Be blesséd

Luke 1:46-55 – The Magnificat

Christ Church Highbury, December 17th 2017

Unusually for a sermon, I’m going to begin with a lesson in grammar…

In this reading this, there is a word that is pronounced one of two ways, usually pretty much inter-changeably. In verse 48 Mary declares that: “From now on all generations will call me blessed…”

Sometimes the word is pronounced blessed and sometimes blesséd. As someone who is regularly teased for the way in which I pronounce certain words (particularly ‘theatre’) and who has been known to refer to the famous play as “Harry Potter and the Curséd Child”; I wasn’t sure if this was a quirk I’d acquired.

You might think it’s simply a quirk of history – that if we’re being traditional or old fashioned, we use the accent – but in fact, there is a specific meaning inferred by the accent. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the following rules apply:

When a person or object receives a blessing, they are blessed – like when I lay hands upon children coming for communion – it’s the past tense of the verb ‘bless’.

However, blesséd is an adjective describing the state of someone – like a beatified saint, or Mary, or the child she bore (as Luke describes in verse 42). Or the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. Blesséd are the peacemakers, etc.

Before I continue, I’m going to put forward a disclaimer. Although I’ve now worked out and explained to you the rules of pronunciation, I may well forget to use the correct pronunciation throughout the rest of the sermon. As I’ve been writing this, Word has helpfully auto-corrected my use of accents to try and remind myself – so even Word doesn’t seem to recognise that there is a difference between the two words!

But why is this important?

Because being blessed is something of a temporary state, whereas being blesséd is a permanent state of affairs.

Generations will call Mary blesséd. The role given to her by God was not a temporary state – she was forever to have been blessed by the Holy Spirit having given birth to the Messiah.

In the preceding verses before Mary’s song, the word appears multiple times. Elizabeth declares: “Blesséd are you among women, and blesséd is the child you will bear!”

And, speaking about herself: “Blesséd is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!”

Elizabeth has recognised Mary’s unique state of blessedness, which comes from the child she is carrying for God. It’s not that she’s in some way won a competition to be the most blessed of all women in the entire world, it’s that she has received a unique, divine calling. Only one woman in the entire history of creation would ever have the opportunity of giving birth to God’s son. For Elizabeth, it is an expression of joy that Mary is associated with the Messiah in this way – which in turn also makes her blesséd too.

In these verses, Luke is trying to get across an important message for the reader. This isn’t just about the holiness and blessédness of two women whose status none of his readers will ever emulate, it is about the fact that it is a joy to be associated with Christ, no matter what that association is. We will not give birth to Jesus or John the Baptist, but we can and do have a relationship with Christ, which brings us joy and leads us into the condition of being blesséd.

That’s why the grammatical distinction is important. In our relationship with Christ we are in a state of blessédness, not receiving a temporary blessing. We receive the Holy Spirit and can be joyful in our relationship with God.

***

Unfortunately, as is so often the way with language, the word “blessed” has become somewhat devalued in recent years.

Some of you may be aware of the social media phenomenon that is “#blessed”. It’s particularly evident amongst young, white, American women where even the most unassuming event is a blessing. Something along the lines of:

“The barista at Starbucks put an extra shot in my grande Pumpkin Spice Latte.  #blessed”

“Got a parking space right next to the store when it was raining. #blessed”

I suppose it comes from an attitude of counting every blessing, which is a good thing to do. But being blesséd means so much more than an extra shot! It is knowing that God has anointed us with the Holy Spirit. That we have been identified as being a crucial part of his mission on earth.

I was in New York last month, and (obviously) did some shopping. I was at Target – my all-time favourite shopping experience, the UK has nothing that compares – and spotted a sweatshirt emblazoned with “blessed”. I was very, very tempted to buy it and wear it as my Christmas jumper – and use it as an opportunity to share a mini version of this sermon every time I was asked about it. To be honest, I regret not buying it!!

