Weekly worship Advent 4: Sunday 23 December
Mary: sermon notes for week four of Advent.
Diana Abbas is the only psychologist working at a children’s centre in Nahr al-Bared camp for Palestinian refugees, in northern Lebanon.
Micah 5.2-5a Hebrews 10.5-10 Luke 1.39-45 Luke 1.46b-55
Christmas is almost upon us! Imaginatively, our minds are with Mary, heavily pregnant, bearing the Prince of Peace into a fractured and hurting world. The strength of Mary as a woman, as a prophetic leader, literally bearing the Word of God to the world can easily be lost in the schmalz of Christmas: today’s readings are an opportunity to affirm women everywhere, and to recover the example of Mary in particular as a radical leader, spokeswoman, and Jesus bearer.
The prophet affirms the role of the forgotten, insignificant place, as the birthplace of God’s hope, God’s promise of peace, and the source of challenge to the world. Most of us know examples of how the least likely places are exactly where God’s hope springs forth, where the brightest light emerges from the darkest shadows. This is exactly the story of many of Christian Aid’s partners in the Community of the Cross of Nails, but especially in the cathedral in Coventry itself. Coventry is a long way down the list of preferred places to shop, live or visit in the UK, but it is the source of an inspiring story of reconciliation overcoming hatred between bitterly opposed enemies. The partnerships between Coventry and Dresden, Hamburg, Kiel and so many other German cities continue to bear fruit today for good, and inspire others to step across the divisions of history and misunderstanding to work for peace.
The letter to the Hebrews so often takes us into the technical world of religious practice apparently designed to persuade God to follow our designs, it is refreshing to have this corrective which shows that a right relationship with God is one that sees us following God’s will, like Mary, rather than the other way around! The season of Advent calls us to be ready for whatever God desires in our world and in our lives. It is an awkward contrast with the promise and expectations of a commercial Christmas, which promises the fulfilment, instead, of our desires. These readings invite and challenge us to allow our desires to be brought into line with the desires God has for us, and for our salvation and the salvation of the world – and then to devote our lives, like Mary, to pursuing those purposes.
Luke 1.39-45 and 1.46b-55
And so at the end of this Advent cycle of readings we come to the most famous of all – the ‘Magnificat’. Turned into a thousand songs, recited endlessly through the centuries, these words still have the power to shock and inspire. Some believe that these were prophetic words spoken by Mary, collected by a company of prophets in the early years of the church. The Magnificat is a song of empowerment, of promise – of God’s preference for the poor. The simple statements, however, ‘he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’ seem to fly in the face of our experience. Is that true? If not, why not? The Magnificat points to what’s ‘really real’ – to what will remain when history comes to an end. The challenge is to make that a real, present truth for those who have yet to enjoy all that God promises. The role of women in this so often seems to take the lead.
The story of Association Najdeh children’s centre in Nahr al-Bred camp, funded by Christian Aid and staffed entirely by Palestinian women refugees is a story of ‘modern day Marys’, restoring humanity in the harshest of contexts. God is powerfully at work here, fulfilling the worlds of Luke 1 not so very far from the place in which they were first spoken.
These Advent weeks have been opportunities for challenge and hope. Like the cathedral in Coventry, where the Ruins speak honestly of the abiding fractures in our world, but which open into the glorious riches of the new cathedral alongside, inviting us to a place of renewed hope, our partners all share stories of brokenness and hope. Together we are called to follow Christ in being peacemakers – never denying the reality of the pain which surrounds us, but finding within it the presence of the Prince of Peace, leading us from despair to hope, from war to peace, from death to life.
These reflections for Advent 4 have been provided by Very Reverend John Witcombe, Dean of Coventry Cathedral.
Be a peacemaker
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