Advent 4, 20 Dec 2020
Roald Dahl introduces Charlie to the reader, along with his four grandparents, Grandpa Joe, Grandma Josephine, Grandpa George and Grandma Georgina. The four grandparents all sleep in the same bed in this tiny house on the edge of the big city. Charlie, a growing lad, “desperately wanted something more filling and satisfying than cabbage and cabbage soup.” Who wouldn’t? “The one thing he longed for more than anything else was … CHOCOLATE.” The world was gripped with Wonka mania: everyone wanting one of the five golden tickets which would grant admission to the most amazing Chocolate Factory ever to have been seen. Grandpa Joe even breaks in to his secret stash to buy a collate bar that may contain one of those tickets. And then one day, Charle finds a fifty pence piece with which he buys a Wonka’s Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight. The second one he buys yields the much-sought after golden ticket. No one can believe it. The sweet shop is packed as others begin to realise. Charlie rushes home to tell everyone and Grandpa Joe throws up his arms and yells ‘Yippee.’ It could have been anyone but it wasn’t, Charlie got the fifth golden ticket.
Today’s Gospel reading is such a Yippee moment and part of the Yippe is that it is unlikely. And as with Charlie, so with our Lady, we’re to remember she is economically poor. In St Luke’s account of the the Holy Family going to present Jesus in the Temple, we’re told they make the offering of those who don’t have much money: “two turtle-doves or two young pigeons” (2:24). This is a substitute for the the lamb offered by the wealthier (Leviticus 12). Jesus was born in the stable because there was no room for them in the inn. The wealthy often find excuses to exclude the poor and Our Lord is one of countless victims of this.
Today’s Gospel describes the event called the Annunciation, when Gabriel announces to Mary that she is the Mother of the Saviour. It happens in Nazareth, which was a backwater in Galilee. Jesus will be born in Bethlehem as foretold, a small town but one with a promise attached (Malachi 5:2). Nazareth had no such promise attached to it. Remember the words of Nathaniel, also known as St Bartholomew, who hears Jesus is from Nazareth and he jests, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (St John 1:46). It’s not much more exciting today, to be honest, but you can see the beautiful church of the Annunciation, which marks the place of this angelic visit where heaven and earth meet and where the life of humanity is given fresh hope.
Mary is confronted by Gabriel, so important that he is named in the Scriptures a few times. He has a role in the book of Daniel 9 where he appears to Daniel and tells the praying prophet to persevere: for there is a prospect of renewal. It is a renewal we see with Christ’s Birth. Gabriel appears on to Daniel “in swift flight at the time of the evening sacrifice,” linking heavenly and earthly worship (Daniel 9:21). His name means “strength of God” and so it is wondered whether he is the angel involved in the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 19:13) and in the defeat of the army of Sennacherib (II Kings 19:35). An ancient tradition says that it is Gabriel too who in the Garden of Gethsemane strengthens Christ in the hour when the full suffering necessary for the salvation of the world is fully before Him: the cup from which He must drink. Mary is promised this same strength by Gabriel: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High.”
Mary needed this reassurance for she is puzzled by what the angel tells her. By tradition, we know Mary to be but a teenage girl: such would be the expectation at this time for a young woman to be contemplating marriage, as she is to St Joseph. Mary’s odd situation is a powerful testimony to the wonders of the Incarnation which we will celebrate later this week. She is a virgin, preserved to be a dwelling place for the Son of God to dwell. And she will remain a virgin after giving birth to Christ as she was formed solely and exclusively for this purpose. But Mary is also betrothed to be married to Joseph. This family - the Holy Family, whose prayers we especially ask for next Sunday - is unusual. Christ is coming, bringing light and truth and He comes for the sinner. He comes to us in our fragmented nature, in our chaos, in our broken relationships. Jesus is not just here for those who conform to social norms or those who know how to hold a knife and fork. He is here for the marginalised. He comes to those who know their need of Him.
Mary gives us a living example of what our response to God should be like. First, she asks questions - “How can it be?” - and I hope we can seek to ask more and more about the faith and find good ways to do that. Secondly, she emphasises her lowliness by being disturbed by the appearance of Gabriel. She’s not sufficiently arrogant to assume that she would be chosen in this way. Thirdly, Mary responds in obedience: “I am the handmaid of the Lord,” laying herself open to social isolation. Her friends won’t necessarily think better of her for this. It won’t mean she gets more Christmas cards. And lastly Mary’s example is one of wonder. We didn’t hear today but later in Luke 1 we read of her song, the Magnificat: “The Mighty One has done great things for me … His mercy is from generation to generation … He has shown strength … He has helped his servant Israel.” Just be amazed, my friends, at what God has done and continues to do.
Commentators on this passage like St Gregory the Great have also been keen to point out how this moment of the Annunciation is reversing what happened in Eden at the dawn of time. In that garden a woman is disobedient and punished with the pains of child birth and all generations from her will know the consequence of original sin. In this home in Nazareth at the dawn of our salvation a woman is obedient and through giving birth, in which she will know no pain, all generations will have redemption before them. The Latin language lends itself to this understanding of there being a reversal here for Gabriel greets Mary saying, Ave, Hail, a greeting that begins to end the chains imposed on Eva (Eve) - Ave spelt backwards. Mary is often depicted with a lily nearby, a symbol of purity, a purity that will last unlike the garden of Eden which will disintegrate and wilt.
The importance of the Annunciation is captured by the significance of this lowly house in the backwater of Nazareth with its socially irrelevant inhabitants. This house was transported by angels to Loreto in Italy and you see it there today. A replica of this Nazareth house was built in Walsingham in Norfolk a thousand years ago after Mary appeared to Richeldis. This is the focus of devotion in Walsingham: inside the Shrine Church is a replica of this Holy House where the simplest of conversations brought forth untold treasures to the world and all God’s children.
Hear again then, my friends, the call to obedience, following Christ when it is inconvenient: when we’ve been out too late, when our family are coming round, when we risk going against the tide. Contemplate this moment of the Annunciation and put in your new 2021 diaries the date 25th March when we celebrate the feast of this appearance we’ve been thinking about today. Commit in 2021 to going to Walsingham, especially if you’ve not been before. And know our lowliness not as a cause of shame or denial but a reason to give greater thanks to God for the birth of His Son and the redemption of the world. We’ve found more than a golden ticket which will give us earthly pleasures, we’ve found life eternal and immeasurable joy. Amen.