Sermon on the 4th Advent (21.12.2014) in the St Peters Church, Pretoria
(Sermon Text St Luke 1, 47f): "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”
As a Protestant one has great difficulties with Mary, or more precisely with the worshipping of Maria. Martin Luther, the reformer of our church, therefore criticised the worshipping of Maria sharply. Faith should be directed wholly at Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and only at him. For this reason Mary has disappeared from the evangelical churches - if you disregard the numerous art works, which very often originated from catholic times in our evangelical churches.
Nevertheless Mary also plays an important role for us Protestants or Evangelicals. It is for this reason that her famous Magnificat (her Song of Praise) in the gospel is also the sermon text for this 4th Advent. And at Christmas, as mother of the child she is obviously in the centre. Because for God to become a person or human being and the labour of giving birth in a rather poverty stricken, dark situation, belong together - completely without the shine of candles and angel’s hair. This child and its parents find themselves in an extremely – mildly stated – precarious situation. A birth en route, in poverty stricken circumstances, soon thereafter persecution and fleeing. This could really teach one to fear.
The circumstances prior to the birth are indeed also dubious. Because this child will – as indicated in the Gospels - not only be different in some ways, but also be completely unique. It is the Lord’s child, God’s Son. The biblical tradition and more specifically the ecclesiastical, therefore spoke of the virgin birth – and our confession of faith also expresses this: Borne from the Virgin Mary. In whichever way this may be, for Mary it is clear, that this child comes from God.
This is also expressed in her song of glorification. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.” With this song of praise Mary replies to the message of the angel Gabriel, she would receive a very special child – some of us know and love this reply as set to music by Johann Sebastian Bach.
But the praise does not immediately break through into her heart. Mary needs time to ponder that which she has heard and to assimilate and accept it. She needs the encounter with Elizabeth, the .discussion with a confidante, to understand what this promise is, which the Angel Gabriel brought her. God’s Saviour comes into this world through a human being, a person. And he chose her, the young insignificant girl from Nazareth, to bring this salvation into the world. God becomes a human being, for the good of us human beings. Who can fathom this?
The encounter with the angel Gabriel therefore was very noteworthy. On the card, which you received at the entrance, this encounter is displayed. It is the so called Angelic Salutation in the St Lorenz church in Nuremberg – a masterpiece by Veit Stoβ carved in 1517/18: In the centre of the church Mary and the angel Gabriel are displayed – carved from limewood. The two are framed by a garland of roses, which includes seven medallions with stations from the lives of Mary and Jesus from the manger to the cross. An eighth station above points to the resurrected Christ.
Let’s have a more detailed look at both: Gabriel the angel is there, a young man with delicate, not quite feminine facial features. He gazes into the distance, as if he is looking further, into the future, which he has to announce. His right hand points towards heaven, from where he originates. The raised index finger lays claim to authority and watchfulness for the joyous message, which he has to announce.
The message itself is written on the scroll, which is wound around the sceptre in his left hand: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”
Mary’s face reflects her astonishment and her fright on receiving this message – despite the “Do not be afraid” of the angel. She is thoughtful, introspective, totally concentrated on the amazing and probably fear-inducing message of the angel. Her right hand, in a gesture of surprise, is pointing towards her heart. She absorbs the words of the angel, she takes it to heart.
The view of Mary, which Veit Stoβ carved in the Nuremberg Angelic Salutation is loving, watchful and yet thoughtful. Mary looks into herself. She is totally absorbed in hearing. She listens carefully to the message of the angel. She listens to the voice of God and opens her soul to the voice of heaven.
It is possible that Mary sees internal pictures. Her eyes seem to be totally engrossed in viewing these pictures. Maybe she already has a presentiment of the happy but also painful experiences she will encounter with this child. Maybe she is already thinking of all the difficulties which this pregnancy will bring her.
The angel in the Gospel of St Luke refers Mary to Elizabeth, to the mother of St John the Baptist, who also, unexpectedly, became pregnant at a very advanced age. For three months Mary will entrust herself to Elizabeth. She needs three months to overcome her mountain of fear and doubts, to accept the path which God has mapped out for her life.
God does not abandon Mary. He places a person at Mary’s side, who strengthens her faith and uplifts her trust in God. Elizabeth becomes the spiritual adviser of Mary. It is good to have a person in whom one can confide all ones’ spiritual torment and problems and fears. One who shares the secrets and precipices of ones’ life and gives one the certainty that one is not alone on the path through life.
