Sunday 22nd December 2013
Year A, The Forth Sunday of Advent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

There has been a good deal of controversy this year about the treatment of rape victims in criminal trials where, all too often, the victim is subjected to aggressive defence cross-examination aiming to show that she was somehow at fault, with the whole of her private life being made public. This, we are told, is the price that she - and we - must pay for justice. And that adversarial principle of criminal justice has permeated all of our lives because it was naturally adopted by the "High Court of Parliament" and now pervades our broadcast coverage of politics and, by extension, other issues. Personally, I don't go along with the glib cliché that this bear garden represents the best legal system in the world; I prefer the cooler, continental model where judges investigate the evidence in order to come to a conclusion; and I would advocate the same process for addressing theological questions.

Take, for example, the subject of today's readings, Mary the mother of Jesus, the Theotokos. In the Western Christian tradition, Mary has been the subject of cloying and often idolatrous adulation by Catholics but she has also been at best ignored and at worst traduced by Protestants. It would, I suggest, be more helpful to adopt a cooler, less adversarial approach in considering her place in our faith.

Our readings today do not help us to make a good start. First we have the enigmatic pronouncement of Isaiah that a young woman will conceive and bear a son who will be Emmanuel, God with us. The translation issue is simple enough: at the time of the first Isaiah young, unmarried women were, except for prostitutes, virgins; but as the young Christian church evolved from house groups to a more formal structure women, who had been allowed to preside at domestic celebrations of the Eucharist, were forbade public office and could not, therefore, preside. At the same time - and you can see this in the later Epistles - Christianity became tainted, in spite of its official opposition, by gnosticism which was deeply suspicious of the physical body. Tie this together with an extreme ambivalence by men towards women, exemplified by the treatment of Mary Magdalen, as either perfectly pure or sexual temptresses, and you have, to use a contemporary phrase, a perfect theological storm, which led by the end of the second Century to the notion of the virgin birth. It is important to say to anybody in doubt of this developed Christian dogma, that you don't have to believe in it to be a good Christian, in spite of its apparent formulation in the Creeds; Millions of Christian in the early Church were true followers of Jesus without having any idea of the concept of a virgin birth. And, as for the Creeds, it is perfectly possible that Mary should have conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit through the quite proper agency of Joseph.

As for our second Reading, the important thing to notice is that, unlike the account in Luke, Mary doesn't get to say anything. all we have is an account of the ruminations and activities of Joseph.

Never mind the controversy over the means of the conception, and never mind the uncomfortable feeling we get from Matthew's account, the main point to remember today, on what I always think of as Mary's great day, is that she was asked the biggest question ever asked of an 'ordinary' human being and came up with the humble and decisive answer: "Thy will be done". And there we have two words which aren't often put together, humble and decisive, but that is because, again under the influence of male clerics, humble has been made synonymous with meek. The essence of humility is to put ourselves in the hands of God; and its opposite is pride. Mary may or may not have been meek - personally, I doubt it, given the life she led as the Mother of Jesus - but she was properly humble.

You might think, in the light of what I said at the beginning, and in the light of contemporary sexual mores, that our Gradual Hymn, Blessed Mary, Teenage Mother would just about fit the bill but I don't like that characterisation very much either because it too easily equates the early marriage of women in First Century Palestine when life expectancy was so short with all-too-often casual sexual relationships today. The words of the Hymn are fine but the title is carelessly suggestive.

On the one hand, then, we have humility and, on the other side, we have a burning commitment to social justice. I never cease to marvel at the way in which, as a Church, we are not properly moved by the daily repetition at Evensong of the Magnificat: I don't see the mighty put down from their seats not the exaltation of the humble and meek; I do not see the hungry filled with good things and the rich sent empty away. I see complacency occasionally disturbed by tiny episodes of social concern and self-sacrifice. I see with admiration the £60m given in a single week in the United Kingdom to the Philippines and Children in Need; and then I see the waste lands of much of our inner cities where it is public policy to blame the poor for their poverty and unemployed people for their unemployment; so, remember, we properly revere the Mary of the Salve Regina and the Stabat Mater but these are organic out-growing’s from the Mary of the Magnificat.

And here's the real, stunning, conclusion: Jesus was the child of the Magnificat. He, too burned with a passion for social justice, if anything, because he was divine as well as human, even more intensely than his mother. When he was asked to teach his followers to pray that God's kingdom should be on earth as it is in heaven. The Gospels teem with examples of the exhortations of Jesus about the necessity of justice next to which issues of personal salvation and 'going to heaven', tied up with disputes about the mechanics of atonement, are secondary. Our mistake, the collective mistake of the Western Christian Churches, has been to elevate individual morality over corporate morality, downgrading social justice to a secondary place: whether people are gay, or divorced, or whether their private behaviour causes us offence, the only question that matters is whether they, and we, are kingdom builders; here, now, for as long as we live.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee. Blessed art thou among women; and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Amen.