Reflection for the 4th Sunday of Advent
“She was much perplexed by his words… The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid……. Then Mary said, “…Let it be with me according to your word.” From Luke 1:26-38, NRSV
“Christmas plans cancelled….. the announcement prompted a rush to the train stations with thousands attempting to leave before the restrictions came into force.”
“Just a couple of days before Christmas they’re doing this? This is crazy!” Pedestrian.
Today’s Gospel focuses on a young woman hearing the sudden announcement of perplexing news from an unexpected messenger in an intervention that disrupts not only her life but that of her immediate family too. Consternation at first results but then Mary is able to find the strength to accept what is happening to her and, as a result, enables hope eventually to be fulfilled in the birth of the Christchild. Perhaps her example may hearten us as we face the unexpected announcement that lockdown is now being implemented in Wales once more and at very short notice.
It may seem to us, hearing the story once more in these straightened circumstances, that acceptance was easy for Mary as a person of faith living in simpler times without the technology that now communicates announcements instantly to so many. Yet Mary’s pregnancy before marriage would have brought shame to her household which was one of the reasons why she went to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, an older woman also coping with an unexpected pregnancy. Mary’s fiancé, Joseph, was so perplexed at her story of the angel’s visit that he thought she was mentally ill and wanted to shut her away until he, too, had an unexpected change of heart following an astounding announcement in a dream. This was after Zechariah, an older priest, was struck dumb in the temple when he understandably struggled to accept that, at his age and with a barren wife, conceiving a child could be possible. And yet, it was so! Their eventual acceptance of such an unexpected intervention led to the birth of John the Baptist and the restoration of Zechariah’s speech as he and Elizabeth came to terms with such astounding events. Perhaps their example may give us food for thought, too, as we try to come to terms with governmental interventions and unexpected announcements in our lives.
Governmental intervention also affected Joseph and Mary who, in the later stages of pregnancy, had to travel to Bethlehem when Governor Quirinius was implementing the registration for the census required by Emperor Augustus. Bethlehem Ephratha means not only little Bethlehem but insignificant Bethlehem, about four days’ journey away – who would have thought that the Messiah would be born there rather than in some more splendid setting? How did Mary and Joseph manage whilst travelling, where did they stay en route and how did they cope with a birth away from home? None of this is known, but the irony is that, although there was no room when they arrived and a manger served as the infant’s cot, today there is plenty of space for travellers as Bethlehem is also affected by the worldwide spread of Covid-19. Spare a thought, too, for those people frantically trying to get home before the restrictions began and who may find themselves stranded later on or leave others isolated at short notice due to the unexpected announcement from the government.
Today, our plans may have been disrupted by governmental decrees but these sudden announcements come in the midst of renewed perplexity as, despite preventative measures, the virus not only multiplies but mutates. It’s a costly, painful business and, having only seen my mother once since March and not being able to be with my family over Christmas, I write these words to myself too. Yet, as plans and services are disrupted and so many are sad, once again the carol that the American priest Phillips Brooks wrote after a visit to Bethlehem rings out with words of hope for us all as the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid,” speak to our hearts today as well as Mary’s then. If we, too, can find the courage to accept these changing circumstances and to look for where the good and hope may be in it all, then there will also be unexpected blessings spreading amongst us this quieter Christmas, despite the perplexity of unanticipated events due to the pandemic:
“Yet in thy dark streets shine the the everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight….
How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heav’n.”
With my prayers,
Prayer for the week
God in heaven, may the flame of an Advent candle remind us of Mary, Mother of our Lord, who quietly accepted her role in the story of salvation. As we look forward to the birth of Jesus, may we learn to be humble and kind and to trust you at all times, God for ever and ever. Amen.
Canon Robert Townsend
Advent Prayer For Wales:The Bishops are inviting everyone to join them in prayer every evening at 6pm until Christmas Day. Heavenly Father, in the midst of a troubled world, you are light and life. Send us your healing for those who are ill, your strength for those who are suffering, your compassion for those who grieve, and your courage for those who work for the healing and service of others. Bless our nation of Wales with the life-giving spirit of your love, and grant us your mercy, [revealed in the person of Christ your Son]. Amen.