This view of Mary also reminds me of another situation in her life. It reminds me of her encounter with the shepherds during the holy night. Of the shepherds, who find the child and spread the word, which the angel spoke to them of this child outside in the fields. It is stated in the Christmas story: “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.”
Mary has mastered the art to distinguish between the words of God and those of people. She not only hears the voice of God from the words of the angel, but also from the words of the shepherds, the people which she encounters. She is open to the divine, heavenly world, which wants to enter into our lives through totally earthly experiences and encounters. She investigates the feelings which these words induce.
These would again and again have been healing, but also hurtful feelings. Both form part of the life with God. She experienced both on the path, on which she accompanied Jesus as his mother. The healing and the painful – the stations on the Angelic Salutation in the St Lorenz church also remind us thereof. Not only that she had to release her son, let him go his own way – which for parents, as is generally known, is not always easy. And yet she remained close to her son, accompanied him to the cross.
Should one listen carefully to the Christmas message, which is already encompassed in the announcement of Gabriel, it could become possible to explain why Mary – the mother – was able to endure and bear that which would happen to her child. It is those three words of the angel: Do not fear! Don’t be afraid. God is with you. It is these words which the angel then spoke to the shepherds in the fields. Their first reaction also is: Fear, anxiety, trembling. And into these feelings, the angel says to them: Do not be afraid. It doesn’t matter what the people think of you – and shepherds in those days were quite at the bottom rung – you will be the first witnesses of the birth. And later there is Jesus, who repeatedly says these words to people: Do not be afraid, for I am with you every day until the end of the world. This the Resurrected said to his disciples.
As mother of the Lord she played an important role in the first congregation. After her encounter with the Resurrected, she fortifies the faith of the disciples and apostles in Jerusalem. She was an important spiritual adviser for the Christians (male and female) during the first period. For this reason she until the present day, is an example of faith, trust and listening to God’s soft, faint voice for all Christians, also us Evangelical.
Even Luther saw it as follows, despite all the legitimate criticism of the St Mary cult: “This virgin had a faith whose equal is not found in the whole of the Holy Bible.” Because Mary believed the words of the angel, without any proof: “What does she do? She believes, closes her eyes, although all reason and creatures are against it, her heart is firmly set on the word.” Mary becomes an example for Luther. We should also desire to follow the way that she seized, the child and his message.
With Christmas it is not important whether the story occurred in this or that way, it is also not essential as an example of good behaviour, good custom, but as it is expressed by Luther, it is important to adopt this birth for yourself, to make this birth your own, for us to also sit in Mary’s lap.
To me this is expressed in an Afrikaans poem of Elizabeth Eybers. It takes up Mary’s questions, her doubts. And it shows that we will never completely understand what God’s mystery means to us. But also, that this promise also applies to us: Do not be afraid!
The poem with which I want to end, reads:
’n Engel het dit self gebring,
die vreugde-boodskap – en jy het
’n lofsang tot Gods eer gesing,
Maria, nooi uit Nasaret!
Maar toe Josef van jou wou skei
en bure-agterdog jou pla,
het jy kon dink eenmaal sou Hý
die hele wêreldskande dra?
Toe jy soms met ’n glimlag langs
jou liggaam stryk … die stilte instaar …
wis jy met hoeveel liefde en angs
sou Hý sy hellevaart aanvaar?
Die nag daar in die stal – geen-een
om in jou nood by jou te staan –
het jy geweet dat Hy alléén
Getsemane sou binnegaan?
Toe vorste uit die Ooste kom
om nederig hulde te betoon,
wis jy hoe die soldate Hom
tot koning van die volk sou kroon?
En toe Hy in jou arms lê,
sy mondjie teen jou volle bors,
het jy geweet dat Hy sou sê,
toe dit te laat was: Ek het dors!
Toe dit verby was en jy met
sy vriend Johannes huis toe gaan –
Maria, vrou van smarte, het
jy tóé die boodskap goed verstaan?
Not far off times, but we, our world, our life, my world, my life are meant here. Out of this child in joy and sorrow, a light goes out which places our life in a new, a non- transitory light. And he who understands this at Christmas, who perceives a piece of eternity in this, can also then – not only during the Christmas period – join in the song of praise of Mary:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”