Something for Sunday

And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord let it be to me according to your word.

Once upon a time at a Church Council held at about this time of year I tentatively enquired of the membership as to what the meaning of this season might be. A distinguished member, the wife of a former President of the Methodist Conference no less, announced that it was about the birth of a baby. I had the temerity to cast doubt on this –after all two of the four gospels have no infancy stories and St Paul seems unaware or at least uninterested in the stories that are told at this time of year. Another member of the meeting almost equally distinguished, a retired headmaster the son of the manse and an old boy of Kingswood-it was that sort of place- offered “incarnation” as the meaning of the season. Ah ha- I responded now you’re talking. But there was no time then to talk about how and why God became human. Most years the opportunity to talk in such terms is postponed to the Sunday after Christmas when ministers and priests try to expound to their hungover congregations the real meaning of Christmas as the Church understands it.

Another difficulty at this time of year is the question of Mary and in particular the story of the annunciation which is the gospel reading for Sunday. In my experience this is problematic for thoroughly modern Methodists and so the fourth Sunday in Advent is often chosen as the ideal date for carols services and nativity plays. The opportunity to address the question rarely arises but now in the special circumstances of this year and from a safe distance I am able to do so.

Catholics often criticise Methodists and other Protestants for having a Mary shaped gap in their devotional lives. I have listened to these comments over the years and wondered. I have also admired and been moved by representations of Mary in art-especially representations of the annunciation. There are almost countless examples and they used to be popular on Christmas cards until the season was secularized in recent decades. Now you have to search for them in specialist outlets like Cathedral shops. Sad is it not! Yes I think we are missing something.

And now let us turn to Luke’s story in Luke Chapter 1 focussing in particular upon Mary’s response to the message of the angel. “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord be it unto me according to your word.

Consider the signs of the times. That is to say in the 1st century. Not so very different now that we are in the 21st century. Things are all over the place. Our relationships with God with one another and with other creatures –plants and animals are disordered. But in Jesus Christ God has acted to redeem the world not simply by preaching to the world but by becoming one with the world in Christ. He came to live our life to bear our pains to take up our struggles and to die our death upon the cross. And then to rise up as the first of the new creation –to reconcile all things in the love of God. God has become as we are so that we might become as he is. That’s a famous sentence but it’s a useful one.

And Mary has a crucial role in this. Through the agency of the Holy Spirit she will give birth to Jesus. This birth is no ordinary birth but rather the moment when God took human flesh so as to redeem our fallen race. As to what Joseph’s part might have been well that’s a discussion for another time.

The angel Gabriel appears to Mary. We can feel re-assured that he is God’s angel. He says so himself’ He declares (although not in this passage) that he stands in the presence of the Lord and that he is God’s messenger. This is his fourth appearance in the Bible and his second in the New Testament. He will not appear again.

He has a message for Mary. He shows her and us what her calling is to be. Mary wonders how this can be but she accepts her vocation with the words of our text:

 “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

This is Mary’s choice. The choice of the good Christian. Let me explain.

Mary’s choice is a strange choice in terms of the values of the world to-day. She consents to be used-some would say abused. She will know suffering. Her vocation will not be an easy one. It will bring no glory in the world’s eyes. Her way is that of suffering love, the way of a servant. But let us not misunderstand her here this is not a matter of sorrowful resignation rather it’s a matter of joyful acceptance. Very often people like to contrast the submissive Mary who obeys in verse 37 with the exultant Mary who sings Magnificat in verse 46. The contrast is a false one. Mary exults with joy because she has made God’s cause her own.

As I say this is controversial. In the way of the modern world Mary’s choice would make her a suitable object for counselling. Mary think again! Surely you don’t want to be anybody’s handmaid and certainly not God’s. You could make something of yourself, you could make your own choices, realise your own talents, express your own sexuality, be an affirmed and affirming presence. After all you’re worth it! Why bother with something as nebulous as salvation when you could achieve liberation and self-realization.

Mary take my advice read “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Attwood. This is an account of how young women are used and abused as baby making machines in a future world which is ruled by religious fundamentalists who call themselves the Republic of Gilead. It’s a contemporary classic sometimes read in schools –alas.

