The ecumenical lectionary lists Luke 1:26-38 as the gospel lesson for this coming Sunday, Advent IV. It also offers that the Psalm (or sung text) for either last Sunday or this Sunday can be Mary's song - the Magnificat - found at Luke 1:46-55. We will read the whole passage, beginning at verse twenty-six, carrying on through Elizabeth's greeting to Mary and then to Mary's joyful song - the first carol. I don't know where to begin. There is so much here.
The Annunciation is surely one of the most painted images in Western art. The Magnificat has been set to music more than any other text in history (largely because it was to be sung at every evensong.). And most every knows the familiar strains of the beautiful song "Ave Maria", the lyric of which comes directly from this text. I am back to preaching this coming Sunday for the first time since July. There is much to include in the liturgy - from Advent candle lighting to adding symbols to our Jesse Tree and opening up more characters for our growing nativity scene, not to mention a celebration of the Lord's Supper. It is tempting to want to keep the sermon on the shorter side so as not to keep everyone too long. Then I recall an African American student that I met in Atlanta being quite stunned to hear that a typical sermon in the United Church would be less than twenty minutes long. His startled reply was to wonder how the congregation could expect the preacher to stop if there was more of a Word from God to be spoken and heard. It would be like hanging up the phone on the most important call you had received in a long time! Fortunately, the congregation at UHill seems to encourage me to go beyond what my United Church inborn instincts tell me about the appropriate length of the sermon. Still, there is way too much here to fit in on Sunday. Sorting out what to say is going to be like writing a haiku instead of a long love letter.
Some of the thoughts that are working away in me as I host this text include ...
* I like the thought that the Christian Year once began on the Feast of the Annunciation - March 25. We could begin a whole new Christian Seasons Calendar, based on the notion that our story really begins with the angel Gabriel's wild announcement to Mary that she is to give birth to God's own child. The story doesn't begin with the birth - with the child in flesh - but with the announcement that precedes the birth. Good news is announced as a promise long before it is experienced as coming to fruition. A gospel people begin with the annunciation of impossible good news when there is no other evidence to back it up. This is so important in Eastern Christianity that the Feast of the Annunciation is the one feast that is never moved under any circumstance. It is observed even if it falls on Easter Sunday or on Good Friday. The announcement of the birth of the Son of God is that important.
* I notice that Mary is perplexed by the angel's greeting. I have always assumed that she was perplexed to learn that she is favoured by God. But this year I notice that the angel goes on to say "The Lord is with you". I am struck that we are used to hearing the presider in worship say "The Lord be with you". It is a prayer for God's presence. But the angel says it is a present reality for Mary: "The Lord is with you". The question for her will be whether she really wants God to be with her, given what that will entail for her life. Imagine, after all those prayers longing for God's presence to be finally told that they have been answered. Now the question is, can one say with Mary: "Here I am, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word." These are the words of the first disciple in the New Testament. Hearing them I am taken in my mind to St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in Rome and am standing before Michelangelo's Pieta, with Mary holding her crucified son's body on her lap. Saying yes to the angel will mean saying yes to a cross. She may not always feel so favoured by such a life.
* The first section of "Ave Maria" combine the angel Gabriel's greeting to Mary with Elizabeth's greeting: "Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." The Ave Maria prayer is: "Hail
Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen." I am not sure what to make of this but I notice that this text has had great formative power for many Catholics and other Christians. I wonder how many people now hear Ave Maria being sung, finding it beautiful, haunting, but no longer recalling its origin or how peculiar its message. The God of the Universe born in human form.
* The Magnificat is an extraordinary song. It takes its form from Hannah's song in I Samuel 2:1-10, when the once barren Hannah rejoices in her miraculous pregnancy. Like Hannah's song it sings of the future in the present tense. Mary hears the angel's message and has not even felt the baby kick when she sings a song of completion. The child has not even been born, never mind crucified and risen, yet Mary is singing that all has been accomplished: "He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts .... he has filled the hungry with good things". Mary sings the proleptic gospel - she lives as if the future is already present. She magnifies the tiny fetus within her womb until it is as large as the cosmos. Her faith is an act of magnification. In a world that often teaches us to minimize the possibility of the reality of God and of the coming kingdom perhaps this is a fair description of the task of the church - to magnify the good news so that others can see and hear and come to trust it, too.
Well, that's where I am starting from. The sermon has the working title: "Annunciate and Magnify". We'll see what comes of it all in four days time.
* There's a great piece on Mary's response to the angel on the Ekklesia Project blog, written by Kyle Childress - take a look: "And it was sufficient"