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Advent IV – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

“My soul doth magnify the Lord – my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. From henceforth, shall all generations call me blessed.”

The great song of praise which Mary poured forth, which we know as the Magnificat. Mary says all generations shall call me blessed – and so today on this last Sunday of Advent, we honor the Virgin Mary, and we call her blessed.

Those of you who have visited the Holy Land may know the small village of Eir Karem . Four miles from Jerusalem , and set high up above a lovely wooded valley, is the ancient church built over the traditional site of the home of Zachariah and Elizabeth. And that’s where Mary went as fast as she could, as our Gospel reading tells us today, straight after that extraordinary meeting with the Angel Gabriel. She must have been terrified and amazed. She had to go and talk to her cousin Elizabeth. The angel had said that Elizabeth, who was old and barren, was now 6 months pregnant. Mary knew her Scripture. She knew that when old, barren women conceived, in the history of Israel , it was a sign that God was about to perform some great act. Just as when Abram’s wife Sara gave birth of Isaac in her old age, and Hannah gave birth to Samuel.

Not only that, but Mary, this very young woman, needed to talk to her older relative about this utterly amazing news that she had been chosen to be the mother of God’s son, Jesus.

“She arose and went with haste,” Luke tells us, and then we have one of the most beautiful, most poignant passages in all Scripture. Mary entered the house and greeted Elizabeth . And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me!”

Old, barren women conceiving children was one sign of God’s activity – but there was to be an even greater sign: the rebirth of the prophetic voice. There had been no prophets in Israel for 500 years – 500 years is a long time – no prophets since Malachi – had God abandoned his people? But now not only was Elizabeth given prophetic insight, but her son, still in the womb, who was to be the great and final prophet, John the Baptist – even in the womb, he sensed, with prophetic insight, that the Lord, the fruit of Mary’s womb, was in their midst. “And the babe leapt in her womb.”

This extraordinary meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, known as the Visitation, has a parallel in the Old Testament. In the 2 nd Book of Samuel, Chapter 6, we read of how the ark of the covenant was brought into Jerusalem . Now the ark was a rectangular box which contained the tablets of the 10 Commandments. The Jews believed that the ark was the container for God’s presence on earth. So when the ark came into the City of David , it was God himself who was coming in to take up residence in the holy city of Zion . And as the ark was brought in, we read that David leapt and danced before the Lord with all his might!

And from very early in Christian history, Mary has been seen as a type of ark of the covenant. Just as the ark contained and shielded the presence of God, so Mary’s womb contained and protected and nurtured the Lord. And when she entered Elizabeth ‘s house, Elizabeth ‘s child John leapt in her womb, just as David had leapt when the ark entered Jerusalem .

But Mary is not just a passive receptacle, not just a sort of surrogate mother, not just a convenient womb used by God in his plan of salvation. No. We honor Mary because she took an active part in God’s plans. She was a consenting partner.

Elizabeth recognizes this when she says “Blessed are you among women” – blessed not only because she has been chosen to be the mother of our Lord, but, Elizabeth goes on to say, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Mary is praised by Elizabeth because she believed. Maybe Elizabeth was remembering how her own husband Zachariah had not believed the message given him by Gabriel, and was made mute.

Mary was the first to believe in her son, and in that sense was the first Christian. And in believing, she said yes to God. “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary is the first and archetypal Christian.

It was her faith and trust, her consent, which allowed God to send his son into the world. Mary’s faith allowed God to make her the ark, the bearer of God’s son.

And it is for these reasons that Mary is important for us. Firstly, as she believed and trusted in God, so we are called to believe and trust in God’s promises, and to say yes, when he calls us.

Secondly, as she bore within her body God’s son, so we, too, are called to bear God’s son. As Christians we are arks, or as Paul prefers it, we are temples of God’s Holy Spirit. What an amazing thought: God lives in you – makes his home in us.

And actually, as I read this story again I saw something I hadn’t really seen before. The whole story is irradiated with joy – sheer joy! Listen! Mary runs to see Elizabeth . “The child in my womb leapt for joy,” Elizabeth says with a loud cry, “blessed are you” and Mary breaks out into a glorious song of joy, “My soul doth magnify the Lord!” For me, the picture of these two women, knowing what they know, no doubt embracing each other – the sheer joy of it. I bet it wasn’t only the child that danced!

Well, there are just four days left before we celebrate the birth of Jesus. As you read the Scriptures and hear them read over the next few days, listen out for the joy – it’s everywhere! “Behold I bring you tidings of great joy! The angels say to the shepherds. The wise men on seeing Jesus were overwhelmed with joy: Joy to the world!

“Your heart will rejoice,” Jesus promises us in John. “Your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

So, how much joy do you have in your life? It is a gift and a promise. Maybe this Christmas you could ask God for the gift of joy. Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel has come to you.

Joy could transform this Christmas for you – something extraordinary could happen. Who knows – you might even catch yourself – DANCING!

