Thoughts on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2017: the text of a sermon preached at the Convent of St Mary, Sewanee

For the Psalm: The Magnificat. For the Gospel: Luke 1:26-38

Our readings on this last Sunday of Advent take us to two points in Saint Luke’s story of Our Lord’s birth. The gospel tells us of the Annunciation, culminating with Our Lady’s joyful acceptance of God’s call, “Be it unto me according to thy word”—and I emphasize that it is joyful. That is particularly clear in Luke’s Greek: clear in a way which is not so evident in English or even in Jerome’s Latin. For Luke’s Mary utters her “let it be” to the angel with a verb that is in the optative mood—γένοιτό μοι. What is the optative mood? We have no equivalent in English. I used to describe it to my students as the “optimistic” mood. The Oxford English Dictionary has “optative” as “expressing wish or desire…characterized by desire or choice”. In other words, what Mary is saying to the angel is not merely, “Yes, all right then, if you insist, I suppose I can live with that,” but “Yes, please, that is what I want!” That, of course, is one reason why the church has long seen her as the model disciple. She does not merely accept God’s will through gritted teeth (which is generally the best I can do, and often not even that) but she actually desires and enjoys God’s will, as one who cannot imagine desiring or enjoying anything else. A very few saints—Saint Francis for example—seem to have come somewhere near that. For me, certainly, and for many of us, I suspect, it is a hope for heaven.

What then of the hymn Magnificat, with which in these last two Sundays in Advent we have replaced our usual psalm? This is Luke’s portrait of Mary’s further rejoicing and reflecting on the angel’s promise. Magnificat has the form of a Hebrew hymn of praise to God, and it has many biblical antecedents. The first part of it is closely tied to Mary’s own situation: she is the one who has been looked upon with favour by God: “he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.” The Hebrew prophets, however, also used the past tense to speak of things that were in fact still to come. Such was their trust that God would do what God had promised! And Mary does this too. “He that is Mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name.” Of course the evangelist writing this, and we hearing or reciting it twenty centuries later, have an advantage over Mary, since we live after Our Lord’s life, death, resurrection and the grace of God given us in the gospel. Yet even for us the tension between prophetic hope and experienced reality remains, and especially in the second part of her hymn when Mary moves from her personal experience of God’s grace to her, the woman of low estate, to God’s dealing with society and the world at large. For the fact is, we do not see the rich cast down from their positions of power, we do not see the poor and humble exalted, or the hungry filled with good things. Still less do we see the rich sent away empty. Rather, we seem at times to be living in a kleptocracy, where the rich become obscenely ever richer and the poor are threatened with the loss of even what they have.

And yet, with Mary, we continue to pray Magnificat, in faith that the fulfilment of God’s Word and promise is certain, and that it has already begun. It began in the birth of a baby to a girl whom nobody in the world of her time would have regarded as of the slightest importance, and yet all future generations were to call her blessed. And it begins in the creation of a just society in which power is used in the service of compassion—a society of which we see glimpses and glimmers here and there, but which does not yet, alas, exist.

One thing more should be said. Between Mary’s joyful acceptance of God’s will for her, “So be it!”, and her prayer and prophecy Magnificat there is in Luke’s account a word to her that so far we have not mentioned. It is the word of her cousin Elizabeth. “Blessed are you who believed!” says Elizabeth (Luke 1:45). Mary’s glory is not her position in society, nor her lack of it, nor even her physical relationship to the Messiah, but her faith. And that faith we may share, when we dare to pray with her, Magnificat. An age such as ours—an age when so much that we thought achieved seems to be being undone, so much that we thought secure is being ruined—

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity—[1]

such an age surely needs that Advent faith of Mary as St Luke portrays it, a confident assurance that God will fulfill God’s promises and a willingness to work for it.

In fellowship with Mary let us then let us then confess that faith, as the Church has taught us…

We believe in One God….


[1] W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming (1920): written in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I.

Christopher Bryan