Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Ankara for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (20th December 2020) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

In today’s Gospel we hear of two women who are to give birth. One is Elizabeth, cousin of Mary, wife of Zechariah, a Temple priest in Jerusalem, and mother of John the Baptist. The other is Mary, cousin of Elizabeth, wife of Joseph, and mother of Jesus. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her that she is to give birth to a boy who is to be named Jesus. Gabriel adds that her relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son. After Gabriel leaves her, Mary unsurprisingly goes with haste to her cousin, though whether to celebrate the good news or to see if the angel is telling the truth we do no know! It will have been a poignant meeting between the old woman and the young girl, both unexpectedly shortly to give birth. The unborn John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb leaps to celebrate the arrival of the unborn Jesus in Mary’s womb.

<span style="font-size: 1rem;">Both women’s speeches at their meeting were recorded by Luke and have become familiar to Christian worshippers. Elizabeth praises Mary in words that have been enshrined in the Angelus prayer, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The Angelus used to be recited daily at 12 noon and 6 p.m. by Roman Catholics, and church bells rang to remind the faithful of these times of prayer. A Roman Catholic priest I know once visited a High Anglican colleague in the middle of the day. The clock struck twelve and the Anglican said “It’s time.” The Roman Catholic prepared himself to say the Angelus and was surprised by the Anglican’s next words, “Do you want a gin and tonic?” On the other hand the Lutheran church of Norway has preserved from Reformation times the habit of ringing the church bell at the end of worship, three times three, without realising why, but actually perpetuating the Angelus.

Mary’s response, known as the Magnificat from the first word of her utterance in Latin, is even more familiar to Anglicans. It formed a part of the mediaeval service of Vespers and was incorporated by Cranmer into his new service of Evensong. Many splendid musical settings of the text have been made by composers of different traditions. We will hear one of them (Stanford in B flat) as the anthem immediately after my sermon. The hymn we sang before the Gospel, "Tell out, my soul, the glory of the Lord" is a modern version of the Magnificat. It is about the Magnificat that I wish to preach this morning.

Mary’s hymn of praise was inspired by the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel chapter 2, where the previously barren Hannah praises God for the birth of her son Samuel, who will grow up to be the last of the judges and the maker of Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David. Hannah sees the wonder of God’s action in this event as an illustration of his whole work for his people, and so does Mary. Mary’s dramatic description of the fate of the proud and the powerful also derives from Hannah’s song.

The Magnificat can conveniently be divided into three sections. The first part is Mary’s cry of praise celebrating God’s favour to her personally and then to all people. It is a beautiful expression of worship and praise to God. It reveals her acceptance of her unique vocation, and her joy and wonder that God has chosen her and blessed her. He has looked with favour on her lowliness, the lowliness of an apparently insignificant young girl from a small town in Galilee, and chosen her to be the mother of his son. Mary’s song then expands from God’s favour towards her to his favour to all who fear him. The Mighty One is also merciful, and he will respond in mercy to all those who respond to his invitation to follow him. “He has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. His mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.”

The second part of the Magnificat shows how God’s values are different from those of contemporary society in every age. They are upside-down. There are those who equate power and success with righteousness (and vice versa) and equally poverty and economic distress with sin. God does not do so. The Gospels, and Luke’s Gospel in particular, make it plain that God has no sympathy for those who place their trust in power and riches, but does care for those who might have supposed themselves to be beyond the pale. We see this repeatedly in Jesus’ encounters with tax-collectors, sinners, Samaritans, lepers, women and children. The lowliest will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and the last will be first. This paradox of God’s priorities is elegantly expressed in Mary’s hymn of praise. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

<span style="font-size: 1rem;">In the third and final part of the Magnificat Mary returns to the theme of mercy and proclaims God’s faithfulness to his promises. That the Messiah is now to come is the culmination of God’s promise to Abraham. Unsurprisingly this is an outburst of praise entirely appropriate for a young Jewish girl. “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.

The Magnificat is Mary’s resounding “Yes” to God. As she stands as the first saint of the new covenant to which we belong, so her “yes’ can stand for our “yes” too. We can echo her words precisely because God has looked on us with mercy and done great things for us. Mary is without worldly power and significance, so we cannot claim that we are too insignificant to play our part in the purposes of God. Mary’s presentation of the upside-down values of the kingdom of God should remind us to consider them in our own lives and in our dealings with others. Mary’s hymn of praise is full of joy, despite the trepidation that she must have felt, and so can our songs be, full of joy at what God in Christ has done and is doing for us and the world, despite the anxiety and sadness that may assail us, particularly in these times of pandemic. Mary praised God for what he had done for her, and so should we Christians, as we praise and worship God, taking care to ensure at this time that God in Christ is indeed the centre of our Christmas preparations and not the tinsel and the turkey.