Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

2 Samuel 7: 1 – 11, 16, he Song of Mary,  Romans 16: 25 – 27, Luke 1: 26 – 38

Today is one of those strange days when everyone is waiting – waiting to celebrate Christmas. (Perhaps that’s not true for some have already celebrated Christmas weeks ago and will have little left to do on Christmas Day itself.) In the Church year today, at least this morning, is still one of the Sundays in Advent – that special time of preparation leading up to Christmas itself. The readings set for this morning focus on Mary, the mother of Jesus, rather than on the birth of her child – that will come tonight and tomorrow.

But today’s service is also one which acknowledges that Christmas is not a time of celebration for everyone. Quite apart from those for whom Christmas has no meaning, those of a different religion or of none, and those who live in difficult and dangerous places in the world where any form of celebration is difficult – this service quite specifically recognizes that there are those among us for whom Christmas is a difficult time for personal reasons. It may be that this is the first Christmas you are facing on your own after the death of a loved one – a spouse, partner, child, parent, friend, pet. It may be you are struggling with a diagnosis, or some form of depression, or not being with, or having, family. At any time during this service, but particularly during the singing of the hymn after this sermon, you are welcome to go quietly to one of the stations in the side aisles and light a candle as you pray.

The lighted candle will, of course, feature quite strongly in tonight’s service of Lessons and Carols when the final reading is the opening words of St John’s Gospel. I can never hear those magnificent words beginning: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …” without being struck by verse 5. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

But we’re not there yet and I want to take us back to Mary – a young girl going about her business, looking forward to being married one day, to a fine upright, but older man, Joseph. Who knows what she was doing when the angel visited her? Was she hanging out the laundry, kneading dough for the day’s bread, simply sitting quietly in the garden or her lounge room enjoying a few moments to herself? The way the story is told follows the classic pattern of other calls on people by God. There is perplexity – what is going on here? There is a certain amount of fear – “Do not be afraid, Mary.” And then the message or call itself is delivered. This is often followed by some sort of objection – I can’t speak, I am too young, I am not married. Reassurance is given to the person in question, and then, sooner or later, they say “Yes”. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be done with me according to your word.”

We’ve not read the next move of Mary today but read on in Luke’s Gospel and we are told she immediately rushes to tell her older cousin Elisabeth, herself now six months pregnant. A short conversation follows as Elizabeth feels the baby within her move, and then Mary bursts out in a great song of praise, known to many of us as the Magnificat. Her words, sung to many different musical settings, have become a staple of our evening services. In the version we said today, coming as it does from A Prayer Book for Australia, Mary says: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord: my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” It goes on to praise the works of God, especially in God’s care for the hungry and needy.

As Luke gives us this song of Mary, we recognize that he is tapping in to a very ancient line of thought. God loves and cares for God’s people. God’s promises are to be trusted. God’s action can be seen in history, in our history. Over and over again in the Old Testament books of the Bible we will read this sort of thing. We heard it this morning in the first reading from 2 Samuel. Nathan the prophet is told to speak to King David about God’s faithfulness – both in the past and in the future. We lose the interplay on the Hebrew words in translation, but it is all about the House of David and the House of God. The fulfillment of this speech that Nathan will deliver to David is what we will celebrate in a few hours’ time. It is bound up in some of the names of Jesus – he who will be called Son of God, according to Luke; and Emmanuel according to Matthew, himself picking up a verse from Isaiah 7.  “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Immanuel, as we know, means ‘God is with us.’

It is that name, Immanuel, or Emmanuel, God is with us, that I believe is at the heart of a Blue Christmas celebration. This is not the sentiment expressed in the words of German poet Friedrich Schiller and famously set to music by Beethoven at the end of his 9th Symphony. The “Ode to Joy” speaks of the ‘beautiful spark of the gods, daughter of Elysium’. It’s all rather frothy – the sort of thing that too easily happens when wine flows freely and, inevitably, some are left disappointed and excluded. The last lines of verse 2 of the Ode are telling: ‘Whoever never managed, shall steal himself weeping away from this union.’

I suspect that for those struggling to come to terms with loss in their lives, that sentiment feels all too raw. While others appear to enjoy themselves we simply creep away. It is too difficult.

In contrast to the somewhat artificial, and too often alcohol induced, sentiment that passes for joy in Schiller’s poetry, Roman Catholic priest Raniero Cantalamessa has this to say. “Luke’s account (of Mary’s song of praise) is not about just a few scattered mentions of joy but rather about a steady stream of quiet, profound joy.” (Raniero Cantalamessa in an essay entitled “Mary’s Joy is for everyone” accessed on the Christian Century website.) Mary’s joy is rooted, not in herself, but in God. Her joy focuses on the needy and their rejoicing because of the baby she is carrying inside her. She knows full well the quiet joy of nurturing what is hidden. And she will know too the pain of her son’s suffering and death, even as the old man Simeon warned her. (see Luke 2: 35)

So a question: Is it possible to experience something of the steady stream of quiet, profound joy even when there is little reason to feel joy? The fact that you are here today suggests that the answer is yes. For those who await the celebration of the birth of him who is called Emmanuel, God with us, there is a deep and profound joy to be had even in suffering. It is the joy of knowing that we are not alone. God loves us. We are not abandoned. God is with us. We are not lost. God will save us.

In the stillness that follows, and our singing of the hymn that is so full of expectancy, anticipating that sense of quiet, profound joy, allow yourself to be embraced in God’s love, to be ‘enwombed’ if you like, held in the loving arms of God who loved the world so much that he gave his only Son. That Son is the Word and the Light – and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.