St James, Calgary

Heavenly Father, who chose the Virgin Mary, full of grace, to be the mother of our Lord and Saviour, now fill us with your grace, that we in all things may embrace your will and with her rejoice in your salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?

May the words of my lips, and the thoughts and meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Introduction

I am happy to be back here at St James and with you all, my family. The past few months have been long and difficult, but very rewarding. It’s truly been a wonderful time of formation for me, and I wish to thank all of you who have been supporting me, especially with your prayers these past months.

As I sat down to prepare this homily, I was very struck by our Gospel readings. We are at the season of Advent; indeed, tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and we breathlessly await the coming of our Lord.

The word Advent itself stems from a Latin root which means coming: we celebrate the coming in history of our Lord, we both celebrate and anticipate his coming to nourish us in the Eucharist, and we anticipate his coming again to judge the world. It can all be a bit daunting. How do we anticipate that? How do we celebrate it?

Our Gospel gives us a clue, if we can locate ourselves in it.

Now, having spent the last four months worshipping multiple times a day in the Chapel of St Mary the Virgin, praying the Angelus prayer three times a day, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament regularly, the use of incense and all the other trappings of high church Anglo-Catholic worship, you might think that I am about to preach a sermon about the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our Collect of the Day emphasizes her, but in my preparations, I was struck most by St Elizabeth, the mother of St John the Baptist.

Biblical Location

A little refresher on St Elizabeth might be helpful. Earlier in St Luke’s Gospel, we are introduced to Elizabeth and Zechariah who, like Abraham and Sarah before them, had entered their old age without child. Zechariah is visited by an Angel of the Lord who tells him that, in her old age, his barren wife Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son.[1]

She miraculously becomes pregnant and she goes into seclusion for five months.[2] Shortly after that, the Blessed Mother is visited by an Angel and conceives by the Holy Spirit, and then goes to visit her cousin St Elizabeth as we heard in the Gospel today.

St Elizabeth has been blessed by God. Zechariah has perhaps indicated to her what the Angel told him: that their son John would go out to the people to prepare them for the Lord who was to come.[3] Like us, she has experienced the grace of God working in her life, but now is faced with the question of what it means that the Lord should be coming.

In that context, she becomes a wonderful and holy exemplar for all of us as we consider how to respond to the season of Advent and the coming of Christ, showing us three different ways of responding.

Respond in Recognition

First, in our passage we are told how when the Blessed Mother arrives, the baby John leaps within St Elizabeth’s womb at the approach of the Lord and she is filled with the Holy Spirit.[4] She goes on to address the Blessed Mother’s baby as Lord. The first response to Advent is recognition of who is coming.

By the annunciation of the Angel and by the Holy Spirit, St Elizabeth is able to fully recognize who it is that the Blessed Mother brings into her presence. We receive the benefit of Holy Scripture, the teaching of the Church and history to know who is there: Jesus Christ, only begotten son of the Father.

It is easy to think of Christ in the fullness of his humanity alone, born as a baby, completely dependent on his human parents for care as he was raised, yet he is unlike any other baby that has ever been born. We cannot ignore his divinity, his lordship. He might be coming as a baby, but he is still the person of the Godhead who has always been and who was the agent of creation.

This is not just the recognition of a human child, but of God himself.

Respond in Humility

The second point of her response is that she is humble. While her first words speak to some form of recognition of what God is doing, her next words are said in humility. “But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”[5] The Venerable Bede, the great Anglo-Saxon church historian and saint, notes both her Spirit-filled prophesy as well as the great humility with which she responds.[6]

That is the humility this passage calls us to consider. How blessed we all for the many graces God has offered us? How blessed are we that God himself has come as a man for our sakes?

It is very easy in Advent and Christmas to think about family. We are called to contemplate the Holy Family throughout this period. We are called to contemplate the birth in time of Christ. It is very easy to not move beyond that. To leave salvation for Easter.

In the early Church, however, Christians were much more aware of the importance of the incarnation itself as a saving act, and so Christmas itself would be celebrated through the lens of salvation. Without Christ truly assuming our flesh, it could not be redeemed, according to St Gregory of Nazianzus.[7] St Paul himself writes often about the corruption of flesh and its need for sanctification through the flesh of Christ.[8]

When we recognize all of this, like St Elizabeth, a good question for each of us to ask today might be, “Who am I that God should humble himself to be born of a woman, in the fullness of humanity, and all for my sake?”

Humility is the second appropriate response to the coming of God incarnate.

Respond in Praise

Finally, when we see who comes in Advent, when we acknowledge our need for humility in that, there is but one possible further response and that is praise. St Elizabeth exclaims how when the Blessed Mother greeted her, St John leapt for joy in her own womb, and she continues to proclaim the glory of God.[9]

The Blessed Mother joins her in singing what will become known as the Magnificat, the Song of Mary in English. It is a song of praise and thanksgiving to God that has been sung by Christians in every generation since the time of Christ.

“My soul doth magnify the Lord / and my spirit had rejoiced in God my saviour” is the opening line in the language of our Prayer Book. This is no mere thank you note. This is a deep rejoicing and praise of the whole soul. That is the praise of God we are called to in Advent.

Conclusion

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and there is not much time left to contemplate Advent, but the reality is that as we move into the season of Christmas, the reaction of St Elizabeth is one which will remain powerful for anyone who wishes to follow her holy example in honouring the incarnation of the Word of God.

The Magnificat is a wonderful text. We heard in our Gospel reading the text of it, but I would commend to you the text from the Book of Common Prayer, found on page 21. It is a more lyrical translation which is meant to be sung in the way it has always been sung by Christians. I would encourage everyone to meditate on this text from now until Epiphany.

Emulate St Elizabeth in her response. Respond in recognition of the fullness of what God has done and is doing. Respond in humility for the unmerited graces he offers us. Respond in praise, for what other response could there be to the saving work of a holy and good God?

If you are lost for words in doing that, emulate the Blessed Virgin Mary with the words of the Magnificat.

May we all be enabled by the grace of God to keep a holy Advent and a holy Christmas, following the responses of these holy women.

Amen.

[1] Luke 1:11-13

[2] Luke 1:24

[3] Luke 1:17

[4] Luke 1:41

[5] Luke 1:43

[6] St Bede, Homilies on the Gospels 1.4

[7] St Gregory of Nazianzus, Letter 101

[8] Ephesians 2:1-10; 1 Corinthians 15, particularly v. 53

[9] Luke 1:44f

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