Sermon for Advent IV 2016.

Published on Sun, 8 Jan 2017 14:44

Isaiah 7.14: Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel

Friday was the sixth anniversary of the beginning of Shanon’s and my relationship. To celebrate, we decided to go to the Imperial War Museum.

You may think that’s an odd choice of a venue to celebrate a relationship! We went to see two exhibitions which are on there at the moment. First, there is one called ‘War of Terror’ by photographer Edmund Clark. He has spent the last year photographing sites and documents which were used for international rendition of suspected terrorists. He also visited places where suspected terrorists have been detained without charge indefinitely – Guantanamo Bay, for instance, or houses in the UK.

Both of these activities are at the margins or beyond what is permitted under international law. The exhibition is a very powerful indictment of these aspects of the policies carried out by Western governments. There are no people in the photos. There are only pictures of shackles, fences, and empty rooms symbolising the hopelessness of the situation, along with accounts of treatments of the suspects, who were later released without charge.

We moved from that to an exhibition by a Pakistani artist called Mahwish Chishty. She has created some remarkable pieces by taking a very simple concept which is extremely effective.

As you’re probably aware, there have been immense numbers of drone flights over Pakistan in recent years, and many have been killed by drone strikes. Pakistani lorry drivers are given to decorating their lorries with bright colours and images, patterns and pictures of people; Chishty has done the same with drones. You have wonderful pictures in a Pakistani style which make the drones look like charming and beautiful objects; when in fact they are anonymous bringers of death.

All this, against the background of the hell which is continuing to unfold in Aleppo, the pictures and accounts of civilian and child deaths, the destruction and the bombing. Which, I have to confess, I look away from. Because it’s all too ghastly and I feel completely powerless.

I really recommend you visit those exhibitions. I came away moved and shocked, not least by the way in which these wars are going on around us, and I think we all, in different ways, filter them out. But here we are approaching the end of Advent, and perhaps now more than ever is a time to acknowledge the deep and dark sinfulness of so much of the world we inhabit, and the depths of pain and suffering which exist.

Today our readings focus on Mary the Mother of God; as we heard in the reading from the prophet Isaiah: ‘Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.’ We have Matthew’s account of the birth of Christ, which in a way is a shame, because Luke’s account focuses more on Mary.

I’d be interested to try one of those psychological connection tests with you: If I say ‘Mary the Virgin’ or ‘Mary the Mother of God’ – look, here’s a picture of her, behind the altar – what words do you think of? I think there’s a reasonably high chance you’ll say ‘meek’ or ‘submissive’ or ‘obedient….’

One very specific point about these accounts and then a more general one; and then I will return to the exhibitions and the fall of Aleppo where I started.

You see in the passages from scripture that the words used to describe the child-bearer are different: in Isaiah, the word is ‘young woman’ and in Matthew, ‘virgin.’ Here’s an interesting thing – in the Greek, they are the same word. Parthenos. Which doesn’t necessarily mean virgin; it can mean someone who hasn’t yet reached puberty, or someone who hasn’t yet given birth. Here’s another interesting thing; in many historic cultures, you would be betrothed to your potential partner until you had conceived, so betrothal would not necessarily have meant abstinence from sex.

I don’t want to labour this point, but it is very clear that the stories around Mary’s virginity grew up at least partly as a result of the need to demonstrate how extraordinary and remarkable Jesus’ birth is. Those stories went further, by asserting later that Mary herself was immaculately conceived – a doctrine not formally defined by the Roman Catholic church until 1854. The important thing in the story is not Mary’s virginity but the personhood of Christ, Immanuel, God with us.

Secondly, I wish we could read the Lucan version of this story today, where Gabriel appears to Mary. It’s always understood as showing Mary’s meekness – but I question that. The first thing she does is challenge Gabriel – ‘she was much perplexed’ – ‘how can this be, since I do not know a man’ (literally) - but in the end she agrees – ‘let it be according to your word.’

Then off she goes to see her cousin Elizabeth, and as soon as she gets there she sings the extraordinary and revolutionary Magnificat- “He has shown strength with his arm, and has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; he has put down the mighty and exalted the humble and meek; he was filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away.”

That doesn’t sound very submissive or mild to me, and throughout the Gospels Mary is there, alongside her son – she sounds to me like someone feisty and willing to answer back. Perhaps like the portrayal of her in Monty Python’s film ‘Life of Brian’ - ‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy. Now, GO AWAY!’

I think history has done the Gospel story a disservice by understanding Mary as this quiet, pliant woman. There are reasons for that which can be subsumed under the word ‘patriarchy’ – whatever the reasons, let’s reclaim Mary as someone powerful and undaunted, willing to speak out and not turning her face away from pain and injustice.

And, during this Advent season, neither should we. Advent, this time of purple, of humility and of repentance, when we are called to reflect on the broken world of which we are part. Perhaps today more than ever we should not turn our eyes away from the evil and tragedy which surrounds us, as Mary didn’t – and a sword pierced her side too – and as Jesus didn’t; Immanuel, God with us.

Today, we move from Advent towards Christmas; this evening the Christmas tree lights will be switched on, and we will be singing carols. But we wouldn’t need Christmas if we didn’t have Advent. If there was no pain, no suffering, no sin in the world, there would be no need for transformation, for healing, for salvation.

And so, to return to those exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum, the delicate beautiful models of drones, the empty pictures of places of detention – to the news stories of death and immolation in Aleppo – to the unheard stories of destruction, of the Rohingya people in Burma or the ongoing war in the Congo over materials you and I use in our computers…

What can we do? Are we powerless?

Individually, we can do little: we can pray, we can give. But collectively, we can do much. We can work together to counteract this terrible negative nationalism which is stalking our planet, and we can work hard and stand up to say that, in the words of Desmond Tutu;

Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.

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