It's the Fourth Sunday of Advent as I write. Last Sunday we thought about St. John the Baptist and today, the Blessed Virgin Mary. These two are the two through whom God was able to manifest himself amongst his creation and carry out His mission as one of them. That is, as a human being. Both were essential for the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ. Both of them were essential to God reconciling the world to himself.
But rather than continuing in the heights of theology, I want to let these characters and snippets of their stories shed a light on our own very human emotions surrounding Christmas and the response we have to the prospect of celebrating it as we move through the remaining days of Advent. And to help us I want to include as well, John's parents Zechariah and Elizabeth, and Mary as a potential parent herself.
On the Third Sunday of Advent this year we've met John in prison; put there by King Herod because he called out and criticized Herod for marrying his sister-in-law Herodius. Herodius wanted John dead. But Herod had some respect for John and a sort of curiosity about him. So prison was a compromise. And it's from prison that John sends two of his own disciples to Jesus to ask him, 'Are you the one that is to come or should we expect another?'
Maybe John has been brooding in prison and doubts have set in about Jesus. Even though not too long ago he'd shouted to the crowd that Jesus was the Lamb of God and had baptised him in full view of everybody; even heard the voice from heaven say 'This is my Son in whom I am well pleased'. Even so, he'd had time to think and rethink as he languished incarcerated. And it looks as though another prison, that of doubt, began to surround him.
Jesus doesn't give John's disciples a straight answer, a simple yes or no. 'Believing in Him' doesn't ordinarily come as easy as that. He says to look around and tell John what they see, 'the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind see and the dead are raised to life,'
So what did John expect of Jesus? It seems he wasn't getting entirely what he expected. And doubt was the result. His story didn't end well. But not because of the doubt, as it happens. The doubt was, maybe, the result of too much thinking time to himself.
Now to John's parents Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah was a priest and his wife Elizabeth of the priestly family descended from Aaron. They were devout, righteous, observing all the demands and commandments of their religion. They had done so all their lives. And now they were old. The one thing missing from their lives was children. And both of them, very much of Jewish tradition, felt the disgrace and shame this meant, in their culture, for them both.
Zechariah, chosen by lot one day to burn incense at the altar in the temple is going about his business behind the curtain when he's visited by God's chief messenger, the Archangel Gabriel and told that Elizabeth will have a son and he's to call him John. The account in the Bible tells us that he was terrified at the appearance. And who wouldn't be? But then the disappointment, disillusionment and dismay of decades of unanswered prayer seem to come crashing in on him and he responds 'How do I know this is true?'
'Because I'm from God and I'm telling you so,' was in essence what Gabriel replied. But the penalty for Zechariah's doubt was that he would be struck dumb until John was born. So doubt at the presence of God active in the world and doubt at God's working in Zechariah's and Elizabeth's own lives was their very human response, devout though they were. And as we've seen, years later, doubt would encroach upon their son's response to God working in the world.
|The Blessed Virgin Mary|
The Panagia Portaitissa Icon
So, when you come to hear again about the events of that first Advent and Christmas and think about what they mean for you and for the world, what will your response be? At the end of all your thinking, when your reason has given up because it's all too much to cope with intellectually, what are you left with? Probably the emotional response of either doubt or awe? Or somewhere in between swinging from one to the other?