John Bluck, Retired Bishop of Waiapu
Advent 4 Luke 1:26-38
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It happened to me at Christmas in the Park last Friday night. The Warkworth mini version of the super city Auckland event, sponsored by the local Rotary Club, not Coca Cola, where our only celebrity artist was Lockwood Smith.
There in the midst of hundreds of school kids in Santa hats waving glow sticks in the dark, and singing synthetic Xmas songs to prerecorded sound tracks, I realised that the Christian community has long ago lost any control, let along much influence on the festival of the Christ child in Aotearoa.
We can enjoy it of course. It still promotes family feelings, generosity, present giving, charitable thoughts and actions too sometimes. And in snatches of song you still glimpse the spiritual passion that once drove this festival. In the voices of the children, you can still hear the angels singing, before the drum machine drowns them out again.
But the one occasion in the secular year that used to give a nod of recognition to our Christian heritage is pretty much sold out to commercialism and sentimentality. As a keen customer of consumer goods and Hollywood movies, I’m in no position to complain, but I do need to be clear about what Christmas isn’t anymore, and where I might look for alternatives.
Alternatives to discovering the beyond us world of mystery and wonder, beauty and transcendence that can inspire and transform us and lift us out of ourselves for a while. Christmas used to do that for me, long ago, it may still do that for children, some adults too. Thank God if it does.
I’m reading Ken Follett’s novels about the medieval world of cathedral builders and knights in armour. While I could do without the rape and pillage, feudal violence and superstition, I envy just a little the sense of enchantment that surrounded the lives of our forebears back then. The angels were very close and they outnumbered the demons, most of the time.
The best use we can make of this Advent season is to try and rediscover a sense of wonder about the magic of the world around us. Not the instant, manufactured magic of tinsel stars and synthesised musak, but the magic that comes from knowing we are part of a physical creation crammed full of complexity and creative energy, part of a human community resilient, adaptable and with potential we can barely imagine. And knowing that deep within ourselves lies a connection with all other living beings, a connection that is fuelled and filled, to use the language of our Prayer Book, by the “presence of the great compassion”, the love that will not let us go, the God who never gives up on us.
That sense of wonder about the magic of the world beyond us meets us, if we’re open to being met, in all sorts of ways – through the fascination of science and technology, the inspiration of art and music, the examples of human courage, sacrifice, service beyond any usual obligation, the struggles for justice against all the odds.
That sense of wonder does still meet us, even in the most ordinary, everyday moments, and if we’re lucky it can still transport us and transform us.
You don’t have to wait for super special events, it can happen even when you’re doing the washing as American poet Richard Wilbur showed us:
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels,
O let there be nothing on earth but laundry
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.
However it comes to us, and it does come to us, we don’t invent it or create it or make it happen. Like God, of whom we say, “you come to us before we come to you”. However it happens, this sense of wonder raises our hopes and expectations about the world and about ourselves. When you walk away from hearing a great concert or watching a great movie, or seeing the sun set over the sea, or renewing a great friendship, so seeing someone act with a courage or grace you could never match, then the world does become a more hopeful place for a while, whatever happens to the euro zone, or the pollution levels or the GDP.
Advent is the season for rediscovering this sense of wonder, for retuning our ears to the song of angels, whatever kind of music they might be singing.
Then and only then does the story of Mary in our gospel reading start to connect.
Because this is a story of a young woman who was supremely well qualified to hear the voice of angels. She has become the template for listening and responding to angels, the gold standard model for Christians as we struggle and hear and respond to what God might be saying to us.
Mary didn’t have to work as hard as we do to find a world of great expectations. She lived in a God intoxicated culture that lasted up to at least the end of the medieval era in the west, where the sacred pressed in on every side of the secular, where no one denied the reality of the spiritual world because it terrified them so easily and often.
It’s not her religious sensitivity, her spiritual awareness that we celebrate in this story. She was surrounded by people who heard the voice of God speaking, all the time.
What makes Mary so special and such a powerful role model for us, is the way she responded.
Somehow, once she had recovered from the terror and confusion of having an angel call in on you with the promise of pregnancy, she claimed the right to ask questions. Mary takes charge of herself, and uses her intellect and common sense to argue and ask for an explanation. “How can this be?”
When you’re trying to find your way through this world of spiritual discovery, you need to keep your wits about you, to reason and test and examine the evidence, for there are frauds and false promises on every side. Just watch the ads that promise you can spend your way to happiness this season, you can buy the security that children need, you can repair relationships with a credit card.
Mary wants to understand. How can this be?
We aren’t told quite how she gets the answers she needs, though some of them come from talking to her family, seeing the example of a cousin called Elizabeth, and connecting with her whakapapa, trusting the wisdom of her heritage.
We don’t know exactly how Mary gets the assurance that she needs but she finds it by asking and pondering. A little later in Luke’s story, we’re told that Mary treasured all these things that were happening to her and pondered over them. That has to be one of the most understated sentences in the Bible. Imagine what tumult this teenage girl was undergoing.
But question and ponder she does and then her next action in this legacy she leaves us, this model of listening and responding to God, is to say all right, here I am, let it be.
There are not many pop songs that can drop us right into the heart of mystery and wonder, but John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s Let it Be has to be one of them.
When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be. Let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.
What Mary does for us in this story is to show us how to surrender to a God who meets us in moments of wonder. The story is asking us to first of all attune ourselves to this other world of mystery that surrounds us wherever we are but lies beyond us, outside our control. To listen, and wait and dare to expect something to happen.
And when it does, as it will, to question and ponder, and then, to respond. Not half heartedly, cautiously, with a bob each way but to surrender ourselves, to give ourselves over completely to whatever it is God is asking us to do.
Here I am, let it be.
The beauty of this story is that it could happen to any one of us, without leaving home.
No special qualifications or training or experience is required. You could not find anyone less prepared than this young teenager for the call God was making on her life.
It is the utter ordinariness of her circumstances, the absolute practicality of her question, “How can this be, I have no husband?” that makes this story so powerful and so accessible to so many.
When you’re trying to be open to God, use the resources God gives you, trust the instinct to find what is useful and practical. This matter of fact teenager did that in here questions to the angel. Terrified and overawed as she was.
Last month in Auckland Dorothy Brown died and we lost a great Anglican advocate of peace and justice, the woman whose vision drove the creation of the first chair of peace and conflict studies at Otago university. A woman of great faith, her motto was to ask a set of questions to any issue or cause that came her way:
“Is it true, is it kind, is it necessary?”
It’s that same sort of down to earth wisdom that Mary models.
Listen, engage with your questions, then surrender.
In this Advent time, on the eve of the Christ child, are you ready and open to be surprised by his coming?
Are you ready to be able to say if you’re asked, wherever and however that might happen, through whoever God might be using to ask you.
Here I am, let it be.