In September I received an e-mail that delighted and then perplexed me. It read like this:
You were recently chosen as a potential candidate to represent your state and profession as a person of distinction. Congratulations!
The Research and Editorial Committee are looking to select potential candidates for our up-coming edition. We primarily focus on people’s current position and industry, however we are also interested in; community involvement, criteria from professional associations and trade journals. Based on our research we believe your profile fits our criteria and would make an excellent addition to our publication.
You will be featured and highlighted for your achievements and future ambitions, along side other people of distinction. Each candidate will specifically represent their profession, giving readers an upfront look at what makes you a leader in your industry.
On behalf of our Committee, I salute your achievements and look forward to welcoming you with others into the “Women of Distinction Magazine”. We look forward to hearing more about you!
A quick browse on the internet confirmed, of course, that this was yet another spam e-mail, and that I had not been chosen to represent ladies everywhere, as a woman of distinction after all, and a company was just trying to get money out of me! I thought about that e-mail again this week, as I pondered the Mother of our Saviour, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Suppose you and I had to pick a woman of distinction to change the world. Who would we choose? Someone famous probably, someone who had achieved a great many things already in their life time – a politician, a lawyer, a teacher or academic, or doctor or celebrity. I think that it is unlikely that we would do what God did.
God is going to change his world, and he starts with Nazareth, a town so obscure that no-one had ever really given it much consideration. A town in Galilee that was a provincial backwater that most people ignored. He starts with Mary, a young teenage girl who is engaged to be married to a man whose only claim to fame is that 1,000 years before, he had had a famous ancestor. Lets face it, she is not the obvious choice for the job. At least get someone with maybe some influence, or useful life experience or at least from somewhere people have heard of! But that is not the way God does things. God chooses Mary.
Today in this Fourth Weekend of Advent, having waited with the Patriarchs of old, and with the Prophets, and with John the Baptist – the one who prepares the way for the Lord, we now wait with her, the Mother of God, as she waits for the birth of her son. Today we join ourselves with her waiting in two particular ways, and if we pay careful attention to our liturgy I believe that she will teach us how to wait today.
In place of our Psalm we said together the Magnificat, the Song of Mary. The song that Mary joyfully exclaimed after hearing the news from the angel (from the messenger of God) that she was to be the God-bearer, the one who would be the mother of Jesus.
In our Gospel reading we hear about Mary during her period of pregnancy, during her waiting for these momentous things to come to fulfilment, as she visits her relative Elizabeth, who is also miraculously pregnant despite her great age.
It is as if John (Elizabeth’s unborn son, who will become the great Baptiser) cannot wait to be born to herald the arrival of Jesus, he jumps in Elizabeth’s womb so excited is he that he is in the presence of his yet to be born Saviour. Elizabeth speaks for us all as she greets Mary and says, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus.” Words that we pray as the Church bell is rung each morning and evening during the week in the prayer that we call the ‘Angelus’.
The ancient dream of the People of Israel, long-anticipated by the Prophets, will come to fulfillment in God’s Son, in Mary’s Son. At last all of the hopes of mercy, peace, fulfillment, reconciliation with God the Creator of the Universe, victory over evil for all time, the raising up of the poor and lowly and downtrodden – all those good things that emanate from the very heart of God – will come to fruition in the Son that Mary bears. But despite the joy of Elizabeth and Mary’s greeting, they will both have to wait for this to come to fruition.
This longing and waiting is expressed powerfully for us in the words of Mary’s Song, which she has already exclaimed in the presence of the angel before departing for her visit to Elizabeth. Her song (the Magnificat, named after its first word in Latin) is a song about the redemption that God gives us in Jesus Christ, it is a song about a God who is faithful to his promises, and who turns the world upside down. We might call this canticle, Mary’s Gospel, “the Gospel before the Gospel has arrived”. It points not to Mary but to God himself. It is all because of Jesus, even though he has only just been conceived (not yet born) and yet has made Elizabeth’s baby John leap for joy in her womb, and has made Mary giddy with excitement and hope and probably terror as well. So it is no surprise at all that Mary, in her song, anticipates much of what Jesus’ ministry will be all about.
