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Sermon: Eucharist - 21 December 2014

Sunday 21st December 2014
Cathedral Eucharist
2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16
Luke 1.26-38
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In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth.

In nomine Patris…

Norfolk is a very beautiful county, with a stunning coastline and beaches, rolling countryside and the Norfolk Broads, but it’s often thought of, perhaps unfairly, as a bit of a backwater in English terms. In some ways it’s a bit like Galilee is in the Holy Land, a little out of the way, but fertile, beautiful and productive.

There’s another connection between Galilee and Norfolk. Galilee is home to the town of Nazareth and Norfolk has a settlement known as ‘England’s Nazareth’, the village of Walsingham. I’ll come back to Walsingham later on.

Nazareth is a bustling city today. It is largely Arab, both Muslim and Christian, although in the State of Israel. Carpenter’s workshops line the street that leads to the Church of St Joseph, the husband of Mary and guardian of Jesus, which is said to stand on the site of Joseph’s own workshop. That church is very near the Basilica of the Annunciation which is constructed over the foundations and ruin of a first century house - reputed to be Mary’s childhood home - which is still visible. This is said to be the site of the announcement by the angel Gabriel to Mary.

There is, though, another site reputed to be the place of the Annunciation and that is the Orthodox Church in Nazareth.

This could be the prelude to another depressingly familiar tale of Christians disagreeing and being petty and fractious. However it’s not quite like that.

The Orthodox Church is built over a well. It is known as the Well of the Virgin Mary, where local lore has it Mary first encountered the angel and where she used to take Jesus to draw water as he grew up.

Now you might be thinking with your well trained, sceptical Western mind, “well, that’s what’s it’s called, but how do they know that?” The wonderfully precious thing about that well is that there is only one well in Nazareth. So if the location of St Joseph’s Church is in doubt, or Mary’s parent’s house in question, the well is not. Mary, and later, Jesus, must have gone there to draw water.

The story in Nazareth is that the annunciation, which Luke records, happened over two locations.

First, it is said, the angel came to Mary whilst she was drawing water from the well. Not only was she drawing water to drink for the family, but was also drawing from the wellsprings of God’s love: ‘with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation’ says Isaiah the prophet (Isaiah 12.3). Mary was physically drawing water from the well which, when drunk, will not quench thirst for long, but was spiritually drawing the Living Water that will become in her a spring of water gushing up to eternal life (John 4.14b).

As the woman of Samaria, said to Jesus at another well, ‘Lord, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water’. (John 4.15)

So the angel came to the well, and greeted Mary. As we read, ‘she was much perplexed by these words’. So the local story goes, she was terrified, and this is when she dropped her water jugs and fled home.

It was on the journey home that she pondered what this greeting was about. So often we wander and ponder at the same time.

That is a profoundly Advent thing to do. Mary’s wondering journey echoes the journey of the Patriarchs to the Promised Land who constantly had to check their bearings, not just for the celestial navigation of the stars, but to allow themselves to come close to God and he come close to them. After the Exodus from Egypt under Moses and the re-entry into Canaan God’s presence, in the Ark of the Covenant, was moved about in tent and tabernacle. So too Mary and Joseph will journey to Bethlehem, with all the inconvenience, discomfort and cost that would entail. The Advent journey is one of perplexity about the mystery of God and decisive vision of the Last Things, but also a journey in God’s company.

Then Mary made it home, in her own domestic setting, and the angel returned to her. The angel again reassures her, having noted her fear, and says, ‘Do not be afraid Mary’, before telling her what her vocation was, should she accept it.

Perhaps that wandering and pondering enabled her to ask her first question, ‘How can this be?’ but also it freed her to say, ‘Yes’: ‘Yes, here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’

The well; the journey; being at home. These three elements that feature in Annunciation are about Mary then and humanity, us, today.

This brings me back to Walsingham. Walsingham is known as England’s Nazareth. The Shrine comprises a church, a well and a replica of the Holy House of Nazareth that was revealed to Lady Richeldis in 1061 in a vision.

It is a place of pilgrimage, a place where journeys converge. It is also a place where a deep sense of the holiness of Mary’s ‘yes’ to God pervades everything. Walsingham is an icon of what today’s gospel is about. It asks us what we most desire in life, that water which makes us thirsty again, or that which quenches our thirst, Jesus Christ the Living Water. It asks us to examine under God our journeying through life and where God leads and takes us. It asks us to be alert to God in our domestic setting and where our lives are rooted.

Mary’s ‘yes’ took her to a dark place. For more journeys would come from it. It took her away from the safety of home. Her journey to her cousin Elizabeth was filled with joy in telling her about the news of the angel, but also perhaps a journey away from the shame and disgrace of her pregnancy. On the brink of giving birth she left home to go to Bethlehem. The birth of her son saw the family flee to Egypt, the Magi’s visit having sparked a frenzy of infanticide by Herod, the massacre of the Innocents.

I am sure on all our minds is last week’s massacre of innocents and their teachers in Peshawar. The sheer darkness and absence of anything good in that is chilling, and so reminiscent of Herod’s action that it is unnerving. What does the ‘yes’ of Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, (who knows mothers’ pain) have to say to that; what does the Incarnation of the Word have to say to that?

The first response is surely silence, bewilderment, fear.

It was and is in a dark world that Jesus Christ is born. The proclamation of the Incarnation, the taking of human flesh and form by Jesus Christ, which needed Mary’s ‘yes’ is the only way Christians can respond. God is in the murk and mire of human existence, calling us and leading us on the way to light, warmth and hope.

Today, either side of Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, on this shortest and darkest day of the year the antiphon ‘O Oriens’ is sung: ‘O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death’

It is all the more important to make that our prayer as we thirst with Mary that the lowly will be raised up, that we will journey with Christ, even the way of the Cross and seek him out and make him known as the Light of World.