A sermon for Evensong on the 4th Sunday of Advent, 20 December 2020
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Reading Luke 1: 39–55
Previously in Luke’s Gospel…
This morning we heard Luke describe the angel Gabriel telling Mary the news of the coming birth of Jesus, and her immediate response. Now, as she visits her cousin Elizabeth, herself pregnant with John the Baptist (as we shall come to know him), comes Mary’s fuller response. It is a song, which we call the Magnificat, after the first word in the Latin version, and before we heard it read we heard it sung, as we always do at this service. The song of Mary is a constant part of Evensong, along with the song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, also part of Luke’s Christmas stories, the song an old man sings when Mary and Joseph bring a very young Jesus to the Temple.
Evensong, then, brings a daily Christmas – a giving of thanks to God each day for taking on our flesh and blood to be with us. And each time it draws us in, to find ourselves in the story (Dean Nick’s Reflection for 16 December explores this more fully). Where do you find yourself within this twice-heard song on this last Sunday before Christmas? I go to one verse, the one that says that God has lifted up the lowly.
Nowadays, ‘lowly’ has a condescending air about it, but it means those at the bottom of the heap, those under the boot of oppressive power. As the acidic effects of the virus have laid bare the sinews of our societies, the good and the diseased, those among us at the bottom of that heap and under those boots have indeed been lifted up, not (largely) into a place of justice, but at least into public consciousness, lifted into the sightlines of eyes that generally prefer to look the other way. More generally, ‘lowly’ can refer to those who are at the bottom of the chain of command, people in uncelebrated jobs, often taken for granted, low-status, low-paid – perhaps not paid at all. The lowly can be any of us who have a small hand in a great enterprise.
Broadcasting to the nation just over 90 years ago, Winston Churchill said,
This is no war of chieftains or of princes…it is a war of peoples and of causes. There are vast numbers…who will render faithful service in this war…but whose names will never be known…This is a War of the Unknown Warriors.
We often hear military language used to describe what we are going through now, and it usually doesn’t help much, but there are certain similarities to the situation Churchill addressed in 1940. We have found that we have not had enough of experts after all, but we’ve discovered that they can’t do it all for us. Our campaign has its medical chieftains – virology professors and eminent epidemiologists – but there are also vast numbers who render faithful service, stacking shelves, selling food, mopping floors, driving vans, caring, keeping an eye, lending an ear – and now (we must add) just keeping the rules – for the sake of others.
Acknowledging this mutual dependence is one of the necessities of grown-up living, but in Mary and her song this necessity is a virtue. Mary’s song is a celebration of collaboration as a thing to be exalted and magnified.
Catherine of Sienna said that God had told her,
I could well have made human beings in such a way that they each had everything, but I preferred to give different gifts to different people, so they would all need each other.
And God could have brought us a kind of salvation that was untouched by human hand. But God preferred to bring salvation through Jesus, born as one of us, with brother and sister and mother (Mark 3.35).
That is still the way God does it. Therein lies my dignity, and your glory, that God calls us to do what the purposes of love nd justice require, and then waits for each one of us to answer, as Mary did this morning, ‘I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.’