I guess I was worried people would see me and judge me – for using the word to mean something ridiculous & inconsequential – when in fact, we would all be justified to wear one!

The people who felt blessed because of their latte & parking space? Well, they ARE blessed, just not for the reasons they think!

***

So, Mary is also to be known by future generations as blesséd. She is blesséd because she is humble; because God chose a simple human being to play such a major part in his plan.

A major theme of Luke’s gospel is his concern to show that its message is for all – including those who are marginalised, in fact, especially for those who are marginalised. In the world of 1st century Palestine, this included the poor, the outcasts and women. In Mary’s song, the message that the hungry will be fed but the rich will be sent away empty is an element of this emphasis – but so is the fact that Luke emphasises the importance of women in the birth of Christ.

Obviously, a woman had to have a fairly crucial role in the birth, but Luke highlights the importance not just of Mary, but also Elizabeth and Anna – who prophecies over Jesus when he’s presented at the temple after his birth in chapter 2. This should emphasise to all of us that God can and does use anybody. He didn’t – and doesn’t – care how they are regarded by society. He has chosen each of them – and each of us – for a divine purpose.

Mary realises this, and she sings praises to God – not herself. That’s why we call this part of the passage the magnificat, because Mary is glorifying God, his deeds and his promises. It is he who has been set apart and is worthy of praise, not Mary. Mary is blessed because she is God’s humble servant and realises that all she can do is praise God for his blessing upon her.

If God can use an unprepossessing, young, poor, woman as the key to bringing salvation to the world, what can he do with us?

 

***

An old friend of mine is currently reading the Bible for the first time (other than having to study bits of it at school). A few months ago, she asked my advice on which Bible to buy and where to start reading – so I suggested she begin with Luke and Acts. It’s a good place to start for lots of reasons. They’re written by the same person. They provide a good chronology to the early life of the church. And, they tend to emphasise the role of minorities and the discriminated against.

We met up a couple of weeks ago, and she told me how she was really enjoying Luke. She loved how the role of women was emphasised and the historical context of events. (She & I both studied history at university.) But what had impacted her the most was Mary’s song glorifying God. She’d read it over and over again, in awe of this young woman’s reaction to God’s dramatic declaration.

For my friend, the most amazing thing was Mary’s gratitude and confidence that this would all work out, because it was God’s purpose for her. Mary was God’s humble servant, given the most arduous of tasks, yet took it on with grace and thanksgiving. In her song, Mary lists the many things that God has already done for his people. It is a song of exalting God – not herself.

What hit her was that we are all given gifts by God – admittedly, not giving birth to the Messiah sized gifts – but gifts nonetheless. We have a God who is merciful and has plans for us. Yet how quick is humanity to glorify itself? Or, when we believe the task ahead of us is too hard, complain that we cannot possibly do it? Why can’t we be more like Mary, she asked.

***

I mentioned earlier that, as a result of our relationship with Christ, we too are blesséd. And I mean blesséd – it is not temporary, it’s permanent.

Just like Mary, we have the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us through the challenges and gifts that God puts before us.

So, today, in addition to encouraging you all to know that you are indeed blesséd, I would love you to begin this final week of advent what your song of praise and glory to God might include. How might you be thankful for what God has already done in your life?

The eucatastrophe of the resurrection

Luke 24:13-35 The eucatastrophe of the resurrection

Christ Church Highbury, April 30th 2017

This reading is, I believe, a resurrection appearance in which it is easy to place ourselves within the story. The two travellers towards Emmaus are dejected, disappointed and hopeless. You can imagine the catch in their voice as they conclude their story of all that has happened in Jerusalem over the last few days: “…but they did not see Jesus.”

In Luke’s account of the resurrection, Jesus has not yet appeared to his disciples at this point. The travellers on the road may be leaning towards one of the more logical explanations for the empty tomb – that someone has stolen Jesus’ body – perhaps to make the disciples’ grief all the more painful. The body of their beloved teacher isn’t even being given the respect that it deserved.

