24 December 2017

He has lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry
with good things, and
sent the rich away empty

The Annunciation depicted on the Nativity Façade of the Basilica of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 24 December 2017,

The Fourth Sunday of Advent.

11 a.m.
, The Parish Eucharist, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick.

Readings: II Samuel 7: 1-11, 16; the Canticle Magnificat; Romans 16: 25-27; Luke 1: 26-38.

Part 1: Lighting the Fourth Candle on the Advent Wreath (the Virgin Mary):

During these Sundays in Advent, instead of preaching one long sermon, I have been offering three short reflections: looking at the Advent Wreath and Candles; looking at the Gospel reading and our hopes for the Coming of Christ; and looking at the meaning of Santa Claus.

In Year B in the Lectionary readings, we are focussing on Saint Mark’s Gospel.

On the first Sunday of Advent [3 December 2017], we heard Saint Mark’s account of the Coming of the Son of Man (Mark 13: 24-37). On the second Sunday [10 December 2017], we read the beginning of his Gospel (Mark 1: 1-8). Last Sunday [17 December 2017], we skipped over to Saint John’s Gospel, and his account of the Baptism of Christ by Saint John in the River Jordan (John 1: 6-8, 19-28).

But there is no Christmas story in either Saint Mark’s Gospel or Saint John’s Gospel. Instead, this morning, we change to Saint Luke’s Gospel to hear the story of the Annunciation (Luke 1: 26-38).

The prayers at the Advent Wreath on these Sundays help us to continue our themes from the Sunday before Advent [26 November 2017], which we marked in these dioceses as Mission Sunday, supporting projects in Swaziland in co-operation with the Anglican mission agency, the United Society Partners in the Gospel (USPG).

As we light our Advent candles in anticipation of the coming of the Christ Child, USPG is inviting us to pray for mothers and children who are served by USPG in the world church in Tanzania, Ghana, Bangladesh and Palestine.

The first candle on the Advent Wreath was the Purple Candle recalling the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, our fathers and mothers in the faith, like Abraham and Sarah, and so on. The second purple candle represents the Prophets. The third, pink candle, which we lit last Sunday, represents Saint John the Baptist.

This morning’s fourth, purple candle represents the Virgin Mary, and she is the theme of our readings and some of our hymns and prayers this morning.

USPG suggests this prayer when lighting the fourth candle representing the Virgin Mary:

The Virgin Mary:

O God of promise,
whose mother Mary carried your Christ in an occupied land;
we pray for mothers in the Holy Land
who today live with restrictions and violence.
Bless the church-run hospitals that serve them and their children
regardless of race, religion or financial status.

The Annunciation depicted on a panel inset on a house in the village of Castle Bellingham, Co Louth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Part 2: Waiting for Christ

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

This morning’s Gospel reading (Luke 1: 26-38) brings us back nine months to the story of the Annunciation, which is celebrated on 25 March. We have the same Gospel reading again, almost nine months later, because the action initiating Christ’s Incarnation is so significant as we prepare to celebrate that Incarnation.

When the Virgin Mary hears the Angel Gabriel address her as the ‘favoured one’ and tell her, ‘The Lord is with you,’ she is ‘much perplexed by his words’ and she ponders ‘what sort of greeting this might be.’


We might think she was perplexed, to say the least.

She has been told she is to have a child, who would be called Son of God, and who would receive the throne of David.

‘How can this be?’ she asks.

And well she might ask.

She might well wonder how she is going to survive a full nine months until this baby is born, once her father, her family, her friends and her village hear she is pregnant.

Some years ago, in the weeks before Christmas, both the BBC and the Guardian reported, how there has been a frightening increase in ‘honour killings’ in Britain. At the time, the topic also provided a story line in EastEnders.

So-called ‘honour killings’ were frequent too at the time of the first Christmas. A woman who was violated by a man – even against her will – could be killed, usually by her father or brother, so the conceived child would bring no further shame to the family.

The newly-betrothed Joseph would know he is not the father of the Virgin Mary’s baby. If a man and a woman who were betrothed to each other and then moved in with one other, and the village knew it, they were then considered to be married. This, and not some religious ceremony, marks the occasion, and the engagement now becomes a marriage in common law.

Should Joseph intend to stay with Mary, then he has to protect her and protect himself by acknowledging the child as his.

