Sunday, December 19, 2021

Advent 4 C 19th December 2021 at Coventry Cathedral



Once again

the chance to wait with a purpose

Makes a change

Just four Sundays ago, as the snow swirled around outside, this haiku from the Iona community was one of the readings at Light in our Darkness...and, at that point waiting and hoping seemed to go very neatly hand in hand. 

Four weeks on, the climate has changed again and though it’s no longer as cold outside, there is a definite chill in the air whenever we engage with the news, and it’s tempting to wonder exactly what we are waiting for, whether the end of this tumultuous corona-tide season will ever come.

But that’s the problem with time while you’re travelling through it.

You never know the end of the story while you are part of it – and that is as true for us as it was for Mary in those days and weeks after the visit of the angel, when, I imagine, her plans for a nice traditional wedding before settling down with her betrothed to live happily ever after were thrown up in the air and written off just. Like. That…

Does that scenario feel distinctly familiar? Plans in tatters, disappointment rife, the Christmas we were waiting for postponed once again? 

I know. It’s rubbish isn’t it.

But I’m trying to hold on to the belief that we ARE waiting with a purpose, and that there are things to learn, maybe to do, even in the sadness, the anxiety and exhaustion of the here and now. That isn’t to suggest, even for a second, that the grief and loss of the past two years has been in any way engineered by God to teach us a lesson. My least favourite piece of pseudo-comfort is that “Everything happens for a reason” closely followed by “God never sends more than you can handle”.

I just don’t think that is true.

If you’re one of the many who feel that they absolutely CANT handle much more of this, - well, solidarity, my friend.

And if for the moment you’re barely on speaking terms with God, I think God’s fine with that as well.

We are human, after all, and we’re not programmed to live through times like these

And for the record, I’m pretty certain that this is not a plague sent to punish us, some proper Old Testament smiting

My vision of God in all this is much more of God working constantly with and through exhausted NHS staff, God weeping and mourning with the bereaved, God rocking each one of us to sleep, whispering softly “I know you’re sad. I know this is hard. I’m here. I’m here”

So if you’re hoping for some good news to carry you through these coming days, where should we start? 

And what has any of this to do with our gospel reading, the family visit of one cousin to another that probably won’t be happening much this year?

When she left Nazareth for the hill country, to spend time with Eliabeth, I’m sure Mary was seeking comfort and reassurance, and a place to hide out while she began to come to terms with her situation. 

If so, Elizabeth's words of greeting must have had a tremendous impact...the first confirmation that Gabriel's message might bear fruit in the life of this girl from small town Galilee. 

Blessed are you...”


Blessed? REALLY? A teenager dealing with an unplanned pregnancy…maybe even doubting her own sanity as she reflects on her encounter with Gabriel in the cold light of day.

How can she believe his insistence that this baby she is carrying is God’s gift to the world?

And yet – and yet amid all this chaos of emotions and hormones, of amazement and alarm, something wonderful is happening.

Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit – and finds herself, against the odds, an unexpected messenger of good news


Her greeting validates Mary’s experience, confirming that the wild imaginings of Gabriel’s visit are, after all, a living reality. There are TWO babies growing here…and as they meet, the Spirit gives to each mother a vision of what their birth will mean for them and for the world. 


Mary needs Elizabeth's greeting before she can fully claim and celebrate what is already happening within her and for her. She is already the God-bearer, carrying that precious spark of life whose coming changes everything for all time and beyond.

She has earned an unchallenged place in Salvation history, her obedience to God's call enabling her to co-operate with God in a way that no-one else has ever done...but she is still in some ways an ordinary girl, seeking reassurance from one older and wiser, a woman to whom she can trust this greatest secret. 

Even the Mother of God needs the comfort and support of fellow pilgrims. 

Like us, she needs to know that she’s not alone as she copes with matters of life and death...and inspired by the reassurance she receives, she flowers into that hymn of praise that we call the Magnificat.

My soul magnifies the Lord” she proclaims

And my spirit rejoices”


But once again, depending on your perspective, it’s not joy all round. 

This vision of God’s Kingdom is great for those on the edges, those who feel small and insignificant, who wonder if their life amounts to anything much. It’s good for those clinging on to faith by their finger-tips .amazing for the have-nots, whatever they lack, but for the powerful, secure in their place in the world, Mary’s song of praise might well strike a chill. We need, you and I, to reflect on what it might mean for ask ourselves my favourite question “Where are you in the story?”


I’d like to place myself firmly on the side of the revolution – but here I am in a Cathedral pulpit, purporting to be a Reverend Canon if you please. Have I got, have we, got lost along the way? It’s a question worth considering...


The American writer Diana Butler Bass says “The only Christmas action movie I want to see is 

about two pregnant women plotting the overthrow of empire”...which sounds wonderfully subversive and altogether delightful, in the same way that this reworking of the rather irritating, mansplaining song “Mary did you know”  brings sparkle to the eye and a spring to the step.

Mary, did you know that your Magnificat makes you sound like a raving Marxist

Mary, did you know that powerful men consider your words alarmist

Mary, did you know that governments will censor the song that you sang….”


Oh, I DO want to have the courage to be part of the revolution – and in this season of waiting with a purpose, I can’t deny that a new world order would be very welcome, and the sooner the better, though I recognise that it will involve a lot of letting go, for me and for many another.


At a season when many long for the mighty to be cast down from their thrones, 

when we are weary of waiting for the hungry to be filled with good things, and the rich sent away empty, perhaps like me you feel like shouting at God 

“Get ON with it. DO something. We can’t manage it alone”

And that’s true.

As clergy families often say to beleaguered priests in those seasons where they seem to need to be everywhere, fix everything and are dangerously close to believing themselves indispensable

“There IS a Redeemer – and it’s not you”…


So yes, we CANT manage it alone. 

And we don’t have to, however responsible we may feel for a messed up society and a messed up church.

The fruit of Mary’s womb, Jesus, has done everything necessary – and the world of Magnificat WILL come to pass….That’s something we CAN be sure of, even if we’re not sure with whom we’ll celebrate his birthday next week


So for us, here and now, comes the call to practice active waiting.

We may not, in our time, see the fulfilment of all that we long for, of that world reformed on gospel lines – but we can celebrate its breaking in, even as we wait and we can be part of the work  of revealing it to others


Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray with us that your Son will give us strength to sing Magnificat with our whole beings,  even here, even now, that we may live as citizens of  his Kingdom in the face of powers and principalities  as we wait with a purpose for the full revelation of the world made new.