The Christian way is quite different. It affirms suffering love, losing your life in order to save it, the way of grace rather than gain. By making God’s life our life by bearing Christ to our neighbours we can fill our lives with a love that never fails. This is true joy, true peace in short salvation.

Mary’s choice is the choice of the good Christian. We can embark on a journey with God that will take us who knows where. Mary bore Christ. We can bear Christ and take him to our neighbours in deeds of love and kindness.

Sometimes people say, indeed I’ve said it myself-oh the New Testament is a young person’s book. Mary was young. Her choice could never be my choice. But this is a misunderstanding. God can demand a choice from us and for him at any age. Mary was young but Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist was old. Mary is led to sing but Zechariah; John’s father is struck dumb. I knew a minister once who was struck dumb. Not a good thing to happen. But he didn’t cease to be a disciple. He followed Mary’s choice. He was a great support to me and to others.

During the forthcoming holidays no doubt we’ll find ourselves in front of the screen. Celebrities will appear before us in all their physical perfection and charm. Images of material prosperity and affluence will dance before us in which the adverts are indistinguishable from the main show. How grubby and undistinguished our lives will seem beside the lives of these shining ones. We will feel guilty and we will rush out and spend lots of money to assuage our guilt. That is the object of the exercise.

What is to be done? Should we adjust our set? No don’t adjust your set. The set’s not at fault. To coin a phrase from my student days; It’s just that there’s a fault in reality.

True reality, what some have called ultimate reality, reveals to us that at the heart of all things there is grace not greed, love rather than lust and sharing rather than shopping. Mary is full of grace. She rejoices because she’s made God’s way her way. She will bear Christ. She knows in her heart a love that will never fail and a joy that nothing can spoil. It could be true for us as well but first we must listen to the message of God’s angel rather than to the jingles of the angels of this age.

And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord let it be to me according to your word.

Once upon a time at a Church Council held at about this time of year I tentatively enquired of the membership as to what the meaning of this season might be. A distinguished member, the wife of a former President of the Methodist Conference no less, announced that it was about the birth of a baby. I had the temerity to cast doubt on this –after all two of the four gospels have no infancy stories and St Paul seems unaware or at least uninterested in the stories that are told at this time of year. Another member of the meeting almost equally distinguished, a retired headmaster the son of the manse and an old boy of Kingswood-it was that sort of place- offered “incarnation” as the meaning of the season. Ah ha- I responded now you’re talking. But there was no time then to talk about how and why God became human. Most years the opportunity to talk in such terms is postponed to the Sunday after Christmas when ministers and priests try to expound to their hungover congregations the real meaning of Christmas as the Church understands it.

Another difficulty at this time of year is the question of Mary and in particular the story of the annunciation which is the gospel reading for Sunday. In my experience this is problematic for thoroughly modern Methodists and so the fourth Sunday in Advent is often chosen as the ideal date for carols services and nativity plays. The opportunity to address the question rarely arises but now in the special circumstances of this year and from a safe distance I am able to do so.

Catholics often criticise Methodists and other Protestants for having a Mary shaped gap in their devotional lives. I have listened to these comments over the years and wondered. I have also admired and been moved by representations of Mary in art-especially representations of the annunciation. There are almost countless examples and they used to be popular on Christmas cards until the season was secularized in recent decades. Now you have to search for them in specialist outlets like Cathedral shops. Sad is it not! Yes I think we are missing something.

And now let us turn to Luke’s story in Luke Chapter 1 focussing in particular upon Mary’s response to the message of the angel. “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord be it unto me according to your word.

Consider the signs of the times. That is to say in the 1st century. Not so very different now that we are in the 21st century. Things are all over the place. Our relationships with God with one another and with other creatures –plants and animals are disordered. But in Jesus Christ God has acted to redeem the world not simply by preaching to the world but by becoming one with the world in Christ. He came to live our life to bear our pains to take up our struggles and to die our death upon the cross. And then to rise up as the first of the new creation –to reconcile all things in the love of God. God has become as we are so that we might become as he is. That’s a famous sentence but it’s a useful one.

