Rev. Judith Walker-Hutchinson, Advent 4

Passages: Romans 2 Sam 7:1-11,16 and Luke 1: 26-38

Here we are, the fourth (the last) Sunday of Advent,  we’ve lit the final outer candle on our Advent wreath and this is the week we remember the Annunciation, God’s  unexpected calling  to  an unlikely and unremarkable woman , to do remarkable things in his name, and might  I say what a special joy it is as a woman priest to stand here today before you the people of God who voted to accept that women priests may also be called by God to be bishops. It is with heartfelt gladness, but not a little anxiety for her welfare, that we hold in our hearts Libby Lane who is to be the Church of England’s first female bishop. May God grant her wisdom, courage, humility  and the unwavering faith of Mary as she continues her ministry in His name.

Some of you may remember Alec mentioning in passing last week as we lit the pink candle  on the Advent wreath that some churches put that pink candle as the fourth and not the third Sunday as ours is.

Alec was so right– it really doesn’t matter

Getting hung up over the colour of candles on the Advent wreath is typical of the kind of Church displacement activity that I have come to loath and is a reminder that when we get hung up on the minutia we loose sight of the significant things, the things the church really ought to be doing and concentrating on and why  it takes us so long to get round to the things that change the church for the better.

What matters today is that we do remember -  that we do pray and that we are -as we have been throughout Advent - remembering our connectedness to all the saints and disciples who have preceded us as we journey towards our celebration of the coming of the Christ. 

So in churches where they have a pink candle it doesn’t really matter whether they put it today to match up with the lectionary readings about Mary or whether they go back to the much earlier tradition of marking Gaudete Sunday – the thing is that at some point in our Advent journey we take time in prayer and reflection on Mary the Mother of Jesus - so long as somewhere in amongst remembering the patriarchs, the prophets, and John the Baptist, somewhere in amongst remembering all those men, we find a place to remember Mary.

And here is where I have to make a public confession - I have in the past been known to get unduly concerned about pink candles. When I was in theological College one of my responsibilities was to arrange the flowers - a job I loved and over which I spend many prayerful, solitary hours in Chapel 

(probably at least in part, displacement activity when I should have been writing assignments). 

Anyway, of course at this time of year it fell to me to prepare the Advent wreath and the first time I did it the College Chaplain realised that I had, unlike Alec, very deliberately placed the pink candle on the fourth Sunday. 

Now those of you who know about these things will know that putting the role of Mary in immediate anticipation of the coming of Christ,  regarding her as the embodiment of God’s real meaning when he said “… The Lord will make you a house”,  meaning that we the people of God are God’s dwelling place and Mary is the ultimate realisation of that. as I had attempted to signify in placing that pink candle immediately in anticipation of the white one for the birth of Christ  -  doing that is in the reformed Church tradition – not in a more Catholic tradition, on the third Sunday - as my thinking went, sort of putting her out there on her own, exceptional, different from the rest of us.

Well having realised I’d done this on purpose and unbeknown to me, just before Morning Prayer every morning, the College Chaplain kept moving the candle to the third week – in I would walk sit down to pray, look up and then have to get up and put her back in her ‘right’ place as I saw it before everybody else came in. 

He did this for days to tease me before admitting it was him. What he did taught me a lesson and made me reflect on my relationship with Mary. Now here I have to be honest again and say that at times my relationship with the Blessed Virgin has been somewhat ambivalent. If I look for female role models in the Bible I’m more likely to be drawn to Magdalene or indeed to Judith herself and if you’re familiar with those two ladies you’ll probably be able to read quite a lot into that, but the point is, it wouldn’t be the BVM that I looked to. I have also been known to get quite disturbed about the cult that surrounds Mary and how she is sometimes represented. 

David will confirm that I get quite cross (I become a sort of quasi-Puritan) in the sort of Churches that you go into (perhaps particularly in Spain or Italy) where there is a huge image or statue of the Virgin all lit up and you have to actively search for the cross – I’m sure you all know the kind of place I mean. 

