Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent IV 2015

Micah 5:2-5a
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45

I haven’t checked yet but I expect there will be some blockbuster movies on the television over Christmas, most of them with carefully timed ad breaks so you can put the kettle on, or whatever it is you need to do. But watching a film in short installments is no substitute for sitting down and seeing the whole thing through with no interruptions.

The Gospels can be like that, particularly Luke who is such a great dramatist. We can miss the full effect if we start reading part way through. Today’s gospel reading begins, “Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.” Read like that it sounds as though it’s the start of a new story, but actually it follows on immediately from the account of the Annunciation, they are more like two parts of the same story.

It’s a continuous piece of action: the angel delivers his message that Mary is to be the mother of the Saviour, Mary responds “let it be with me according to your word”, the angel leaves, and Mary sets out in haste to see her cousin. The way Luke tells it, it looks as though Mary’s sudden decision to visit Elizabeth arises out of the message she has just received.

Now why did she do this? On the simply practical level, she probably went to help. Elizabeth was suddenly pregnant in her old age and Mary, as another woman in the family, went to help out. Luke tells us that Mary stayed for the last three months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, so implies that she was there for the birth of John the Baptist.

But there is more to it of course. God has intervened decisively for both of these women. Both, being faithful daughters of Israel, know the scriptures, their stories and promises were part of their world. Promises like the prophecy we heard from Micah, that God would raise up a ruler who would shepherd his people and bring peace, after so many centuries of war and exile and oppression. This ruler would usher in a new age, when everything that had gone wrong would be put right.

No wonder Elizabeth blesses Mary for believing that the promises made by the Lord would be fulfilled. God is coming to save his people, the long awaited Messiah is even now growing in Mary’s womb, and the forerunner and herald, John the Baptist, now in Elizabeth’s womb, will prepare his way before him. Both women in this scene are bearers of that joy, and surely wanted to share it with each other.

But there is more still. Mary is pregnant, not with just any child, but with the Word of God in person. And she who bears the Eternal Word in her womb also bears the word of salvation, the good news, in her heart. The angel has given her the good news that the Saviour will be born of her and his kingdom will have no end. In Greek the Annunciation is called the “Evangelism” of Mary. Because Mary has received the good news with gladness she straight away becomes an evangelist herself, and goes off in haste to share the good news with others.

This openness to the good news means that both women are also open to seeing what God is doing in the world. This scene, the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary, is full of God, for those who have eyes to see. God is here, invisible but truly present in Mary’s womb, fulfilling his promises. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and recognises that presence before her and calls Mary the mother of her Lord.

It’s in this scene in Elizabeth’s house that Mary sings the Magnificat, that great song of revolution and triumph that we had as our canticle this morning. God has visited and redeemed his people. He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the humble, he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away. Notice: God has done this. Not “will do”. It is a present reality, there and then, for those two women who have the faith to see.

And this results in great joy, exulting and overflowing. The Magnificat is superb poetry and song, full of faith, full of the promises of the prophets. And above all full of joy that God has acted to save his people.

Mary and Elizabeth have much to teach us in this scene. Firstly, faith gets us moving! Those who receive God’s good news with an open heart can’t keep still, can’t keep it to themselves. The good news makes us all evangelists, and makes us want to share it in haste.
Secondly, faith in action can be very practical, like Mary going to help and support her pregnant cousin. But this is not a separate action from sharing the good news that God has saved his people. The two go together. Offering practical help to those in need, if it is done with a heart full of the good news, becomes in itself an act of evangelism.
Thirdly, know the scriptures and believe God’s promises. This keeps our hearts and our eyes open so we can see how God is at work in the world. The violent empires of this world in the end will fall and pass away, but the Saviour of the world has come, Jesus is Lord, and his kingdom will have no end.
Fourthly, the keynote and the end of all this is joy, praise and thanksgiving, overflowing and uncontainable. The good news of salvation gives great joy to those who have received it, a joy that wants to increase and be spread, a joy that impels us to widen the circle of God’s saving work and draw others in.
On Good Friday a few years ago the Pope’s preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, said this: “Christian evangelization is not a conquest, not propaganda; it is the gift of God to the world in his Son Jesus. It is to give the Head [Jesus] the joy of feeling life flow from his heart towards his body [the Church], to the point of giving life to its most distant limbs.”

To be an evangelist is to be, like Mary, a bearer of joy. We carry into the world the good news that God is saving his people in Jesus, so that more and more of the hungry, the humble and the meek can be caught up in Mary’s song of triumph, praise and joy.

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