And Mary has a crucial role in this. Through the agency of the Holy Spirit she will give birth to Jesus. This birth is no ordinary birth but rather the moment when God took human flesh so as to redeem our fallen race. As to what Joseph’s part might have been well that’s a discussion for another time.

The angel Gabriel appears to Mary. We can feel re-assured that he is God’s angel. He says so himself’ He declares (although not in this passage) that he stands in the presence of the Lord and that he is God’s messenger. This is his fourth appearance in the Bible and his second in the New Testament. He will not appear again.

He has a message for Mary. He shows her and us what her calling is to be. Mary wonders how this can be but she accepts her vocation with the words of our text:

 “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

This is Mary’s choice. The choice of the good Christian. Let me explain.

Mary’s choice is a strange choice in terms of the values of the world to-day. She consents to be used-some would say abused. She will know suffering. Her vocation will not be an easy one. It will bring no glory in the world’s eyes. Her way is that of suffering love, the way of a servant. But let us not misunderstand her here this is not a matter of sorrowful resignation rather it’s a matter of joyful acceptance. Very often people like to contrast the submissive Mary who obeys in verse 37 with the exultant Mary who sings Magnificat in verse 46. The contrast is a false one. Mary exults with joy because she has made God’s cause her own.

As I say this is controversial. In the way of the modern world Mary’s choice would make her a suitable object for counselling. Mary think again! Surely you don’t want to be anybody’s handmaid and certainly not God’s. You could make something of yourself, you could make your own choices, realise your own talents, express your own sexuality, be an affirmed and affirming presence. After all you’re worth it! Why bother with something as nebulous as salvation when you could achieve liberation and self-realization.

Mary take my advice read “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Attwood. This is an account of how young women are used and abused as baby making machines in a future world which is ruled by religious fundamentalists who call themselves the Republic of Gilead. It’s a contemporary classic sometimes read in schools –alas.

The Christian way is quite different. It affirms suffering love, losing your life in order to save it, the way of grace rather than gain. By making God’s life our life by bearing Christ to our neighbours we can fill our lives with a love that never fails. This is true joy, true peace in short salvation.

Mary’s choice is the choice of the good Christian. We can embark on a journey with God that will take us who knows where. Mary bore Christ. We can bear Christ and take him to our neighbours in deeds of love and kindness.

Sometimes people say, indeed I’ve said it myself-oh the New Testament is a young person’s book. Mary was young. Her choice could never be my choice. But this is a misunderstanding. God can demand a choice from us and for him at any age. Mary was young but Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist was old. Mary is led to sing but Zechariah; John’s father is struck dumb. I knew a minister once who was struck dumb. Not a good thing to happen. But he didn’t cease to be a disciple. He followed Mary’s choice. He was a great support to me and to others.

During the forthcoming holidays no doubt we’ll find ourselves in front of the screen. Celebrities will appear before us in all their physical perfection and charm. Images of material prosperity and affluence will dance before us in which the adverts are indistinguishable from the main show. How grubby and undistinguished our lives will seem beside the lives of these shining ones. We will feel guilty and we will rush out and spend lots of money to assuage our guilt. That is the object of the exercise.

What is to be done? Should we adjust our set? No don’t adjust your set. The set’s not at fault. To coin a phrase from my student days; It’s just that there’s a fault in reality.

True reality, what some have called ultimate reality, reveals to us that at the heart of all things there is grace not greed, love rather than lust and sharing rather than shopping. Mary is full of grace. She rejoices because she’s made God’s way her way. She will bear Christ. She knows in her heart a love that will never fail and a joy that nothing can spoil. It could be true for us as well but first we must listen to the message of God’s angel rather than to the jingles of the angels of this age.

This is Leonardo Da Vinci’s take on the annunciation. Notice that Mary is shown with a text before her. This is quite usual for paintings of this period. Mary is not to be thought of as an illiterate but rather as someone who can engage with high culture. Feminists can take comfort from this.

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