A Blue Candle for Mary

Sunday 18th December 2016
Year A, The Forth Sunday of Advent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Isaiah 7.1-14
Matthew 1.18-25

Whether you read 2 Kings 16 or 2 Chronicles 28, they may differ in some detail but they both wholeheartedly agree that King Ahaz was a bad lot. He worshipped false Gods and although he did not go so far as Antiochus IV in the 2nd Century BCE in desecrating The Temple, he did put his own unauthorised altar in there and he messed about something rotten with the fixtures and fittings. The account in 2 Kings says that he sent off the Temple treasure, as well as his own treasure, to buy an alliance with Assyria which saved Jerusalem whereas 2 Chronicles says that all the treasure went for nothing. Still, Jerusalem survived the combined assault of its enemies, including the Northern Kingdom of Israel because, we are told elsewhere in 2 Kings, the Lord wanted to keep a place where he could dwell but, ultimately, the faithlessness of both Israel and Judah condemned them to exile.

The story of Ahaz in Chapter 7 of Isaiah, our First Reading is, then, something of a curiosity in that it depicts The Lord making a promise of protection to the wicked Ahaz who, when asked what he wants, in a faint echo of King Solomon, says that he will not put the Lord to the test. He is then promised that a young woman will bear a son who, in succeeding verses, looks like a man of promise but then seems to offer a decidedly mixed fortune for his people if it is the King's son our Reading is talking about; but it might not be. It could be Isaiah's son by The Prophetess of whom we never hear again.

But for us the main interest of the Reading is that enigmatic phrase in Verse 14 about the young woman who, if she was unmarried, would have been a virgin and who is to give birth to a son. In our Gospel reading in Verse 23 Matthew takes this to be a prophesy of the birth of Jesus which raises two immediate points.

The first is whether The Lord's promise to King Ahaz concerns the birth of Jesus some 600 years later to which the answer is that it almost certainly does not as such a promise would have been meaningless to the embattled king. We have been all too apt to think of prophets as seers into the future, overly tempted by our ability to interpret their sayings in the light of later events, rather than concentrating on what they had to say to the people of their own time, notably about the abuse of power and the primacy of social justice which crucially apply to us today.

The second issue is whether Mary became pregnant by The Holy Spirit rather than by Joseph and, on the basis of Matthew's account, we have to conclude that she did: the angel says that she conceived by the Holy Spirit and Joseph is so surprised by the pregnancy of Mary that he cannot have been complicit.

Now what this means varies from being a dispute about the translation of Isaiah where our NRSV has "young woman" but some translations have "virgin" to a theological assertion about the miracle of the virgin birth. On this second, deeper, point, I should say that Matthew's Gospel is often described as the most Jewish of the four but the notion of a virgin birth for a race that is repeatedly exhorted to go forth and multiply, is decidedly strange and, if anything, betrays some Greek influence. My conclusion, for what it is worth, is that, in spite of the Creeds, the question is, literally, open.

But there is much more to the subject than the narrow confines of the account in Matthew (and, for that matter, Luke) because, regardless of how we view the early history of the Church in terms of its understanding of Jesus, its understanding of his mother, the Theotokos, or God bearer, is in line with a growing Misogyny as worship moved from the domestic to the public and as the influence of the philosophy called neo Platonism exercised an increasing grip on Christian development from which it has never totally recovered, such that there are many Christians who rank the spiritual over the physical in God's holistic creation; and, hardly surprisingly, the major casualty was and is womanhood; and ever since then the Church has held a poor view of women even though they have been its surpassing strength. The disjuncture between male power and female faithfulness is so obvious that it hardly needs exploration.

Now all this brings me back to two ideas. The first is that the message from the life of Ahaz about faithlessness and the resort to violence is much more fundamental than the means by which Jesus came into the world which is, if you like, a kind of theological distraction; what matters is why he came, not how. Of course, you may say, the means of the birth is in the Creeds whereas they never mention violence; true, and neither do they mention love, but it is still the central tenet of Christianity. The Creeds were texts to solve very specific problems, not to set out a comprehensive description of our faith and, I reflect sadly, if it took more than half a century to debate the Consecration of women bishops in the Church of England alone, how long would it take to re-negotiate the Creeds to comprehend the essence of our Faith?

But the second point concerns Mary: although she does not have a word to say in Matthew's account - a most eloquent silence in itself - we can judge her by her deeds. Steering a course between gross Medieval sentimentalism on the one hand and the tendency to cast her as a contemporary figure, notably in the hymn, Blessed Mary, Teenage Mother, on the other, we can say that she was brave, unconventional, strong, faithful and long suffering: she may never have sinned but she certainly tried to persuade Jesus to stop making a fool of himself, as she saw it; she may have had to stay at home to care for Jesus' brothers and sisters but she was there when it mattered; and, above all, taking our story right back to the beginning, she was prepared to trust the Angel, God's messenger.

If I were a maker of Advent wreaths, I would keep the two purple candles for the first two Sundays of Advent, and the Rose candle for Gaudete, but I would replace the purple candle for the Last Sunday of Advent with a blue candle for Mary; she deserves no less.