Homily notes for 4th Sunday of Advent 2006

Each year at Christmas some of my friends write long letters relating how their year has been. Its highs and its lows, its successes and its failures. Christmas for some of us is a time for reconnecting with people that we don't have regular contact with. We need to tell the story of our lives to bring each other up to date so to speak. We do it because the friendship is important to us.

Mary and Elizabeth reconnected at a crucial time in each of their lives. Two impossible pregnancies. Elizabeth, who was presumed barren, rejoices that she will have a child. Mary, whose pregnancy was laden with doubts and fears because of it's unexpected and unusual nature, needs Elizabeth as much as Elizabeth needs her. She stayed about three months. What did they do? Probably Mary helped her cousin in the daily demands of family life helping to prepare for the birth. Prepared meals, washed clothes, carried water from the well. Talked about the things childless, expectant women do talk about. Probably reflected, also, on their shared faith in God who has done such wonderful things for them.

It is all too much for them to keep to themselves. They need to share the wonder of it all. What is a very intimate time for them is about births that would have far reaching consequences not just for them but for Israel and for the world.

Bethlehem, the prophet Micah tells us is small and insignificant. But from it would come something great! It was not a centre of power and influence even though King David had been born there. We idealise the poverty of the birth in a stable. But the poverty was real. They made the journey at the behest of the Emperor who wanted a census. Their powerlessness was real.

Mary's response to it all is the Magnificat, "My soul glorifies the Lord". It is a shame that the reading today does not continue with that song. It is a song of a small powerless people whose faith is in God who hears the cry of the poor and powerless.

Her song is a prophecy of what her God has already done for Israel. And what God will do through her own child yet to be born.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, before he was killed by the Nazis,

"The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.... his song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. These are the tones of the women prophets of the Old Testament that now come to life in Mary's mouth."

(DB Werke, Vol 9, London, 1833-1935)

It is such a strong song that in the 1980s the Guatemalan dictator banned its public recitation fearing it would encourage the revolutionaries.

Her prayer is an exultant song of joy in God's continuing love in the future through her Son.

Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard (1874-1949 )who was Archbishop of Paris at one time said about being a witness:

"To be a witness does not consist of engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one's life would not make sense if God did not exist."
Mary as she awaits the birth of Jesus is not a revolutionary or a propagandist, nor was she stirring people up. She is living that mystery the truth of which does change people and nations. May this last Sunday of Advent be a time for learning how to embrace and embody the mystery of God, revealed to us through the obedience of a young girl so many years ago.
Fr Graham