Past and present

Homily for Advent 4 2022 at Horninglow

I’m always dismayed to hear Christians say they don’t bother with the Old Testament. Many say just that. 

I’m always shocked when I hear clergy say much the same. Some do. Whatever this says about their education and training, it speaks of a kind of dementia, one in which memory has vanished, leaving them disconnected from their history and family.

When a snowball rolls down a snow-covered slope, it starts small but as it goes on its way the snow it rolls over sticks to it so it gets bigger and bigger, its history, as it were, accumulating around it. You and I carry our history with us in the form of genetic inheritance, learnt experience, memories of good and bad. This is vital: we need to remember what’s life-threatening and what’s safe. It’s a matter of survival and species preservation. 

We can’t really understand where we are unless we understand where we come from and how we got here. 

So it is with the Jesus story. We can’t properly understand it without knowing something of its background. This is particularly so in Advent as we encounter the prophecies of Hebrew Scripture—the Old Testament.

Hearing that the young girl shall conceive makes no sense without the prophecy of Isaiah. The animals at the crib (not in the gospels) make more sense when we recall another prophecy of Isaiah. And though not relevant to Advent, the prophecies of Zechariah are essential reading for a proper understanding of Holy Week. 

Of great relevance to Advent are the images from Hebrew Scripture that we sang of in the first hymn “O come, Emmanuel”. They give us a glimpse of the redeemer that the Jews awaited—and still do: wisdom, leader, descendant of Jesse, David’s successor, morning star, king of the nations, the Divine within. They passed into the Christian church as plainsong antiphons—texts sung before and after Magnificat at Vespers or Evensong in the last week of Advent.

I am always moved by these chants. I first heard them—sang them—as a choral scholar at Carlisle Cathedral, fresh from somewhat puritanical rural Methodism. It is as if they wrap me in timelessness, bringing the past into the present in anticipation of the future.

I shall sing the first one.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Today’s readings tell of Mary. In Luke’s gospel she gives us a startling use of Hebrew Scripture. You might think that Magnificat was Mary’s invention. Not so. She, a teenage girl learning of her biologically impossible pregnancy, uses the song of another woman told of an another biologically impossible pregnancy—that of the very postmenopausal Hannah when she learns she is pregnant with Samuel. You’ll find it at 1 Samuel 2: 1-10.

Here are extracts: My heart rejoices in the Lord; I smile at my enemies because I rejoice in Your salvation. Let no arrogance come from your mouth, For the Lord is the God of knowledge; and by Him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, and those who stumbled are given strength. Those who were full have to earn their bread, And the hungry are fed. The Lord raises the poor from the dust and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, to set them among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory.

These are revolutionary texts. They come from the lips of women astonished to be told they are pregnant. Let’s consider two bits of Magnificat.

He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. A better phrase for “imagination” would be “devices and desires”, since the Greek word translated as imagination implies deliberate self-seeking. It means “I did it my way”—the me, me, me boast of the super-confident who believe they alone have the ear of God, the boast of all who are above themselves and who forget that pride is followed by fall. In Eugene Peterson’s wonderful translation of Luke’s beatitudes: “it’s trouble ahead if you think you have it made. What you have is all you’ll ever get”.

Note how God scatters the proud—not by bossing and lording it over others with displays of power, but as one who comes as one of us. And this even at his death, when much as he would have liked to have been spared, he put his ego-self aside. Peterson again:  “It’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself. Your self will not satisfy you for long”. Selflessness trumps selfishness.

I could go on, but I don’t want to stray too much from the Advent theme.

Over the next few days, see if you can set aside a few minutes to consider the images in that great hymn “O come, Emmanuel”. See if you can set aside some time to consider the revolutionary Magnificat and ask yourself “what can I do to help make God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven?”. See, in short, if you can come up with ways to use your past to enrich the present and future for the common good.

The divine embryo is growing in Mary’s belly. Mary is one of us—we are all Mary. Let the divine embryo grow in you, then in a few days’ time you can sincerely sing “O holy child of Bethlehem … be born in us today.”

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour: Come and save us, O Lord our God.

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