Amen.

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10 Comments

  1. Allene T. Taylor on August 16, 2015 at 07:02

    I read your sermon – yesterday, August 15th.
    Thank you for this vivid picture of the joyous meeting
    of Mary and Elizabeth.
    Allene Taylor 8/16/15

  2. Lori Mills-Curran on August 15, 2015 at 11:38

    “But Mary is not just a passive receptacle, not just a sort of surrogate mother, not just a convenient womb used by God in his plan of salvation. No. We honor Mary because she took an active part in God’s plans. She was a consenting partner.”

    This is SUCH an important point. I remember in seminary having a conversation in class about “high” Christologies and “low” Christologies, with those in the discussion advocating a high Christology characterizing Mary’s consent as having a very passive quality. The very young woman sitting next to me whispered, after all the males comfortably settled on a high Christology, “But doesn’t that make God a rapist?”

    Mary “hastened” because she was saying “Yes.”

    • Christina McKerrow on December 5, 2015 at 11:07

      How lovely that they were able to comfort one another and dance for joy. But I see this double encounter differently. I had to write a piece for an advent program a year ago. It made me really look at the words in the encounter Mary had with the angel. She, she is consenting to the news, but read again what the angel has to say: three times s/he says: ‘You will….”. Not, ‘will you. ?.’ //Also, Elizabeth was six months pregnant. Anyone who has had a baby knows that after the fourth month, or thereabouts, the baby begins to move around and gets increasingly active.// Think about the effect their news would have had in the communities in which they lived. And how that would have been for both of them.
      We don’t know who wrote these words, but it would be true that they comforted one another and danced with joy for one another.
      Blessings to all in this Advent season.

  3. Melanie Zybala on January 6, 2013 at 13:11

    Quite beautiful essay, at moments, lyrical. Thank you.

    • laura ricard on August 15, 2015 at 11:12

      I believe it was Anselm who said, “Up, noble soul! Put on your jumping shoes!”

  4. Noel Dass on December 27, 2012 at 01:50

    Over the last few years, Christmas had become one of the most stressful times of year for me, particularly after the sudden passing of my mother and the role of “peacemaker”, which my mother had played for decades, fell into my lap. The stress of family during this time plus some additional personal issues had turned Christmas into a very depressing, almost loathsome time of year for me.

    This year however, I started paying more attention to the daily “Brother, Give us a word” e-mails and this particular one struck a chord in my heart. I was so tired of being stressed out and depressed. The reason for celebrating this season is the birth of our Lord and Saviour, which is the most wonderful thing on earth for Christians – this reason had eluded me. Upon reading the e-mail and the subsequent sermon, I asked God for the gift of joy – joy to get me through this season and joy to replace the gloom in my life that I had been experiencing.

    I am pleased to report that that short prayer had a tremendous effect on me and I found myself filled with a gladness and excitement that I had not felt before. Everything I did in preparation for Christmas was filled with a different meaning and Christmas 2012 turned out to be one of the best Christmases I’ve experienced in a long, long time.

    So thank you for being the channel of God’s word, peace, and presence in my life.

  5. Kris Graunke on December 27, 2011 at 09:04

    We danced out of the church at the Christmas Eve service here in Hebbronville, TX. It is a beautiful thought that John the Baptist “danced” in the womb before the presence of the Lord in Mary’s womb. Thank-you for enlarging my vision in this amazing human/divine encounter.

  6. Polly Chatfield on December 23, 2011 at 08:14

    Dancing is everywhere in religious art of the Annunciation and Christmas . All Botticelli’s angels of the Annunciation are dancing as they arrive. The angels coming down to the shepherds in Ghirlandiao aren’t just floating in space; they are kicking up their heels as if dancing on air. Your words made me see these paintings anew, and taught me to look for dancing motion in other painters as well. Such a special Christmas present!

  7. John McDargh, Ph.D. on December 20, 2011 at 07:43

    Wonderful sermon – and it made me realize how frequently the image of dancing has become part of the motifs of Christmas in the western church , especially in popular song . Think of “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” or the Christmas Revel’s tradition of leading the audience in “The Lord of the Dance”.. And it reminds me of the long tradition at Boston College now ended of Fr. Bob VerEeck SJ’s “A Dancer’s Christmas” which was for many of us was for years the way we would begin the Christmas season. Thank you for making these linkages with the Hebrew Scripture that I have never made before .

  8. DLa Rue on December 20, 2011 at 05:28

    Dance would indeed be a sacramental response–an outward and visible sign–of the state of inward, spiritual grace that is the response to the arrival of Christ.

    Rev. John Snow (author of books on vocation for Cowley Press) once said when I consulted with him on my liturgical dance history thesis, that he always thought that the only real issue the church ever had with dance was its tendency to lead to public expressions of human sexuality.

    “After all,” he quipped, “No one ever says, ‘Watch that sex, it leads to dancing!'”

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