A roundup of the reflections from the 4th week of Advent.
How do we respond to God? Abbie writes on Luke 1: 5-25
In today’s passage from Luke chapter 1, we hear of Zechariah and Elizabeth who lived honourably before God, but had been unable to have children and were now both quite old. Zechariah was a priest and went into the temple to burn incense. An angel appeared before him and he was ‘gripped with fear’. The angel said ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.’ Zechariah’s response is, from a practical perspective, not surprising: ‘How can I be sure of this? I’m an old man and my wife is an old woman.’ The angel assures him that it will happen and because of his doubting he will be mute until the baby is born.
When angels appear in the Bible, they are generally met with fear and their first words are frequently ‘Do not be afraid’. Zechariah was a priest, used to priestly duties but was rather startled when he saw an angel. To be fair, I think I would be too, but it makes me think – do we expect to meet with God; how do we feel about meeting with God – are we afraid? When I say a prayer I believe God is listening; but a prayer should be more than me talking to God – I need to listen too. Zechariah had been praying for years and yet when his prayer was answered, he couldn’t believe it. When we pray, do we really listen for what God is saying to us? This Advent, can we listen more?
Luke 1:39-45 New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)
In this passage, after being told by the angel Gabriel that she will conceive the son of God, the pregnant Mary goes to visit her older cousin Elizabeth writes Fiona. Here’s the reading: Mary Visits Elizabeth
“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed 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 leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
I have often wondered what this story would look like if it happened today? I imagine a teenager from a conservative Jewish community wondering who she could turn to. A teenage mother would have had no status, the only women she could turn to would have been in her own family. Mary remembered the words ofGabriel and turned to Elizabeth. I have often wondered if Mary’s parents sent Mary to Elizabeth to protect her, or to hide the shame of Mary’s pregnancy from the family.
Whatever the circumstances, Mary got a double affirmation from Elizabeth. Elizabeth immediately said, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Elizabeth immediately recognised Mary as the young Mother of God, Mary would have been largely ignored by society as another young girl of marriageable age, under the authority of her father, and later her husband.
Women had no status, here with Elizabeth Mary was “the Mother of my Lord.”When Mary sets out for Judea she knows that the only other woman on who might understand what has happened in her life is Elizabeth. Imagine the affirmation for Mary to see that what Gabriel had told her about Elizabeth was true, her old cousin Elizabeth was also pregnant, and the Lord had also revealed to Elizabeth that Mary was pregnant with his son.Mary listened to Gabriel, believing that, “Nothing is impossible with God.”
She must surely have realised that if God could make an old woman pregnant, he can do anything. Mary’s great strength was her faith, which is why God favoured her. Mary rejoiced in God. May we rejoice in the coming Christ during this last week of Advent. O come, O come, Emmanuel…
Chance or irony has left me, Ian as single, male writing about the Magnificat, the great song of Mary who bore Jesus, Saviour of the world, come among us in birth as a baby with all the risk and fragility that ensues.
The thing about the Magnificat is that while some of it feels formulaic, the formula is being broken from its context by the very fact Mary is saying it. A young, unmarried, soon to be Nazarean mother, who is daring to hold on to the hope that her understanding of the Angels message is good, and that the work of her own body in carrying the unborn Jesus Christ is good and holy. Her soul is worthy of glorifying God, Her Spirit is worthy to rejoice, because she has found favour with God.
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant”.
The next stanza takes things into a different direction. It’s an affirmation a growing realisation of thing that God is doing in and through Mary, as she bears of the one who is God. And indeed we do recognise her blessedness, her role in the Christmas story and in the life of Jesus, the Christ.
“From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me — holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. “
The next passage has the texture of a psalm, but something remarkable has happened. Mary is running her fingers through promises already fulfilled – the tense is past – even as Jesus is not yet born. Mary is seeing the world changed by her yes – by the yes which gives God the space to bring the one who will conquer death for ever into the world.
“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”
And then, suddenly we are back to a more formulaic closure linking this extraordinary song into the whole history of the people of Israel.
“He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
Why the strange name?
Until quite recently indexing wasn’t the big thing it is now. So finding your way around a text was tricky. The convention in Latin was that you could refer to a passage using the first word of that passage. In the case the first word of this great song of liberation and release was ‘Magnificat’ literally: Glorify. And while some Bibles title it ‘Mary’s Song’ or something similar, Magnificat still holds on as a name, a relic of an earlier age of faith and learning.
When the light begins to dawn, it can often leave us speechless. The back story to today’s passage concerns Zechariah, who while ministering in the temple is visited by an angel – they are quite busy, these angels! The angel tells him that his wife Elizabeth will bear a son – a child who will go before the Lord to prepare the way, writes Vanessa.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were quite old and being childless would have been a bitter blow to them in their culture, so it is perhaps not surprising that Zechariah simply doesn’t believe the angel. Gabriel is less than impressed at Zechariah’s lack of belief and leaves him mute until the day happens.
Elizabeth gives birth to the child, there is much rejoicing and the time comes for the child’s circumcision and naming. Against local custom, Elizabeth wants to name the child John, as requested by the angel. Zechariah is consulted, and has clearly been doing some thinking, as it is at the moment of agreeing with Elizabeth – his moment of saying yes to God – that his speech returns.
Where is the light dawning for you today? Is it leaving you speechless? Where in your life does God want to show you something spectacular, and is just waiting for you to say yes? The birth of the Christ-child is dawning, and may the wonder of it leave us all lost for words.