But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother’s breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul. (Psalm 131: 2)
In the midst of all the Christmas preparations the fourth Sunday of Advent appears, full of peace and hope. We have been challenged by the prophets and regaled liturgically by the Baptist for some days, but now as we are reminded of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary in Nazareth hope begins to be transformed into fulfilment. The Lord is indeed near!
I have always found that there is a calmness about this Sunday. It may not be the calmness of nothing happening because it can be a very busy time especially when Christmas Day falls early in the week, but rather the calm of security and belonging – hence the text today from Psalm 131.
Over the centuries God’s servants have found a calm in the midst of the changes and chances of life. Abraham and Moses both experienced exceptional vocations which changed their lives forever. Abraham left his home and travelled hundreds of miles with his family and retainers to a place that he had not known and had possibly never even heard of. To those around him it must have seemed that he was acting upon a whim, but his faithfulness bore fruit. Abraham became the father of a great nation and as Christians our father in faith. Moses accepted the challenge to lead his people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the land of their fathers. Despite the dramatic theophany which began his awakening, the task seemed doomed to failure, but escape the Israelites did and the nation was founded.
A splendid example for today is Elijah – in many ways the model for St. John the Baptist – who risked his life to speak against the rule of Ahab and Jezebel who had led the people astray by turning their hearts away from the Lord to the worship of Baal before whom the king ‘prostrated himself’. If you remember the story, God sent a drought on the land in response to the evils of Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah issues a challenge to the prophets of Baal to call upon their god to bring rain. They fail the test which results in their slaughter at Elijah’s hand. Whilst on the run from Jezebel in the desert God sends his angel to bring sustenance to Elijah on his journey to Horeb. He then experiences his own theophany in which God appears not in the great storm, nor in an earthquake or fire, but as a ‘still, small voice’. In the midst of fear and upheaval God appears to his prophet, bringing him the grace of divine calm, a peace which only God can give, not in order that Elijah might make good his escape, but that he might return to Israel and bring about a change of ruler – which of course he does.
This reminder of the challenge to Elijah leads neatly to the challenge the angel Gabriel places before Mary in Nazareth. The challenge is a massive and dramatic one for a young girl. As if bearing a child were not enough there would be no human father and as one who was betrothed her acceptance of the challenge was putting her life at risk as an adulteress. She risked rejection by her parents and others in her family and by Joseph her intended husband. She would be alone. Despite the prospect of a gloomy future, if she had one at all, Mary says, ‘yes’ to the angel and the story continues. The next stage of God’s redemptive plan swings into action.
Quite what Mary thought of it all in the days that followed we are not told, but by the time she visits Elizabeth she is ready to praise God in the words of the Magnificat. She revisits her Jewish heritage and recognises that God is once again doing a mighty thing. Perhaps she thought of Abraham, Moses and Elijah, and of Hannah – the inspiration for her hymn of praise. In the midst of change, threat and fear there is a remarkable stillness and peace in the soul. It is this sense of calm which pervades this Sunday’s worship for me. In the midst of all the challenges that I face I know, like Mary, that God is with me and that the bond I have with him can never be broken. Today it is expressed especially in my bond with Mary. In her my soul is ‘calmed and quieted’. This is not just because she is part of this great story nor is it just because she inspires me, as God’s saints do. The faithful are invited not just to find calm ‘with’ Mary, but rather ‘in’ Mary by accepting her as mother just as Jesus intended. This bond of mother and child is a grace of the new life and from it life becomes possible, sweeter and ever more joyous. In the midst of each and every trouble it becomes possible to see what God is doing and to sing Magnificat, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’. Together we find the calm of security and belonging.
Father Andrew Burton SSC
20th December 2020
Image by Ruth Gledhill on Unsplash