A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2018
St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church, Largo, FL
The Very Reverend J. Michael Strachan
You may have noticed that something is missing in the story of Advent and Christmas as it’s told by the lectionary that the Church gives to us. We began a new church year with Advent, and with the new year starts a new year in the lectionary. This is year C, that’s the year we focus on the Gospel of Luke, and so far we’ve heard in the Gospel readings Jesus’ warning to be ready when the Son of Man comes, Luke’s announcement that John the Baptist is the prophet who would prepare the way of the Lord, and Zechariah’s song to the same effect. We’ve heard John’s warning to his contemporaries about the wrath to come, and today, we’ve heard Mary’s song about the great reversal that is coming upon the world, and how John lept for joy in Elizabeth’s womb because of who he sensed was growing in Mary’s body. On Christmas Eve we will hear of angels and shepherds, and on Christmas morning we will hear of John’s great theological explanation of the word made flesh. But there is still something missing in this story.
You see, there’s something crucial to the story of Advent and crucial to the story of Christmas that doesn’t happen in either of these seasons. And if we don’t keep this in mind as we approach Christmas, we will be in danger of thinking and speaking about Christmas in a way that’s theologically contrary to some of our other well held Christian beliefs. What’s missing from our readings about Advent and Christmas is an event that we won’t celebrate for another three months. Or to be more precise, we should have celebrated it nine months ago, although I cannot remember if we did. My guess is probably not, or Fr. Chuck might have celebrated it on a Wednesday morning. If we didn’t, that’s my fault and my failure, and it’s something we are going to correct this year for sure.
The day that’s missing in our story of Advent and Christmas is the Annunciation of Our Lord to Blessed Virgin Mary, which the church celebrates on March 25th, exactly nine months before our celebration of Christmas. And this principal feast day of the Christian church matters not because it’s the date on which this biblical event happened, but because of what it says about life beginning not at birth, but nine months before. You see, if we get too caught up on the correlation between the Incarnation and Christmas, we undercut our own beliefs about life. And that’s made clear in our reading this morning because John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb because, as Elizabeth says to Mary, “blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
So points number one and two are (1) remember this Christmas that the life of the Incarnation doesn’t begin on Christmas morning but it begins nine months earlier when the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Blessed Virgin Mary, and she conceived a son. And (2) this is why we need the church calendar in its fullness to tell us the full story theological story of our redemption. So, I’m committing to you that not only will we celebrate every single one of the Principal Feasts of the Church whether they fall on a Sunday or not, which we should already be doing, but we’re going to work on celebrating more of the Festivals as well. And just as a reminder, the Annunciation is a principal feast just like Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. It’s one of the highest days on the church calendar, and we need that calendar to help properly orient ourselves theologically in the story of our redemption.
The other thing that we can help orient ourselves theologically in the regular cycle of the ecclesial calendar is daily prayer. As I mentioned, the church year has just begun a new, and in about a week the secular calendar will reset as well. This start to a new year is a wonderful time to refocus yourself on prayer. I was reminded this week in a call on a conference call with our Bishop that daily prayer, specifically Morning and Evening Prayer is the heart and soul of the Anglican prayer life and Anglican spirituality. While some dioceses in the ACNA are removing the requirements of the clergy to pray Morning and Evening Prayer, our Bishop spoke about a renewal of these times of private and corporate prayer in this diocese. And, as you hopefully know by now, at the center of Evening Prayer is the canticle we repeated together this morning: The Magnificat, the Song of Mary. And as the center of Morning Prayer is the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah, which we said together two weeks back. Do you remember when I said that the church should be a church of perpetual Advent? If you thought I was joking, keep in mind that every morning and every evening the center of Anglican prayer life involves saying again the Gospel songs of Advent: the Song of Mary and the Song of Zechariah.
So, as 2019 comes just around the corner, our focus is going to be on growth in many different ways, but one thing we’re going to emphasize as a catalyst for personal and spiritual growth is a daily prayer life. We’re going to have to think about what that means as a church, but one of the easiest ways into this aspect of Anglican prayer life are these two volumes and the accompanying app. We have more that we can do here as a church to help you, much more, and that’s going to be part of our focus going into next year too, but I want to remind you this morning, that the words Mary sings to Elizabeth aren’t just some interesting song. We call the songs of Mary and Zechariah Gospel Canticles not just because we find them in the Gospels but because they are the Gospel, or maybe the Gospel before the Gospel. Mary doesn’t know how all of this will take shape, but she knows what it means that this child is alive in her womb.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed; the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name. He has mercy on those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm and has scattered the proud in their conceit, Casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, to remember his promise of mercy, The promise made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his children for ever.”
If you want to know my theology, if you want to understand my belief in world set right and my belief that God has fulfilled the promise he made to Abraham long ago to bless the whole world through Abraham and his offspring, if you want to know what it means to be people of perpetual advent, then say that song every day as part of your prayer life. Let it words soak into your mind and heart and change how you perceive the world around you, your God, and his plan for this world because it will. Mary’s mind was saturated with these ideas, and so she burst into song, singing the Gospel of her Son before he had ever been born. “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” May all generations call her blessed, for she is blessed among women, and blessed is the fruit of her womb.