A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio
The fourth Sunday of Advent is one of my favourites of the church year. The apocalyptic visions and prophetic warnings have given way to the promise that Christmas is, indeed, coming; that Christ will be born in Bethlehem, the manger filled; that the angels will sing and for a moment, we will forget the present, the future, the apocalypse, everything except that baby, born in more than the image of God: Emmanuel. God with us.
On this Sunday we still have the anticipation, the anxious and fervent hope. There is labour to come, we know that. But in this moment, we allow ourselves the hope of complicity with God: Let it be as you have promised.
And with Mary we break out into the song of all that might be: the redemption of the lowly, the revolution of the meek; an end to corruption and conceit; the satisfaction of hunger and the setting right of the world.
We sang a different form of the Magnificat this morning, prompted at first, admittedly, by purely pragmatic concerns over copyright of the hymns we usually use; but when I came to research the tune we adopted, Jerusalem, I discovered some things about its composer that seemed almost prophetic in their appropriateness for this morning’s worship.
You may know that Charles Hubert Hastings Parry composed this music to accompany a poem by William Blake, based on an old legend that Joseph of Arimathea once took the young Jesus on a European tour (the whole thing being under the Roman Empire, who would not permit a Brexit, and therefore full of open borders). Uncle Joseph was supposed to have landed with the teenaged Messiah on the western tip of England. But Blake’s poem may also have been a critique of the rise of the industrial era, which he feared was crushing the poor, not to mention destroying green and pleasant land, and of the complicity of the established church in that secular oppression and support of rich and powerful interests over the needs and cares of the lowly.
When Parry first composed his tune, he was commissioned by those encouraging support of the war effort and the troops of the First World War. But Parry found himself sickening of war and withdrawing his support from the pro-war movement. It is appropriate, then, that his tune in our Hymnal is set to the peaceable words of Isaiah, in which the lion lies down with the lamb.
But Parry did lend his composition to a different fight. When he was approached by the Women’s Suffrage movement, he gladly gave them permission to use the song as their anthem. Like Mary, he recognized that God did not regard the estate of women in as low terms as some of the men around them; he was happy to affirm their claims to full and equal stature, to level out the elevated and raise up the lowly. He even, upon his death, bequeathed to them the copyright of the anthem.
Parry did not live to see the completion of women’s suffrage in his home country. He died a victim of the global pandemic, the Spanish flu, six weeks before the first, limited allowances for women’s votes, and a month before the Armistice that ended the First World War.
Parry, an ally of peace, encourager of revolutionary equality, a victim of pandemic, and a life lived in anticipation whose echoes resound still in song is, I think, the perfect accompaniment to this morning’s Magnificat.
We are still finding our way between the fight for what is right and the deep and urgent desire for peace. We are still reckoning with the fallout and pollution of our own creative success. We are still uncomfortably aware of our inequity. We are still connected globally as much by our suffering as by our progress; but we are learning, and we are not without hope. We are still labouring toward the kingdom of God and the upheaval of mountains and valleys that will bring equality to our lives and justice to our streets, an end to oppression and complicity with greed instead of with God. The contractions are strong.
This is the Sunday of anticipation of the Incarnation of God. It is the Sunday on which we sing of what might be, and consider how we will labour toward what should be, and trust that God will bring to bear what will be.
It is the Sunday on which we pledge our complicity with the conspiracy about to be born in Bethlehem: Let it be to us, O God, according to your Word.