Sermon for High Mass – Advent 4 Sunday 23 December 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Luke 1.42. Elizabeth exclaimed to Mary with a loud cry, Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!
Young people have to decide about their vocation, what they are going to do in life. But it’s not just young people, is it? Thirty or forty years later, with time running out, we can still be dithering about our vocation, not in terms of a job to do, but a life to lead. What am I supposed to do? What must we do? – that was the question the people asked John the Baptist in the wilderness. The Gospel story of Mary’s visit to her elderly relative Elizabeth, which we call the Visitation, is about how wonderful it can be to accept your vocation, to have it recognised by others, and to act on it. Mary was called to be the mother of Our Lord. We heard a lovely story of two women acknowledging each other’s pregnancy, but there’s so much more to understand. Pregnancy is an image of the spiritual life we are all called to lead. It is entirely natural and necessary, full of risk (much riskier back then than now), one life risked for another, it is hopeful, it is creative, it is contentment and pain inextricably bound together, “wounded with love” to use an Early Church expression, it is a new life. So when the baby leaps in the womb of Elizabeth as she hears Mary’s greeting, it is an entirely natural phenomenon, the movement of the child, yet it is also a foretelling of her son John the Baptist recognising the divine role that Jesus would play. Here was His vocation.
Now you probably knew all that. What I didn’t know, until I had to get a grip on this sermon for you, is that the word exclaimed, as in ‘Elizabeth exclaimed to Mary with a loud cry”, is the particular word used in the Bible for ‘loud liturgical music’. Which we know something about. And thank God for that. Why do our spirits soar when we hear Stanford in C? Why do people pack the church to sing carols lustily? Because, without thinking about it, this is how life should be lived, every deep breath in praise of the divine life around us and within us, and as we give of ourselves in that act of worship, we are taken from what is seen to the unseen, from shadow into the light. These breaths of divine life, breathing out the Word, entirely natural and necessary as breathing is, also punctuate the complete silence and solitude of prayer. Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord. Our vocation is to praise. Elizabeth’s cry, her exclamation, was about another, not about herself. We lose our life to gain it. The Christian vocation is not about what can I do, what am I any good for, what hope do I have, that sort of concern. It is about what God does through me, how the Word becomes flesh again in me. So Elizabeth does the impossible and conceives a son in her old age. The point is that, as the angel said, “with God nothing will be impossible”. You and I know lots of impossible people. God doesn’t. God never condemns, in the way we do. Each of us is God’s child, miraculous, full of grace and truth. When we recognise him, as Elizabeth recognised God in Mary’s life, we are recognised, we are known, we are loved. And when I see thee as Thou art, I’ll praise thee as I ought.
We are in a good place for that. John Henry Newman, whose Oxford Movement and the rediscovery of Early Christian insights and the apostolic vocation of the Church of England was, and still is, the inspiration for this church, composed a Latin epigram to be carved on his tomb. It translates like this. Out of shadows and images into the truth. That is our vocation, and it’s lifetime long. From pretence to truth, from shadow to light, from illusion to hope, from shame to forgiveness, from sadness to joy, from fear to faith. None of this we do by ourselves or for ourselves. And here we meet others, who, in their own funny ways which we shall never understand, are on the same journey. That is what a Christian community is. And whatever muddle you have made of your life – again – the vocation of each of us remains sound and true, for it is God given, and nothing is impossible with God. It’s not really a journey, it’s a quest, an adventure, which will be disruptive of our lives, and difficult, but it alone gives life its meaning, as in so many stories of the Heroic; like the Christmas story, which is not all sweetness and light, there is bitterness and suffering, because it’s the real world we’re in. Advent becomes Adventure.
Mary is at the heart of the Christmas story and of our life here. Why bother so much with the Virgin Mary when we have Jesus? The answer to that was given to us eighteen hundred years ago by the Christian theologian Origen who wrote that “Every soul is the mother of Jesus”. You are the mother of Jesus. We have been given the responsibility to bring Jesus into this world, to follow him, to protect him, to stand by his Cross “wounded with love”, because as his mother that is where we must be. Mary is the first to initiate us into that mystery of Christ with us, and that is why we call her Queen of Heaven, or as we sing at Walsingham, England’s Protectress, our Mother and our Queen. Her presence among us now is as joyful, and as natural, and hopeful, as when Elizabeth rejoiced with Mary, in the hill country in a city of Judah, that one more little new life was coming into the world.