Readings for Fourth Sunday in Advent Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out

Fourth Sunday in Advent Textweek

Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:46b-55; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

The fourth Sunday of Advent is where we’re at; the question is, why the focus on Mary? The Gospel reading, the Song of Mary in place of the psalm, our hymns, all of it today is pointing towards Mary on the fourth Sunday of Advent. Is it because we’re getting close to the birth, the pregnancy is almost full term? With our Advent element of water, it’s easy to draw some appropriate parallels with the impending birth. Is today about setting the scene for the nativity, because after all without Mary there’d be no baby? The answer of course is, yes - at least it’s a ‘yes’ in terms of what we might tell our children. Mary precedes the Nativity, just as letters to Santa precede the event of the jolly old man coming down the chimney. Is it enough or do we somehow know there is more to it than setting the scene for a story we’ll shortly hear?

By now those who’ve celebrated Christmas even once will be familiar with the story, familiar with the process of Christmas, the rituals that Christmas has. So what is it all about? What is revealed in the story, what is revealed in the process? Does the story change anything? What shaping has the story provided; what shaping does it provide; what shaping can it provide?

Now I just want to pause for a minute of two and create a quite different focus. What is your current favourite TV show or favourite film? Just shut your eyes and try to capture your favourite TV show or your favourite film at the moment. An exercise to do at home is ask of yourself what draws you to that show or to that film, who do you identify with, who is the character you identify with in it and why? And as we do that, become aware of the narratives that you listen to and look at, for they do give shape to our inner world, they provide reference points for our being and for our becoming. So here’s the second part of that exercise: go back through time – take five year, seven year, ten year chunks; go back through time and identify previous favourite TV shows, previous favourite films. List them out – we won’t have time to do it, it’s stunningly embarrassing to do it as well - you’ve got to be prepared to complete the exercise and think of yourself as a complete dork! By way of example, this was a very quick list that I put together: Prison Break, Silent Witness, Queer as Folk, Blood on the Wire, The Bill. Three Colours Blue, The Mission, Mission Impossible, Star Trek, Monty Python, The Italian Job, Bullitt, Kelly’s Heroes, The Magnificent Seven, Doctor Who, The Lone Ranger.

Again when you’ve got your list – you can laugh, we’ve all got a list like that inside - look at it again and consider what drew you to those particular narratives. Consider also, what was the best, the number one all time favourite for all eternity? And my guess is for most of us, if not all of us, that’s going to be stunningly difficult to pick one from our list, because these texts that we watched, that we read, that we listened to, have been integrated. They’ve shaped and they’ve formed, they’ve created reference points and they’ve shifted reference points. We have changed: we have new reference points, new insights, new understandings, new sight, new vision, new being, and so also a new view of what might become.

If we just stay with one narrative and retell it, if we hold onto one narrative and call it and make it sacred, then isn’t that an indication that there’s no movement, there is no change, there is no integration of the reference points that narrative provides? And the whole Nativity story is often told as if it has merit on its own and if we hold sacred the retelling of the Nativity story, at most, at most what we will receive is the nostalgic comfort of times past. We will hear the Christmas story and feel warm inside; we will go back to delightful childhood memories when we were held by the responsibility of others. We can all recapture moments past, it happens sometimes when you watch or even catch a glimpse of an old movie.

Now let’s come back to the fourth Sunday of Advent, to Mary, and this time let’s not see it like a rerun of the Lone Ranger; rather, Mary in the Fourth Sunday of Advent is an event today. It’s not about Mary: it’s about you and it’s about me and it’s about us. It is not a remake, it’s not a retelling; it is a new narrative. Mary is not going to have a baby during Midnight Mass; Mary is not going to have a baby on Christmas Day. But are you? Are you going to bring something to birth in this divine season? Are you or are we going to respond with a ‘yes’ to the creative call to bear God into the world? The narrative of Mary calls us, it carries us into our place of birthing.

The reading from Micah is so helpful because it identifies the place; it is that part of us that knows that there is something more. That ‘little town’ within our inner landscape, Bethlehem, ‘one of the little clans of Judah’ – that’s within. Mary and Micah do not speak to the outer self; they do not speak to the ‘us’ as we present to the world in the every day, rather they speak to the place where our prayers are uttered, to the place where, when we speak in prayer, there is a bounce-back which is a divine echo. ‘And from you one is to come forth whose origin is from of old’ – deep within – ‘who shall be the one of peace.’ Birthing and becoming, the narrative of the Nativity narrates our story.

The short passage from Hebrews says ‘turn away from worship - not sacrifices, not offerings’. What Paul’s saying is don’t put it out there, but rather a body, a realization, a manifestation, an incarnation of that which desires to be birthed in you. And that delightful Gospel encounter between Mary and Elizabeth narrates our encounter with each other. This is our narrative. Who is it that fills you with the Holy Spirit? Who calls us to magnify the Lord? Where do we experience a leaping for joy when you see the Christ in another? Somehow this Advent feels very important, there’s something different about the impending Nativity; there is, this year a pregnant pause, there is an anticipation of something forming.

In practical terms let’s not look for the familiar. The familiar actually takes care of itself, by its very nature it will bring us comfort – the smell of pine needles, the smell of turkeys roasting, the smell of Christmas puddings – they can work their magic without actually having to attend to that, that will come. Rather let’s look for ‘I am, I am making all things new’: let’s attend to that which is seeking to be birthed. The Hail Mary prayer which is in the service sheet – Protestants hate that, they really do not like it. Not only is it Catholic but it’s all about Mary. It’s often misused as a prayer of adoration to Mary, but rather, it is one of those stunningly helpful prayers that provide a window.

I was thinking, during the holiday season, as I always do, about multinova cameras and hand-held cameras - they’re all going to start up again soon and I thought they provide the perfect icon of prayer. You see most of us in our prayer life have been taught as children to write letters to Santa and, I think you could confidently say, eighty percent of the adult Christian church in the world continues with that understanding of prayer. We send out lists to God; we might be religious and instead of asking God we just tell God things, like thank you, because it feels a bit better doing that than going, ‘Actually God, what I’d really like is a flash sports car and six months in the south of France’; we go, ‘Oh thank you God for all your innumerable gifts to us’ and so on. We put our prayers out there. Think of the multinova, think of the hand-held camera. It sends out its … whatever, but it’s only informed when it receives, when it gets the bounce-back. That’s how we should pray with Hail Mary and with any other prayer – speak them, send them out over and over and over and over; get yourself a rosary so you can keep at it and at it and at it, because what we’re looking for in our prayers is the divine echo. What is it that then comes back to the place from which I pray? What is the word that is spoken to me? Listen for that voice through the season of Christmas.

There are no crib figures this year, no Mary, no Joseph, no baby, no shepherds, no sheep, no cattle, but we have trees. We have trees to remind us that the divine is to be found in the whole of creation; we have trees to remind us of birth and becoming; we have trees to remind us, to draw from us what narrative is it that we’re grounded in. What is the soil of our being and to where do our branches reach out; what is it that we seek to embrace? Magnify the Lord, rejoice in God.

When we look for the Nativity scene this year, seek to be aware that we are in it. There’s not a baby in a manger, it’s not the Son of God in a manger, it’s not Jesus in a manger with Mary and Joseph looking on and us looking on them, it’s us: we are birthed in the divine manger. Mary and Joseph gaze on us, wondering what their child will be.

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris