Let it be to me according to your word.
A Sermon for the Advent Ember Days
December 18, 2022 at Evensong at St-Peter's-by-the-Sea Community Church
Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
I’m so glad to be with you this afternoon. Thank you for the invitation.
How do we celebrate Christmas a week before Christmas, without taking away the special magic of the day itself? Today is the last Sunday of Advent, and Advent is a time of reflection, looking inward, and preparing our hearts so that we are ready to celebrate what Christmas really means: that God comes to us, into our world and into our hearts, to drive out the darkness of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
There’s no better way to do that, to prepare for Christmas while already beginning to celebrate it, than by hearing the story of the Annunciation, the announcement by the angel to Mary that she will give birth to the Son of God. The readings we have heard are assigned for an “Ember Day” in Advent, which is a traditional time for stopping to reflect and to pray, and the final reading is the Annunciation.
The angel tells Mary that she has “found favour with God.” But why? What could she have done to merit God’s favour? She was only a girl.
Early Christian tradition says that Mary was given to the temple in Jerusalem by her parents when she was three years old, and lived there until she was twelve, at which point she was entrusted to a respected older widower, Joseph, who would legally become engaged to her, but would not complete the marriage with her, and would act more as a father than as a husband. This ancient tradition says that Mary was sixteen when the angel visited her. What could a sixteen-year-old have done to become “highly favoured” by God so much to become the bearer of his Son?
It’s not that she did anything. Mary is remarkable because of her posture toward God. She is told something both unbelievable and frightening: unbelievable because she is a virgin, and frightening because she knows she will be exposed to public shame when her pregnancy is discovered. Joseph would have sent her away had he not been visited by an angel.
But for all that, her posture is of quiet acceptance. The angel tells her not to be afraid, and she is not afraid. She asks how she will conceive, the angel tells her it will be by the power of the Holy Spirit, and she believes and accepts. She says, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Mary is entirely willing, entirely trusting, entirely consenting to the miraculous presence of God in her body.
Denise Levertov, an American poet, concludes her poem about the Annunciation with these words: “She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’ Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’ She did not submit with gritted teeth, raging, coerced. Bravest of all humans, consent illumined her. The room filled with its light, the lily glowed in it, and the iridescent wings. Consent, courage unparalleled, opened her utterly.“
Every Christian must become Mary. The reason we celebrate Christmas is that we understand ourselves as people into whose mind and heart the Word of God has come.
It is impossible, as Levertov puts it, to be a Christian “with gritted teeth, raging, coerced.” To be a Christian is to receive God into yourself, so that God’s desires become your desires, God’s thoughts become your thoughts, God’s peace becomes your peace. You don’t grit your teeth and do your duty. You become Mary, receiving the gift of God’s word in total stillness.
When you become Mary, the light of God opens you utterly and your darkness is driven away. Anger flees before the light of peace. Despair flees before the light of joy. Bitterness flees before the light of love.
So be still. Be quiet. Release your burdens. Become Mary, and consent to the gift of peace which our God is willing to give you this Christmas, if you are willing to receive it.