Yes, I know! Let’s do Christmas first! In fact I would say, let’s do Advent before both of them!
In church terms at least, it IS New Year. A new set of readings for each Sunday and the Sunday gospels are now mainly Matthew’s version. The season is Advent, which, I am sure you know, is about Anticipation. We are turning our minds now to being ready for Christmas and the newness of a small child born in a stable, wrapped up warmly and placed in a manger.
Before we say goodbye to the old year completely, to a year of Luke’s version of the gospels, there is one part of his telling, which we will hear again, when Christmas comes. It holds deep within it something that is the anticipation of Advent. I am referring to the moment when Mary knew she was pregnant, or in church terms, the Annunciation.
Theologians and artists over the centuries have been fascinated by this moment. If you find the time, try browsing some of the pictorial offerings on the internet. There are two I’d like to highlight – these are the pictures I mention in my article in the December Parish magazine.
You’ll find many icons depicting Gabriel bringing the good news to Mary – here’s one to look at on the website. And if you are ever in St John’s, in Newton, take time to drink in the version of that icon. In that version you can almost feel the disturbed air, as beating wings bring the messenger of God to a sudden stop, so speedy was his journey from God’s side to Mary’s!
Then there is a painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner, which also portrays that suddenness and more about a young teenage Mary.
The painting shows Mary very obviously disturbed in her sleep. She has got up and lit a lamp. Nearby are her day clothes, the familiar blue robe we associate with her. She has for some reason been woken in the night, got up and lit a lamp on the shelf behind her. She has put on a gown over her night clothes, then she has become suddenly aware of Gabriel’s presence. At which she has turned and sat down on the bed in one movement, and in so doing has caused a ripple in the carpet at her feet.
Her gaze is towards a bright light across the room and is tilted to one side. She is obviously listening intently.
Both pictures are of suddenness, but Tanner’s is also of calm and introspection. Mary’s young, peaceful face also has an expression of perplexed acquiescence as she ponders on the word of God.
Yes, she is thinking about how to respond to the creator of the universe! Perhaps she is thinking, “Can I accept this?” In Luke’s gospel, Gabriel describes how her relative Elizabeth is pregnant in her old age and declares ‘nothing will be impossible with God.’ Mary’s response is to say yes, and that is yes to the creator of the universe. As Luke puts it:
‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’
The suddenness of Gabriel and the suddenness of this news perplexing Mary is rivalled only by the suddenness of Mary’s journey to the hill country to see here relative. Mary has not headed for Elizabeth to check up on what God said, she has hurried to her relative because the two women are part of the same divine deed. There is but one person on earth who can understand what is happening to Mary and that is Elizabeth. They share a deep understanding of not only the miracles at work within them, but what those miracles mean. This truth is what Mary declares for both women, declares indeed for all of us, in the Magnificat. It is unique to Luke’s telling of the Christmas story. Get your family Bible out and read it, Luke chapter 1, verses 46-55.
All this though is in the past. In Mary’s case, once Jesus was born, some nine months or so in her past. For us the gap is longer, over two thousand years — and nine months or so. So where is our anticipation in that? It is deep in the manger, missing from the tomb at Easter and yet to come at the ascension. It is as if we are pregnant with the return of Jesus as Christ, as Messiah, King, Saviour and Lord of all! And that is because we have also said yes to God, creator of the universe, just as Mary did.
Have a peaceful Christmas, when it comes, and Happy New (church) Year, but please enjoy the anticipation that is Advent first!