Sunday, 19 December 2021

‘It doesn’t matter what others
think of you. It doesn’t matter
how other people are going
to judge you. I love you’

‘The Visitation’ in a stained-glass window in Great Saint Mary’s Church in Saffron Walden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 19 December 2021

The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Advent IV)

11.30: The Parish Eucharist, Saint Brendan’s Church, Tarbert

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

There is a link to the readings HERE.

‘The Visitation’ in a stained-glass window in Saint John’s Church, Pallaskenry, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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

This Advent has been a time of waiting, a time of preparation, a time of anticipation. For the past three Sundays, in our time of waiting, preparation and anticipation, we have been preparing ourselves in the liturgy and the music, with carol services and quiet days, with the Christmas Market and Santa’s grotto, with the Advent Wreath and the Crib.

The four candles on the Advent wreath have reminded us, week-after-week, of those who prepared us in the past for the Coming of the Christ Child: first the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, our ancestors in faith, including Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob; then the prophets of the Old Testament, including Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah, who we heard from this morning; then, last week it was Saint John the Baptist.

This Sunday, the fourth and final candle reminds us of the Virgin Mary. This connects with the Canticle Magnificat, which we heard instead of a Psalm, and our Gospel reading, telling the story of her visit to her cousin Saint Elizabeth.

The Canticle Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55) is normally heard during Evening Prayer and not on Sunday mornings.

The great German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), in an Advent sermon in London almost 90 years ago (17 December 1933), said Magnificat ‘is the oldest Advent hymn,’ and he spoke of how she knows better than anyone else what it means to wait for Christ’s coming:

‘In her own body she is experiencing the wonderful ways of God with humankind: that God does not arrange matters to suit our opinions and views, does not follow the path that humans would like to prescribe. God’s path is free and original beyond all our ability to understand or to prove.’

The Gospel reading (Luke 1: 39-55), also tells the story of the Virgin Mary’s visit to her cousin, Saint Elizabeth.

When she visits, they are both pregnant – one with the Christ Child, the other with Saint John the Baptist.

Immediately after the Annunciation, the Virgin Mary leaves Nazareth and travels south to an unnamed ‘Judean town in the hill country,’ perhaps Hebron outside Jerusalem, to visit Elizabeth. 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 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’ (Luke 1: 42-44).

The Virgin Mary responds to Saint Elizabeth immediately with the words that we now know as the canticle Magnificat.

So we see, side-by-side, two women, one seemingly too old to have a child, but destined to bear the last prophet of the age that is passing away; and the other woman, seemingly too young to have a child, but about to give birth to him who is the beginning of the age that is not going to pass away.

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 in this Gospel reading, the Mary who 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 in 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 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 – the child who would grow up to be Saint John the Baptist – 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 actions are 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 been worried: ‘What if she stays here and has the child here? Would 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 Child: ‘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 tabloid newspapers 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 is born.

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

The words of the canticle Magnificat carved on the wooden screen at the west end of the monastic church in Mount Melleray Abbey, Cappoquin, Co Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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

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), Advent Year C.

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.

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.

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:

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.

Blessing:

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

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.

Hymns:

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



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

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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