An angel announces the conception of Jesus to Mary: what does it mean for us today?

Scripture: Luke 1: 26-38

Luke presents us with a wonderful account of the origins of Jesus, the Messiah (Jesus, the Christ, to use the Greek term). Last week, the story seemed to begin at a tangent; the priest Zechariah had a vision while he worked in the Temple. The angel Gabriel told Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth would conceive a longed-for son in their old age. This son John would be filled with the Holy Spirit. Like the great Hebrew prophet Samuel, he would not consume strong drink, and would lead many people back to God.

Today, another visit; another birth foretold. Gabriel meets a young girl named Mary. As with Zechariah, he foretells a birth. But Mary’s son Jesus would be even greater than Elizabeth’s son John. He would actually be conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus would trace his lineage back to David, the greatest king of Israel.

What’s in a name?

The ancient world believed that a person’s name described their character. The name John means “God has shown favour” or “Graced by God”. When Elizabeth conceived John, God had shown her favour. Jesus (from the Hebrew name Yeshua) means “One who saves or rescues”.  This name holds within it the Christian concept of salvation.

Don’t worry: everything will be OK

Gabriel first told both Zechariah and Mary not to be afraid. We have probably all said something similar at one time or another. Someone – a friend, a hospital patient, a parishioner – is in distress. We try to comfort them by saying something like, “Don’t worry” or “I’m sure things will turn out OK” even if we really are not sure about the outcome. Maybe we say it as much to comfort ourselves as the person to whom we say it. Was Gabriel really certain that everything would go OK? I guess we have to believe it, because he was an angel sent by God!!

Understandably, Mary was less than enthusiastic with Gabriel’s prophesy. People married young back then, so she was almost certainly only a teenager. She risked death by stoning for being pregnant but unmarried. But Gabriel talked her into accepting – I guess you don’t have much choice if it’s an angel who tells you what will happen!

Gabriel also told Mary that her relative (cousin?) Elizabeth was five months pregnant.  Luke thus tells us about the link between John and Baptist and Jesus even before they were born. They will meet up again (of course) at the denouement of this story. That’s when John predicts Jesus’ coming ministry and God affirms his divinity in the words, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”

A mixture of Christian and pagan symbols

Before we get there, we must wait through Advent – the season of ‘coming’ – for the birth of the Christ-child. Although we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th, no-one really knows the actual date. Probably Christianity took over the pagan Roman festival of Saturnalia which occurred at the winter solstice. The idea of waiting in the darkness for the Light of Christ to enter the world, fits in with waiting for the sun to ‘return’ after the shortest day of the year. Christmas trees and wreaths, holly and mistletoe were also originally pagan symbols. They represent the green of life contrasting the dead of winter, just as the Christian Cross is the symbol for both Jesus’ death and the return of life through the Resurrection.

Darkness wasn’t always just symbolic

The pagan symbols that we have incorporated into our Christmas celebrations add a dimension that goes back long before Europe became converted to Christianity. They remind us about the meaning of darkness.  Our modern conveniences of electric lights let us forget how these long winter nights must have seemed to our ancestors. Winter nights were truly dark. In the words of the Third Collect of Evening Prayer, “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee O Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night …” It is not so many years ago that people did not venture out at night for fear of trolls, hobgoblins and werewolves. .

Darkness amid the celebrations

But let’s not imagine that darkness doesn’t exist, just because we have electric lights in our homes. Also, let’s not forget about spiritual darkness, just because there are happy-clappy Christmas specials on TV, and synthetic good cheer in the malls. Christmas can be a desperately lonely and sad time for many people. People whose families live far away. People suffering from sickness or other types of loss. Those for whom this will be the first Christmas since a member of the family died – for my brother in law David, for example, this will be the first Christmas without my sister Mandy. The wife of my friend Geoff died on Christmas Day two years ago. These events bring the mismatch of the Advent/Christmas season into sharp focus.

Advent: out of synch with the secular Christmas season

For church-goers, there is also a mismatch between how we think about this season and how the secular world sees it. In the world of malls, TV ads, and parties, Christmas begins right after Hallowe’en. I sometimes feel like saying, “It’s not Christmas, it’s Advent,” and getting put out because the Christmas music on the radio suddenly disappears at midnight on December 25, like Cinderella’s coach turning into a pumpkin. Because the commercial world has to prepare for Valentine’s Day!

But let’s be realistic. We are part of the culture around us. I doubt that many Anglicans refuse party invitations in early December because it isn’t Christmas yet. And I’ll bet that the average person in church today already has Christmas decorations and lights up! Michelle is trying to tell the story “properly” this year. Our creche set has only the ox, ass and manger in the stable so far. The other figures are still wrapped up in their tissue paper.

Holidays are holy days

Here’s something else we can grumble about. Why do people call this the holiday season instead of Christmas – that is, once we’ve got over the fact that it should really be called Advent? Why do politically correct people invite us to holiday parties and not Christmas parties? Don’t worry; don’t get in a snit. The word “holiday” is simply a contraction of Holy Day. So cheer up when strangers wish us happy Holy Days. And what about those gifts? Just an expression of crass commercialism, right? Not really. Even the Christ-child was offered gifts when the Magi came to visit. Isn’t it pleasurable to find a gift that a friend or family member might enjoy, and to pick it out specially for them?

So let’s do two opposite things this Advent season. Let’s wait expectantly and quietly with Mary, as we wait for the birth of her son later this month. But let’s remember that the earthly Jesus lived in this world, not outside of it. He partied with outcasts and sinners. Maybe they wished him Happy Holy Days at Passover other festivals. So let’s enjoy the company of friends and relatives and celebrate with them, even if it’s ‘only’ Advent. They may not always be here with us to enjoy their company.

Incarnation means that every day is Christmas

Although we wait for the Light of Christ to return on Christmas Eve, in a real sense, the Light is already here. Christmas isn’t just a one-time event from two thousand years ago in a stable in Bethlehem. The real message of Christmas is Incarnation – God took human form in the person of Jesus. The good news (Gospel) is that Christmas comes any day and every day, because we carry a spark of the divine in us. That spark is what the Angel Gabriel had detected in the young woman Mary, whose story we heard this morning