Sermon for Sunday December 23rd

We are so close to Christmas!  Holiday shoppers are completing their gift lists while merchants are enticing us with additional discounts. Mall parking lots are filled and delivery trucks are running late into the night.  Yet, on this fourth and final Sunday of Advent, hours away from celebrating Christmas Eve, we hear a story of preparation and waiting.  

Today’s passage is part of a lengthier account from the first chapter of Luke.  The verses immediately preceding our text narrate the story of the Annunciation; that is, young Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel.

He greets Mary as God’s favored one and then describes what this will mean.  She’s asked to be the mother of the savior, as foretold by the Hebrew prophets.  And, there’s more: Mary, God’s favored one, will be blessed with having a child before her marriage to Joseph. 

After disclosing the unusual circumstances of Jesus’ birth, Gabriel waits for Mary’s response to this unexpected request; and, Mary willingly gives her consent. During this conversation, Gabriel also reveals that Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, is six months pregnant and is preparing for the birth of her son.

As you may remember, Elizabeth’s circumstances are just as startling as Mary’s.  Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, are childless.  Their prayers for children have seemingly gone unheard and now they are elderly. An angel also visited Zechariah with the message that Elizabeth will give birth to a son.

 And so, our Gospel begins with Mary traveling to visit Elizabeth as they continue their prenatal preparations in each other’s company. We hear the lengthy exchange between them.  Each one joyfully praises the blessings she has received. 

Elizabeth acknowledges Mary’s special status as “God-bearer.”  She humbly receives the blessing imparted by the ‘good news’ of Mary’s pregnancy. According to Luke, even Elizabeth’s unborn child recognizes the significance of the moment and ‘leaps for joy’ in her womb. 

Elizabeth’s greeting is also a holy blessing of her cousin.  According to Elizabeth, Mary is blessed among other women because of her humble willingness to participate in God’s unconventional plan of salvation. 

The second part of our reading is Mary’s reply to Elizabeth.  Listen to these different translations of Mary’s opening words. …….In our reading, Mary says, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”….  In the New Jerusalem Bible, it is “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” ….. The NIV version is “My soul glories in the Lord.”…..  All of these express Mary’s first-person experience of God’s unbounded presence.  

Even though Jesus’ birth is many months away, Mary is describing her relationship with God, her experience of God, in the present moment. Her words describe God’s redeeming work not as a future event but as already having been fulfilled. “The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”   

The words of Mary, known as The Magnificat, continue as she transitions from her personal context to a description of the Hebrew peoples’ experience of God.  These verses emphasize that God’s mercy is revealed through God’s deeds.

A significant section of the text focuses on God’s inclusion of the marginalized.  This theme will continue throughout Luke and the Book of Acts.  Mary’s words of praise contrast the ways that God’s actions affect the great and the least of the world.  They call into question an understanding of divine providence that directly correlates sanctity with success.  Mary’s words are a humble statement acknowledging God’s ways do not follow human expectations.

We may view Mary’s circumstances as being so unique that her experience has little or no meaning in the context of our lives.  The words of The Magnificat are more than a grateful statement attributed to one person.  This is a text for us as well. 

            In what ways do we consider ‘greatness’ according to divine standards? 

            What is the nature of the ‘great things’ that God has done for us,

            both in our personal circumstances and in our community contexts?

            How do we participate in bringing God’s mercy to the marginalized of our time?

The Magnificat is said daily in most monastic communities as the closing canticle of the evening office known as Vespers.  For example, at St. Andrews Abbey, Vespers is usually at 6 pm.  This comes after a full day of attending to the work of the monastery and other community activities. This daily recitation of The Magnificat is a reminder that Mary’s humble acknowledgement is an example for all.  God is doing unexpected things, even now.  God’s mercy is offered to each of us, even now. 

This season of Advent has been a time of preparation and waiting for us.  Like Mary, we await the unfolding of God’s presence in our lives.  Like Mary, we are called to proclaim the greatness of God in our lives.  Mary’s exquisite song of praise and blessing is also our own.

This holy season is also a time of divine preparation and waiting as well.  God waits for us. ……. God waits for our consent to God’s presence and action in our lives.  Today’s Sunday Collect addresses this aspect of the Advent season.  It asked God “to purify our consciences by God’s daily visitation, that Jesus, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.”  

Meister Eckhart wrote of God waiting for us to follow Mary’s example.    Perhaps you are familiar with these words the 14th century Dominican.   

            “And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace

             and if I am not also full of grace? 

            What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son

            if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? 

            This then, is the fullness of time:

            when the Son of God is begotten in us. 

            We are all meant to be mothers of God,

            for God is always needing to be born.” (1)

Yes, Christmas Eve is almost here.  The world is waiting for Christ to be born yet again.  Will his presence make a difference in the lives, in the actions of believers this coming year? 

As we come to an end of the Advent season, let us make our final spiritual preparations for this new birth waiting to take place in our hearts.  As Meister Eckhart reminds us, “We are all meant to be mothers of God.” Amen.  

(1)  from Meditations with Meister Eckhart by Matthew Fox, p. 81