Sermon for Advent 4 – High Mass Sunday 24 December 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Advent 4, 2017
The angel Gabriel said to Mary, you will bear a son and you will call his name Jesus.
I’m never ready for Christmas. I don’t finish the cards, I don’t like shopping, the presents aren’t wrapped, the sermons aren’t writ. It’s worse this year, because we’ve somehow lost a week of Advent, and we’ve got this strange Sunday today when you have to go to Church twice.
I remember my worst prepared Christmas. I celebrated the Christmas morning Mass at St Saviour’s Warwick Avenue, and was trudging home through the cold empty streets and I realised there would be no Christmas lunch for me. The fridge was bare. It wasn’t, but there was nothing edible in it. So I was walking alone, like Scrooge without the money, and all the shops were closed, when there suddenly appeared a girl on a bike. She saw me, and she wheeled around and came up alongside, and said, Happy Christmas. I said, Happy Christmas. She said, I’m from Help the Aged, and I’ve got one lunch left. Would you like it? I said, I always knew there were angels in the world really. And it was a very good lunch.
Today there can be angels in your life too. Not just the human ones, wonderful though they are, but the divine ones, the messengers who come direct from God, God meeting you, God’s word changing you, God’s love healing you, God’s life overwhelming you, taking you over, saving you. You can’t be ready for this, nobody can, except for Mary, who was able to say, “let it be to me according to your word.” Mary is central to our understanding of Christmas because as she carried the human Christ within her, so we can carry Christ in our own hearts. He is as truly present within us as He was bodily present in his Mother. Think about that for a moment. How will you relate to this unborn child, this spark of divinity within you? You will protect Him with your life, as a mother would. And you will have great hopes for his future, for a new life is just beginning.
Christmas is not about believing the impossible. Many clever people today dismiss the whole thing as a fable for simpletons, and that is how it looks if you are stuck within the confines of your own life, keeping God’s messengers at bay. Christmas is for everyone and it’s not about believing anything, coming to some sort of intellectual assent to the Christmas message. Christmas is a sign, a sign which cannot be missed, like the angel of the Lord who appears to the shepherds, like the star which will lead the wise men to the stable at Epiphany, a sign that God is sharing his life with you whatever you say or do. The way that this is proclaimed in the Christian tradition is what we call Incarnation. God communicates with us through Christ; that is how it works. The Gospels are stories of Christ sharing with us, through human experience which can be ours too, his experience of the Father, his knowledge and love of God, as the Son of God. This is divine energy becoming apparent in this world, not through a list of things we have to believe first, but through our experience of a loving and forgiving God at the very depth of our being, with an unshakable joy in the sheer gift of life itself.
It is this gift of life, the gift of God’s life to us, which is the subject of today’s Gospel, the Annunciation, the announcement to Mary that she has been chosen to bear God’s son. Yet nowhere are we told why she has been chosen, no special qualifications, no career assessment; she hasn’t earned her place in history, and she certainly hasn’t asked for it. She is just told, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” We call this God’s grace. God does not reward virtue, nor does he punish vice, we do that ourselves. He speaks and we listen. He calls and we must answer. He offers to share his life with us, and we can agree, without understanding fully what it means. God chooses Mary. God chooses you and me as well. What are we letting ourselves in for?
The reason Christmas is on 25th December is because nine months back gets us to March 25th, which was a sacred day, the day on which the Early Church believed the world was created, the day on which Jesus was conceived, the same day as his Passion, his death. This is not literal truth, this is theological truth, it’s the way we explore the mystery of life. So Christmas is linked with Easter, Jesus being born as a new human life at Christmas, and rising from the dead to new life at Easter. We connect the birth of Christ, light coming into the world, with the Creation of the heavens and the earth, the light divided from the darkness. In the beginning was the Word. Everything connects. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. At Christmas God gives us all we need to live fulfilling lives, his whole life is put in our hands. Christmas is not for Seasons Greeters, but for seekers after truth. Life can so easily trickle away without meaning, without purpose. Tonight we can enter God’s story again. Do you remember the first thing the angel said to the shepherds? Do not be afraid, I bring you news of great joy. Let’s not run away from God’s glory, any more than we would think of running away from Love itself. The glory of God is now to be found, not in signs and wonders in the heavens, but in our lives and in the lives of all people today. That’s God’s surprise, and that’s why we’re never ready for Christmas.