilcornan, Co Limerick.

Throughout the season of Advent this year, I am spending a short time of prayer and reflection each morning, using the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency, USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), and the Advent and Christmas Devotional Calendar for 2018 being used in Lichfield Cathedral.

USPG, founded in 1701, is an Anglican mission agency supporting churches around the world in their mission to bring fullness of life to the communities they serve.

USPG is the Anglican mission agency that partners churches and communities worldwide in God’s mission to enliven faith, strengthen relationships, unlock potential, and champion justice.

Under the title Pray with the World Church, the current USPG prayer diary (7 October 2018 to 16 February 2019), offers prayers and reflections from the Anglican Communion.

The USPG Prayer Diary begins this week prays with a reflection on Anglican Heritage by Bishop Dato’ Dr Charles Samuel, Suffragan Bishop in the Diocese of West Malaysia:

‘Anglicanism in Malaya (now Malaysia) began with the arrival of the British India Company in 1786. Construction of the first Anglican church, Saint George the Martyr in Penang – was completed in 1818 – and the first service was held on Christmas Day. At first, church services were mainly attended by prominent British families and army personnel. However, SPG [now USPG] and other Christian organisations took an interest in spreading the gospel and the church opened its doors to the community, so that Anglicans became a living denomination.

‘The early pioneers did not know what would come of the seed they had planted. But now see how that seed of faith has grown and spread so that today we have a thriving Anglican presence not only in Malaysia, but throughout East Asia and South East Asia.

‘The Anglican Church and the other traditional denominations are the better known churches in Malaysia and they are well respected. And, in a country where Christians face forms of silent persecution, it is important to note that the Christian community is united, which is a testament to our faith and an acknowledgement that we are a family in Christ.’

The USPG Prayer Diary:

Sunday 23 December 2018, the Fourth Sunday of Advent:


Loving Father, as we celebrate the birth of your Son,
Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus our Saviour,
So we pray for Christians the world over.
May we be renewed in faith, hope and love.

‘The Visitation’, by James B. Janknegt

Lichfield Cathedral Advent and Christmas Devotional Calendar:

Lichfield Cathedral’s Advent and Christmas Devotional Calendar for 2018 suggests you light your Advent candle each day as you read the Bible and pray. It suggests setting aside five to 15 minutes each day.

Buy or use a special candle to light each day as you read and pray through the suggestions on the calendar. Each week there is a suggestion to ‘eat simply’ – try going without so many calories or too much rich food, just have enough. There is a suggestion to donate to a charity working with the homeless. There is encouragement to pray through what you see and notice going on around you in people, the media and nature.

The calendar is for not only for those who use the Cathedral website and for the Cathedral community. It is also for anyone who wants to share in the daily devotional exercise. The calendar suggests lighting your Advent candle each day as you read the Bible and pray.

Today’s reflection is headed ‘O Immanuel’, referring to the seventh and last of the seven O Antiphons in the final week of Advent:

Latin:

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster
.

English:

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God
.

Today’s suggested reading is Luke 1: 39-45, which is familiar as the canticle Magnificat, recommended in the Revised Common Lectionary as a canticle today [23 December 2018, Advent IV] and as part of the longer version of the Gospel reading.

The reflection for today suggests:

Pray to become a messenger of hope, give thanks for all who encourage us and help us live life fully.

Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, the Church of Ireland):

Micah 5: 2-5a; the Canticle Magnificat or Psalm 80: 1-8; Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1: 39-45 (46-56).

The Collect:

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.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Heavenly Father,
you have given us a pledge of eternal redemption.
Grant that we may always eagerly celebrate
the saving mystery of the incarnation of your Son.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain,
whose day draws near,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection.

Continued tomorrow.