In our Gospel reading Mary and Elizabeth rejoice together, as they look forward in hope, but they will need to be patient. Neither Jesus nor John have yet been born to them, and after their birth these two boys will need to grow into the full stature and understanding of their calling: there are many years of waiting ahead.
What is the point of all of this? Why do we hear the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth today in the last weekend of Advent? We hear it because it is a powerful reminder for us about how we should be waiting, not just in Advent but throughout our lives. Mary shows us what waiting looks like. We have reflected over these last weeks on those who waited in the past, and now we ponder Mary and her experience, because in many ways her experience is our experience. The experience of waiting in the presence of God. We, like her, are not alone. God is with us, as he was with her. We are not like the people in the time of the Patriarchs and Prophets, Jesus has lived amongst, his Holy Spirit is with us now. But that doesn’t mean that everything that we hope for and long for is fulfilled all at once, in the timing that we would prefer. We have to wait for God to act, and in the end for Jesus to return.
The point is that we are not called to do this alone. Mary’s experience of waiting is not a solitary experience, she shares it with others. That is the point. Mary has received the amazing news that God is sending his Messiah, and naturally she cannot keep this to herself. She goes to her relative to try and make sense of what has happened. As Christians we discover who we are and what we must do and what something really means in this period of waiting, through our relationships with others. We need other people! It often strikes me that in our services we have similar moments of greeting, such as the ‘Lord be with you’ or ‘Peace be with you’. These little exchanges remind us that we do not discover God, or praise him on our own, but with others. It is not just Mary and Elizabeth in this encounter: there is the child John in Elizabeth’s womb, who leaps when she hears Mary’s greeting. And there is the Holy Spirit, who inspires Elizabeth to greet her relative with these extraordinary words ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb’.
Mary sings a song of praise at the start of her pregnancy, but for the months ahead God’s presence in the world will rest in her as this little foetus grows inside her body. It will not be obvious that this unborn child is the Word of God. Mary will not walk around with a halo or a strange but holy glow. The promises which Mary sings about in her great song of praise, and that she discusses with Elizabeth are yet to be fully fulfilled. So she needs others to help her to make sense of it.
In our cycle of remembering this is all going to be fast-tracked very quickly. Mary celebrates the conception of Jesus today, and on Thursday and Friday we will celebrate his birth, but that was not how it was for her. As she goes about all of the normal activities of her daily life, no one will know what God has in store for them through the unborn child that she carries.
Christians who were born after the time of Jesus down through the ages, and including you and me, have had to live in this reality of waiting as well. We rejoice that Jesus has come amongst us, has died and has risen, and that we now live in the presence and with the wisdom of his Holy Spirit. We celebrate that the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated – and this Church stands as a beacon of the promises of that Kingdom – and yet we also actively wait for the promises of God to be finally and completely fulfilled. We live in the in-between times. The Kingdom is here, but it is not fully here. In the words of the Lord’s Prayer that we shall pray together again in this liturgy, we continue to ask God for his Kingdom to come here on earth as it is already in heaven.
Today, in this last weekend of Advent, we remember Mary, the God-bearer, who rejoiced at all that was to come, but had to continue to live patiently through the pregnancy of Jesus and as he grew into a man. We have seen a vision of peace, justice, restored relationship with God, and all that Jesus promised, but we wait for it to be fully a reality around us. It is both here now, and not yet fully here now. And of course, this waiting will not end on Thursday and Friday when we celebrate together the birth of Jesus, it will continue to be a central underlying reality in our Christian living throughout all of the seasons of the year ahead of us, it just won’t be the focus of our attention in quite the same way as it has been over the last few weeks.
We are called to be patient. We are also called like Mary to be actively faithful. Waiting together and acting together, because we need each other. The Church says to us today that being the Church is like the visit of Mary to Elizabeth. Every time we come here it is like that great meeting, with the Holy Spirit present with us as we support each other, and try to make sense together of what God is doing in our lives.
As we look to Mary today, in her song, and her visit to Elizabeth she points us to Jesus, and calls us to wait together, patient and alert as we wait to see and experience God’s work amongst us. That we might say with her, “Our souls magnify the Lord, and our Spirits rejoice in God our Saviour.”