A sermon delivered by David McEvoy, Reader on 23 December 2018, Fourth Sunday of Advent
Fifty years ago today three human beings were further from earth than anyone had ever been. The crew of Apollo 8 were nearing the Moon. They entered Lunar orbit on Christmas Eve 1968. One of the crew, Bill Anders, took a photograph of an earthrise, the beautiful blue planet rising behind the monotonous grey of the moon’s surface against the deep blackness of space. The sight of the earth so far away moved the astronauts deeply and this photograph had a great impact back on earth and made people realise the beauty and fragility of our home planet. The crew deepened the impact when they read the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis, the account of the creation of the world. The account of creation perfectly matched the cosmic perspective of the planet that the astronauts shared with us.
Tomorrow at midnight mass we will hear St John’s words from the opening of his Gospel. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. These wonderful words give us the story of the incarnation, God becoming human in Jesus Christ, as a cosmic event, the event seen, as it were, from afar, in the context of aeons of time and the infinity of space; just as the Apollo 8 crew showed us the earth from a quarter of a million miles away. If John’s account of the incarnation were a film it would start with a broad view of the universe, slowly zooming in through the stars, into our solar system and then to a close up of our tiny planet and then zooming yet further into the Middle East and Judaea and finally showing us John the Baptist in the desert preaching.
But today, we see the beginnings of this story from a very different angle in our reading from Luke’s gospel. John gives us the meaning of the coming of Christ as a big picture, framed in theological and philosophical terms. Luke prepares us for the same event but on a very human scale and in very intimate terms.
And there is not a man in sight. Here we have a meeting and an intimate conversation between two pregnant women: Elizabeth who was more than six months pregnant and her relative Mary of Nazareth who had recently conceived. The first chapter of Luke can make uncomfortable reading for those of us men who think we have got things worked out. The angel Gabriel came to Zechariah, to tell him that he and his equally aged wife would have a son (who we know as John the Baptist). Zechariah was a priest working in the temple but he could not believe what the angel was telling him and as a result was struck dumb until the child was born and named. He was out of the story for the time being.
The same angel appeared to Mary with a similar message, to tell her that she was to give birth to Jesus, the Son of the Most High. And although she was disturbed and perplexed, she trusted the message and said: ‘Here I am, let it be with me according to your word’. And in today’s reading we see how both Mary and Elizabeth got on with it, rejoicing in the roles they had been given. Neither of them really understood the mystery of God’s ways, but remained faithful, placing their trust in God.
Of all the characters in the Gospels, it was a woman, Elizabeth, who first recognized Mary’s child as the Son of God, and it was a woman, Mary who, as Jesus’ mother became the first disciple, the first person to follow him. And the lynchpin of today’s reading, and in fact the lynchpin of the annunciation and pregnancy stories is a deep, intimate event that a man cannot experience. The baby in Elizabeth’s’ womb kicked or ‘leapt for joy’.
This is Luke painting his picture of the longed-for coming of Christ in very human terms. Something that happens to ordinary people in ordinary places. Everything that happens in these opening stories in Luke happens on the home ground of the people concerned. Gabriel appears to Zechariah, John’s father, in his place of work, the temple. Gabriel appears to Mary at her home. The Spirit comes to Mary and Elizabeth in Elizabeth’s home. God does not have to be taken to these places. God is there already. The gift that comes at Christmas, God’s becoming human and sharing our human life with us, happens where we are - at home, on the bus, at work, out shopping and even, sometimes, in church.
The coming of God in human form also happens within us. The story of the conception and birth of Jesus the Christ is the story of Christ being born within us too. So as we prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ, we should see it not just as an event in the past but as an event that is going on within us, now. Just as Jesus was growing, developing, getting ready to be born in Mary, so Christ can grow within us, uniting his Spirit with our flesh, ready for us to reveal him and share him with those we know and meet. Like Mary, we have a job to do, nurturing Christ within us and making our hearts and minds and bodies ready to bring him into the world.
Then, when Christmas Day comes, we can be ready to be dazzled by John the Evangelist’s cosmic picture. But then we can also be ready to sing that lovely prayer set to music, O Little Town of Bethlehem’: ‘O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin and enter in: be born in us to-day.’ ‘O holy Child of Bethlehem, Be born in us today’.