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Advent Birds & Bees

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I have been instructed by certain people, none of whom I find are preaching this morning, to preach a provocative sermon to you. Well, as I am your humble and obedient servant I did my best, and called my sermon Advent birds and bees. What could be more provocative than that? I am going to explain to you the facts of life in Advent - what could be more provocative than that?

The fact of life in Advent is that we move into another kind of time. The common kind of time is straight line or linear time; in straight line time we count from A to B. After five years have I doubled my money? On the 30th February I am going to turn 60. This year we celebrate the 2015th Christmas and the 1983rd Easter. But check up with Andrew first. He will tell you what day of the week the first Christmas was on. There is a special kind of time called round time, circular time. Round time is what gardeners use as they move from summer to autumn to winter to spring. Round time is what the church uses as it starts with Advent and moves through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost; round and round we go entering each year into the circle of salvation, standing together in Advent and Christmas with Gabriel and Mary, and shepherds and wise men and Joseph and angels. Or, if you like to change the roundness from the vertical to the horizontal, church time, round time is like standing on a mountain or hill top, and turning 360° to see a great panorama displayed before you. One of my more memorable meals was in the special Christchurch Dinner Tram. Round and round we went, in daylight and in the dark; till the landmarks became familiar and we saw the city in a number of different ways. Church time is like that. In church time we follow round the panorama of the horizon, and we do it many times so that the heavenly country becomes familiar to us, and earthly territory becomes renewed. As I look out at Advent from the hill top, what I see with my peculiar vision is a three lane motorway; one lane veering left to the future coming of Christ, one lane straight ahead to the coming of Christ this Christmas, and one lane off to the right to Bethlehem, to the original birth of Jesus. For me, that’s my panoramic view of Advent.

But then, Advent springs from the 6th century church. I’m not sure whether I’d have devised Advent quite like the way it is. You see, a curious thing happens - we come to the end of Advent and only then do we come to the Annunciation, the acceptance by Mary of God’s plan for her through pregnancy to give birth to Jesus. I’d have begun Advent with it. After all, without Mary’s pregnancy there would be no Advent, no Christmas, no birth, no star, angels, magi from the east. And, if you go back to my model of Advent as a three lane motorway, the Annunciation, the pregnancy of Mary is the bottleneck through which all lanes must pass. And, believe me, the Annunciation is a bottleneck. It slows us right down. We say, just like Mary herself, How can this be, she’s never had a sexual relationship? And that’s true. When you want to tell your children about the birds and the bees and explain the facts of life to them there are many good biblical examples: David, Samson, Solomon, possibly Hosea. But you would not turn to Mary. You can derive no help from this story at all. Then why does it fascinate us so? I’ll make a bet with you. I’ll bet you one of my homemade mince pies to your big box of Cadbury Roses that if you trudge through the art galleries of the world, and the great cathedrals of Europe, you will find as many pictures of the Annunciation as you will of the Nativity. Artists have been captivated by this meeting: the angel Gabriel from heaven came, his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame. All hail, said he, thou lowly maiden, Mary, most highly favoured lady...

How can all this be? Well, we are beginning a story, the story of the boy who becomes known to us as the Christ child, the anointed one; as the one through whom God worked, as the one in whom God was, as the one who suffered, died, and was raised. And here in the Annunciation we are beginning the story. That’s why it is the bottleneck on the Advent highway. There’d be no story without the birth, the beginning. But we know, commonsense citizens of the 21st century - and we’ve had long enough to learn the facts of life, that there’s no birth without sex. If I’ve looked at the Annunciation once, I’ve looked at it a thousand times: was Joseph the father? Was Mary the victim of a rape and is this some psychological sublimation? Was the angel some secret true love, for Mary was in an arranged relationship with Joseph, what is called a betrothal? I can’t find the answer; this whole meeting is enveloped in mystery, and if I follow my questions I go over the edge into absurdity and irrationality. I have come to think that it is precisely with this mystery that here’s the beginning of the greatest story ever told, and it begins as that kind of story must - in a birth without sex. It’s this conception without sex that so fascinates the artists. Those Italian artists who paint Gabriel and Mary looking at each other in a moment of eternal stillness knew more about the birds and bees than you or I will ever know, yet they paint a relationship that can only be described as spiritual. Listen to Edwin Muir from his poem on the Annunciation:

The angel and the girl are met.

Earth was the only meeting place...

Each reflects the other’s face

Till heaven in hers and earth in his

Shine steady there.

Outside the window footsteps fall

Into ordinary day.

But through the endless afternoon

These neither speak or movement make,

But stare into their deepening trance

As if their gaze would never break.

As if their gaze would never break. Then Mary said, Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word. In the beginning was this birth - but was it the birth of a child so much as it was the birth of a trust and dependance on God that the hands and feet, the mind and heart and soul of this boy should be blessed as much as ever could be by love and peace and hope? The Annunciation might be a mystery to us, but it is not at all strange - because I think there is not one of us who has not had a meeting with Gabriel. And whether it be from innocence or from hope, or from longing, our eyes have shone with heaven’s reflected glory. Nor is it strange that we know the birth of something profound in us without sex; for I am convinced that in us are born ministries of grace, of compassion, of understanding; ministries of a new way, of a new world, of a new hope; ministries of speech in vocalised love, of sacrament in embodied love, of care in embracing love. I am convinced that in us lie ministries of the Christ-child, and they were not born of the will of flesh or the will of humankind; they were not born of sex, but of God. Where did they come from, these strange, floating, evanescent bits of God in us? Not from any human relationship but of God, from that Gabriel moment when heaven shone in our eyes.

So, it’s almost Christmas, almost time when that which Gabriel claimed from Mary comes to pass and the boy is born. Unto us a son is given. And we will enter into the roundness of time to stand with Mary and Joseph and shepherds, along with those we love and care for, around the manger where the baby Jesus lies. You know he is the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the child born for us. And the Godness in him, complete and full and overflowing, will cry out in kinship to that fragment of God in us. Life can never be the same again.

And all that, I assure you, is the fact of life this Christmas.

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