On the other hand, if he does not acknowledge the child, and Mary’s pregnancy becomes known and her father or brothers do not kill her, then the law of the time demanded the death penalty both for her and for the man – if he is known too – who has stolen Joseph’s betrothed and made her pregnant.

And, of course, if the child’s true identity is truly known, there are others who would like to ensure that Mary does not complete her full term of pregnancy.

Herod the Great would not be very happy with another claimant to David’s throne arriving on the scene.

If the Roman authorities realise this child is going to be honoured as the ‘Son of God,’ they too would have to take action. This is a title used for the Roman Emperors; any usurper or pretender is likely to end up on a cross rather than on a throne.

In the Canticle Magnificat, which is part of our readings this morning, both responses are anticipated and challenged in Mary’s song, in which she praises God and proclaims:

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
. – Luke 1: 52-53.

In our world today, despite financial and economic problems and banking and trading scandals, are the proud and the powerful still on their thrones?

Looking at last week’s RTÉ programme on the housing and homelessness crisis, are the lowly still waiting to be lifted up?

Are the hungry waiting to be filled with good things?

Do the rich still walk away with all they want?

What are the promises of this Advent, of every Advent, of the coming Kingdom?

What are the promises and prospects for a child who is born among us this Christmas?

We live in a world where the survival chances of a child depend not just on attitudes to ‘honour killings,’ but even more so on the financial and economic climates where mothers live.

The statistics on homeless children in Ireland this Christmas are a frightening condemnation of our society’s true priorities. Estimates in the past week say 3,194 children are being housed in unfit accommodation in Ireland this Christmas. How is Santa going to find them?

The American blogger and theologian Sarah Dylan Breuer points out that in this world, one more child dies every three seconds from extreme poverty; 300 children die during an average Sunday sermon in an Anglican church; and 1,600 children die during each celebration of the Eucharist.

Yet, the Advent readings tell us repeatedly that God’s promise is that through Christ the hungry will be filled with good things. We might ask, like Mary: ‘How can this be?’

We too may ponder these things in our hearts. But having pondered them, what do we say about them in this Christmas?

We too are called to bring the Good News of freedom to the prisoners and those confined to refugee camps, food for the hungry, dignity for those who are the lowly.

We too are called to do that not just in words or song, but like the Virgin Mary, by giving flesh to God’s hope, God’s peace, God’s justice, and God’s love for the world.

The young, unmarried, teenage Mary found the courage to face her father, her family, her future husband, her friends, her village, her world, despite the risk of pointing and whispering, thrown out of house and home … even stoning to death. There would be a birth … and there would be another death. And I recall the words of TS Eliot:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

– TS Eliot, Journey of the Magi (1927)

Santas lined up and waiting for Christmas Day in the Rectory in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Part 3: Waiting for Santa Claus:

Each Sunday during Advent, I am telling a different story about Saint Nicholas of Myra, the real Santa Claus, and why he is important, why he should be rescued from commercialism and Coca Cola, for the Church and Christmas.

So, as we are all eagerly waiting Santa’s arrival tonight, I want to share some short stories about why Saint Nicholas is traditionally associated with giving presents to children at Christmas time.

One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman’s father had to offer prospective husbands something of value, a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance a young woman had of finding what her family would regard as a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman might never get married.

Without dowries, this poor man’s daughters were in danger of being sold into slavery, becoming the victims of human trafficking.

Mysteriously, on three separate occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home, providing the three needed dowries. The bags of gold were thrown through an open window, and somehow managed to land in stockings or shoes left out to dry before the fire.

You can see the parallels between this legend and the backstory to our Gospel story this morning, the story of the Annunciation. What might have been turned into another horror story has been rescued through God’s generosity, and our concern for people who are trafficked and exploited is at the heart of Gospel values.

This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas.

Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. This is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are among the symbols for Saint Nicholas, the gift-giver.

Sadly, these three gold balls also signify pawnbrokers, which I imagine many poor people find they have to resort to this Christmas.

I hope Santa is generous to all, adults and children alike, tonight. Tomorrow we are going to celebrate the greatest gift of all, God’s gift of the Christ Child at Christmas.

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

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 24 December 2017.

The Annunciation depicted on a panel on the triptych in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford / Lichfield Gazette)


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:

This collect is said after the Collect of the day until Christmas Eve:

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.

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)


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:

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.


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

Jacques Yverni, ‘The Annunciation,’ ca 1435, in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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