Sunday 23 December 2018: Fourth Sunday in Advent
Visitation? Annunciation? Both?
Micah 5:1-4; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-44
By Robert J Hill
Canon and Parish Priest, St Matthew’s, Bishopbriggs
Context: Roman Catholic congregation of 300+; mostly families, some older people
Aim: to preach the Gospel of the day
Great meetings of famous people?
History is full of reports of meetings between famous people. Do these meetings ever achieve very much? Perhaps the answer is yes - and no! There may be some truth in it though. There is the very famous encounter between Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone, but the only outcome of that meeting that is generally remembered is the famous question ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume?’ from Stanley. The statement is not very profound, but the meeting is well remembered.
Encounters between prominent people figure in many Old Testament texts, often to demonstrate the importance of biblical characters beyond the context of the small nation Israel. So, we have Moses, reluctantly at first, going to Pharaoh to argue for the freedom of God’s people. Before that, we have the meeting between Abraham and Melchizedek, king and priest of Salem. Melchizedek offers bread and wine to Abraham. The list would not be complete without Solomon and the fabulously wealthy Queen of Sheba, whose wealth and wisdom paled into insignificance when compared to Solomon.
In these narratives a member of a small race, usually dwelling in – sometimes ruling – an apparently small, insignificant nation, is visited and honoured by a very powerful and historically better-known figure. The tables are turned however because the high moral ground, or at least the upper hand, is inevitably taken by those faithful to the God of Israel. The results can range from Solomon’s Wisdom to the military prowess of successive generals who act or fight – the concept of fighting wars for God does not sit easily with us today. One striking exception to almost all of these different scenarios is the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth in today’s Gospel passage.
Nice Domestic Story - Or Powerful Prophetic Statement?
It has become the norm to treat today’s Gospel text, as a lovely story of how Mary, having just received the unexpected news of the part in the salvation of humanity that God has in mind for her, goes immediately to her elderly relative, also with child. This reading then focusses on the supposition that this just goes to show what a lovely person Mary was, and that God had chosen well who was to be the mother of God’s Son. These conclusions should be dismissed, and indeed the generosity of Mary in going to see her kinswoman (the text does NOT say ‘cousin’). The evangelist however has much more than family connections in mind as the narrative unfolds.
This story is also called the Visitation. In my opinion, it should also be classed as yet another Annunciation, this time with multiple application. Mary’s visit to the now pregnant Elizabeth is a remarkable statement announcing her own confidence in the promises of God. Only God’s intervention could have allowed Elizabeth to conceive. Elizabeth of course announces that she is honoured by a visit from the mother of her Lord. Even Elizabeth’s unborn child gets in on the act, leaping in his mother’s womb in recognition – or, to be consistent in terminology - annunciation.
We must remember the context in which this meeting takes place. The two women in the story, as well as the children they have conceived, are seriously at risk in their society, their very lives are in danger. When Joseph, in Matthew’s account of the annunciation, decides to divorce Mary informally because she is with child it is because they were betrothed – about as solemn as marriage itself – and because he has decided not to invoke the full penalty of the law which could have resulted in Mary being stoned to death for adultery (even in betrothal). Elizabeth may not have been in physical danger, but her husband Zechariah could have divorced her for not giving him a son and heir. Divorced and without male support, Elizabeth could have starved to death! These two women, their lives at risk, testify to the goodness of God who has looked on his servants in their lowliness. Their testimony to the goodness of God is a very profound act of faith and a remarkable annunciation of God’s plan!
Annunciation or Prophecy?
These reflections for the fourth Sunday of Advent, Annunciation stories could be categorised as prophecies as well. The season of Advent is characterised by first readings from prophetic books on numerous occasions. To be prophetic is not to look to the future. No Old Testament prophet was primarily concerned with predicting the future. Indeed, Jeremiah stated that the only way to know if a prophet was speaking God’s word was if that word was fulfilled within the life of those who first heard it. Otherwise how would anyone know this was prophecy, or just idle day dreaming on the part of the prophet?
To be prophetic is to witness to the presence of God in our world today. It is about us living lives which mirror the faith we profess. As Advent draws to a close, it especially demands of us that we re-align our lives in the direction of God who is always among with us!
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