I’ve had to work hard at my relationship with Mary. So here I am on the fourth Sunday of Advent, just after the announcement of the first female Bishop in the CofE, to preach a sermon on Mary – don’t ever let anybody tell you God hasn’t got a sense of humour or timing.

Last week while I was contemplating what I would say to you,  I noticed a story in the Times Magazine  about the furory there is about the fashion show and TV advert for Victoria’s Secret’s lingerie and  surprisingly it was then that I really got to the heart of what it is theologically that I have a problem with.

If you don’t know what I’m on about a glance  at this image of a near naked woman dressed as an angel will give you a flavour of why there is a backlash. This  advertising campaign has  inadvertently highlighted the re-emergence of the feminist movement and this time it seems to be men who are in the vanguard, men like this one wearing T-shirts saying “this is what a feminist looks like”. You may also have seen  party political leaders looking slightly silly doing the same thing, something I suspect for them is also a slight diversionary activity. However people seem to be taking this new movement to heart.

So what I’m about to say might immediately alienate at least half of you, but as much as I hate this kind of portrayal of women and what it is doing to young girls I have to say that I do not think of myself as a feminist. Yes in my early teens I read Germaine Greer and Sparerib and temporarily committed to the “Sisterhood” but as I got older my concerns were not for specifically female rights, my concerns were more about equality of opportunity for each and every human being, be they male or female, more or less able, black or white and I still feel that way, I have no more or less in common with the soon-to-be Bishop Libby than I do with Andy or Alec and that is why both in my  previous secular  leadership and in my priesthood I am in very many ways gender blind.

And perhaps this is why I cannot invest in feminist arguments about the gender of God and in particular the gender of God incarnate.  To conceive of Gods-self  as gendered in any sense is to diminish him to our human frameworks, and to be fully human Jesus had to be either a man or a woman, and to be a leader in his time and context it would have been inconceivable for Jesus to have been conceived a woman. And so also it is unthinkable that he could have been anything other than born to a woman. And that is the theological significance, for God to truly dwell on earth with us, God incarnate had to be born of a women, a real living breathing, bleeding woman.

That is why the images of Mary which elevate her to the status of the divine, so she becomes in very many senses almost the forth person of the Trinity are just plain wrong. Not only is that a nonsense semantically it’s a nonsense theologically too. 

And that’s to say nothing of what those sort of images of her have done to the status of women in the church over the years – to be holy, to be like Mary, women would have to match this impossible ideal, she is just as objectified as the women in the advertisement and just like the image of a woman in a Victoria’s Secret advert, we make Mary impossible to match up to.

I can’t relate to this Mary because I haven’t a hope of being like her.

We need to re-habilitate our image of Mary because to deify this very young, scared Jewish girl from a small northern working village is to miss God’s point.  The entirety of the Annunciation and Nativity is about God loving us so much that he comes down to us, in the mess and the uncertainty, and the fear. 

To remove Mary’s humanity is to deny God’s purpose. 

Mary was indeed a highly favoured lady, and although her response and her faith were extraordinary - she was not, she was one of us, 

The first, but not the only one to know that God does extraordinary things through ordinary people like Mary, like Libby Lane, if we only have faith and the courage to say ‘yes’ to God’s call.

So when we think about Mary let’s not get hung up on the minutia - let’s see the meaning  - and remember that God became flesh to revel his presence to Mary and to each and every one of us -  to show us that we all, us broken and imperfect people are God’s dwelling place here on earth.

John (Father Moore) gave us a rousing Advent sermon on letting our light shine out and he was right, the knowledge of God’s indwelling in us is not Victoria’s secret,  it is not John’s secret, it’s not my secret and it's not your secret - it is a gift like every Christmas gift - the joy of which is only complete when it’s shared. 

So when all we men and women can feel is the doubt and the fear and our own inadequacy, let us remember Mary’s response, the response of an  unlikely and unremarkable woman  – 

‘…let it be as it pleaseth God.’