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City Church

THE PARISH CHURCH OF ST MARY THE VIRGIN, HENLEY-ON-THAMES

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Jan 2, 2021, Author: Fr Jeremy Tayler

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The Magnificat
2 Samuel 7.1-11,16
Romans 16.25-end
Luke 1.26-38

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

This Sunday we take a break from our focus on the psalms, because there is no psalm set for this Sunday morning. In place of a psalm, we have the Magnificat, Mary’s great hymn of praise which is said every day at Evening Prayer, and is a familiar part of Choral Evensong. And we also take a break from Mark and John, and turn to Luke’s gospel, because on this Fourth Sunday of Advent we reflect on the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary, a story which is only recounted in Luke’s gospel.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the angel’s greeting should present some translation difficulties. Angelic greetings are not everyday occurrences, we are speaking of something that is beyond normal human experience, something that defies description: unlike some of our Christmas carols, St Luke doesn’t give us a description of the appearance of the angel, only of the dialogue. But even at the level of human language, there are some complications.

The first word is relatively straightforward. In Greek it is Chaire, which is a common word of greeting, and so is often translated as “Greetings”, or more traditionally, “Hail”, as in the famous Marian prayer the “Hail Mary” which partially comes from this passage. It is perhaps a little surprising to find the angel addressing Mary with this word, because it is a distinctively Greek greeting. The traditional Jewish greeting would have been Shalom, meaning “Peace”. But Chaire is more than a simple greeting like “hello”; it also has a literal meaning that is distinctive and significant. That meaning is “Rejoice”. We find a closely-related word also at the end of Luke’s gospel, when we are told of the disciples joy and amazement at the appearance of the Risen Christ. Luke’s gospel begins and ends with this note of joy.

The next word brings greater complications. The Greek word is Kecharitomene. A literal translation would be “you who have been gifted” or “you who have been graced”. English translations sometimes follow St Jerome’s Latin gratia plena, “full of grace”. Sometimes they use the rather more vague “favoured one”. Modern translators are often reluctant to use the traditional “full of grace” because the word “grace” has taken on a technical theological meaning that it did not have when St Luke was writing. But “favoured one” loses that sense of Mary as a recipient of grace, of a free gift. “Rejoice, you who have been graced” is hardly natural English, but that is the most literal reading of the words of the angel.

The words that follow are straightforward: ho Kyrious meta sou, meaning simply “the Lord with you”; English translators have to fill in the “is” which is not necessary in Greek.

“Rejoice, you who have been graced, the Lord [is] with you.”

Mary at the Annunciation is the Church in miniature. She has heard and received the good news. The fulness of the gospel is not yet known to her, but Mary’s “yes” to the angel, which is really Mary’s “yes” to God, prefigures every subsequent “yes” to God, every subsequent welcome given to Jesus, in Christian history. And through this “yes” she receives the Holy Spirit, as the Church will receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And through this “yes”, she is graced, she is gifted, she receives the gift of the Lord Jesus in an incomparably direct way, a gift that is given not only to her but to all who will receive Him. Mary is the mother of Jesus, but she is also our mother in the faith, and as St Ambrose called her way back in the fourth century, she is the mother of the church. What is said to her is said to us, what is given to her is given to us: “Rejoice, you who have been graced, the Lord is with you”. These words, first given to Mary, are given now to us.

Now to be honest these are not auspicious times for rejoicing. And we might not feel all that much like rejoicing. And we can guess that Mary too may have felt a little hesitancy in responding to the angel’s greeting, which if taken literally is a command to rejoice. What we would call an unplanned pregnancy is never a straightforward thing to deal with, and Mary’s situation presented certain complications. And yet Mary does rejoice: “My soul magnifies the Lord” she says, “and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour”.

As St Paul writes in his Epistle to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always”. It is easy to forget that he is writing these words from prison. As Mary says: “my spirit rejoices in God my saviour”. It is easy to forget the hardships that she must have undergone as an expectant mother in a deeply traditional society with what appeared to be a somewhat questionable pregnancy. It is easy to forget for that matter the hardships that she must have undergone in being a person of humble background and modest means in a much harder time than our own.

And so as we prepare to celebrate afresh the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, however difficult the times, however disrupted our plans, however much fear and anxiety and loneliness stalk the corners of our minds, the message for us is both familiar and simple: “Rejoice, you who have been graced, the Lord is with you”.

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.