So here we are at the fourth Sunday of Advent, and Christmas is almost upon us. Veronica opened the service with the lighting of the fourth Advent candle. Here at St. Oswald we have a candle holder rather than the usual Advent wreath, which allows the congregation to see all the candles at once. Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of the Christ Child and Purple (or violet) has traditionally been the primary colour of Advent, symbolizing repentance, prayer and fasting. Purple is also the colour of royalty and the sovereignty of Christ, so demonstrating our anticipation in Advent of the coming King.
The first candle of the Advent Wreath, the Prophecy Candle or Candle of Hope, is purple. The second Candle lit, which is also purple is called the Candle of Preparation. Last week Veronica lit the Pink Candle for the third Sunday of Advent, which is also known as Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday, being over half way through Advent. Pink or rose represents joy or rejoicing and reveals a shift in the season away from repentance and toward celebration. Today the fourth Advent Candle is purple. It is called the Angel Candle or the Candle of Love because our gospel today reminds us of the Angel visiting Mary and of her great love for her unborn child. Lastly, the Christ Candle is white representing purity and light and this is lit on Christmas morning.
Christ is the sinless, spotless, pure Saviour. He is the light come into a dark and dying world. Also, those who receive Jesus Christ as Saviour are washed of their sins and made whiter than snow. While there may be several traditions regarding the meaning or theme of each candle, they all enable us to reflect during Advent. By focusing on the colours of Advent in the weeks leading up to Christmas, it is a great way for Christian families to spiritually prepare by keeping Christ at the centre of Christmas, and for parents to teach their children the true meaning of Christmas.When I was a young schoolboy, the family went to Plymouth Brethren services and there were no candles and certainly no Advent Wreath. To say that, as a child, I found their Communion services to be ‘dour’ would certainly be correct. They did not have candles, or crucifixes or any of those ‘Papacy trappings,’ so my first Christmas with the Church of England was a bit of an eye opener!
Our Gospel reading from Luke is all about Mary meeting up with her cousin Elizabeth when both were pregnant, and Mary being overjoyed and singing a song which we call the Magnificat. My Plymouth Brethren Sunday school teacher taught me that this was a very boastful song and that we should never express ourselves in such a way. I would hope that when she got married and had a child of her own, that she too would also share some of the joy that Mary felt, and would then correctly understand this song of Mary.
Just put yourself in that house all those years ago. We don’t know precisely where Zechariah lived but it is probably fairly close to Jerusalem. In an earlier chapter, Luke tells us that Zechariah was taking his turn in the temple, rather like Veronica, who as a canon has duties in Chester Cathedral. It is probable that Mary lived some eighty miles from Elizabeth which was quite a journey in those days, so she may not have been aware that Elizabeth was also expecting a baby. You can imagine the meeting, the two of them talking excitedly to each other about the wonders that God had achieved. They were both very, very, happy, and it is probable that they danced around together.
In his commentary ‘Luke for Everyone’, Bishop Tom Wright suggests that Mary probably made up a song with snatches of poems and songs she already knew or perhaps by adding her own new words to a great old hymn or psalm. And as she lived in a culture where rhythm and beat mattered, it would be the sort of song you could clap your hands to, or stamp on the ground. Mary’s song should be read like that. It’s one of the most famous songs in Christianity. It goes with a swing and a clap and a stamp. It’s all about God, and it’s all about revolution.
And it’s all because of Jesus – Jesus who’s only just been conceived, not yet born, but who has made Elizabeth’s baby leap for joy in her womb and has made Mary giddy with excitement and hope and triumph. In many cultures today, it’s the women who really know how to celebrate, to sing and dance, with their bodies and voices saying things far deeper than words. That’s how Mary’s song comes across here.
Yes, Mary will have to learn many other things as well. A sword will pierce her soul, she is told when Jesus is a baby. She will lose him for three days when he’s twelve. She will think he’s gone mad when he’s thirty. She will despair completely for a further three days in Jerusalem, as the God she now wildly celebrates seems to have deceived her (and that, too, is part of the same Jewish tradition she draws on in this song). All of us who sing her song should remember these things too. But the moment of triumph will return with Easter and Pentecost, and this time it won’t be taken away.
Why did Mary launch into a song like this? What has the news of her son got to do with God’s strong power overthrowing the power structures of the world, demolishing the mighty and exalting the humble? Mary and Elizabeth shared a dream. It was the ancient dream of Israel: the dream that one day all that the prophets had said would come true. One day Israel’s God would do what He had told Israel’s earliest ancestors: that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s family. But for that to happen, the powers that kept the world in slavery had to be toppled. Nobody would normally thank God for blessing them if they were poor, hungry, enslaved and miserable. God would have to win a victory over the bullies, the power-brokers, the forces of evil which people like Mary and Elizabeth knew all too well, living as they lived in the dark days of Herod the Great, whose casual brutality was backed up by the strength of Rome.
Mary and Elizabeth, like so many Jews of their time, searched the scriptures, soaked themselves in the psalms and prophetic writings which spoke of mercy, hope, fulfilment, revolution, of victory over evil, and of God coming to the rescue at last. All of that is poured into this song, like a rich, foaming drink that comes bubbling over the edge of the jug and spills out all round. Almost every word is a biblical quotation such as Mary would have known from childhood. Much of Mary’s song is echoed by her son’s preaching, as he warns the rich not to trust in their wealth, and promises God’s kingdom to the poor.
But once again Luke hasn’t just shown us a big picture. Mary’s visit to Elisabeth is a wonderful human story – of the older woman, pregnant at last after hope had gone, and the younger one, pregnant far sooner than she had expected. That might have been a moment of tension: Mary might have felt proud, Elizabeth perhaps resentful. Nothing of that happens. Instead, the intimate details: John, three months before his birth, leaping in the womb at Mary’s voice, and the Holy Spirit carrying Elizabeth into shouted praise and Mary into song.
Underneath it all is a celebration of God. God has taken the initiative – God the Lord, the saviour, the Powerful One, the Holy One, the Merciful One, the Faithful One. God is the ultimate reason to celebrate.
The stories of the special pregnancies of Mary and Elizabeth is about much more than their just their mutual joy. It is about the great fulfilment of God’s promises and purpose and also reminds us of another important thing. God regularly works through ordinary people, doing what they normally do, who with a mixture of half-faith and devotion are holding themselves ready for whatever God has in mind. So while you enjoy, what I hope will be a joyful and peaceful Christmas, remember that God has a plan for everyone, and be ready to serve him, and follow Him whichever way and whenever he leads.
Blessed are you, sovereign Lord, just and true, to you be praise and glory for ever.
Of old you spoke by the mouth of your prophets, but in our days you speak through your Son, whom you have appointed the heir of all things.
Grant us, your people, to walk in his light, that we may be found ready and watching when he comes again in glory and judgement; for you are our light and our salvation.
Blessed be God for ever.