I feel like we can probably all empathise with Cleopas and his companion. Most of us will have experienced deep grief and hopelessness at points in our lives. Situations where promises seem to have been broken. Where things have not gone to plan. When a loved one has left us. Where all hope feels lost.

The pair are responding in a very human way. As they walk, they talk and discuss with each other. I can imagine them weighing up different scenarios. Pondering what meaning they might have. Perhaps they went over things they had learned from Jesus, trying to find an answer.

It feels like a human response to me, because this is exactly what I do when I’m faced with a similar situation. I walk. I think. I ponder. I talk to friends or family. When things haven’t being going to plan in my life, or when difficult events have occurred, I pound the streets. I take my anger out on my feet. I let the tears flow. It’s immensely cathartic, and an attempt to make sense of all that is going on within and around me.

***

Of course, we, the readers, are in on the secret. We know the identity of the stranger who comes alongside them, but their eyes remain closed to Jesus’ presence.

In just a few verses, the two disciples move from the depths of despair to the pinnacle of elation. At the moment when Jesus breaks bread, he is revealed to them and they realise that prophecy has indeed been fulfilled, right in front of them. It is an amazing moment of joy!

In 1944, Tolkien coined the term ‘eucatastrophe’ in one of his letters. It’s a word he used to describe ‘the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears’. It’s the opposite of a catastrophe, changing everything irrevocably for the better. In one sense, he was describing a literary device – a moment in a novel when the unexpected happens and your perception of events changes completely.

My favourite fictional example of what Tolkien was describing takes place in the work of one of his closest friends. In The Lion the Witch & the Wardrobe – when Aslan defeats death. Many of you will be familiar with this scene, but to put this passage into context, Susan and Lucy have just spent a night watching the White Witch and her allies tying Aslan to a stone table, before killing him. As dawn breaks, something happens…

At that moment they heard from behind them a loud noise…. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan.

“Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”

 “Yes!” said a great voice from behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.

“Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children… “But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

 “It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

I vividly remember the first time I heard this story – I was 6 or 7, on holiday in Llandudno. My parents were strong believers in the importance of reading to my sister and I, and on this occasion, I was suffering from an ear infection and my mum read to me while I cuddled under a blanket on the sofa. I’ve heard the book far more times than I’ve read it for myself – we had a complete set of the Chronicles of Narnia on cassette tape read by the Shakespearian actor Michael Horden, and it’s his voice I hear in my head as I read that quote. But, in common with most children of the 1980s, what I visualise in my head is the BBC adaptation of the book.

Every time – and I mean every time – I read or hear this part of the story I get goosebumps. Even as I sat in Starbucks working on this sermon, the hairs on my arms stood on end.

Of course, we’re well aware of the deliberate parallel between Aslan and Jesus. This scene is intentionally evoking the resurrection of Christ. But I don’t think I had much idea of that the first time I heard it.

This word ‘eucatastrophe’ that Tolkien coined can be applied to other books or films. The dénouement of the Harry Potter series. The moment of escape in The Shawshank Redemption. There is a eucatastrophic moment in Tolkien’s most famous work – LOTR – but I can’t speak of its impact because, and this may be shocking, I’ve never read the books or watched the films! [No one in my family has. We’re not stubborn, we’re just not huge fans of fantasy that has no foot in our reality.]

But it isn’t just a literary device that one of our greatest writers established. Tolkien considered the resurrection to be “the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest fairy story”. He wrote that: ‘it produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places joy and sorrow are at one, reconciled as selfishness and altruism are lost in love.’

By no means is this the same as “happily ever after”. These moments cannot be experienced without also experiencing the sorrow that precedes them. We cannot fully rejoice in the resurrection without going through the despair of the crucifixion.

***

On the road to Emmaus the two disciples journeyed from the sorrow of Christ’s crucifixion to the joy of his revelation of himself in the breaking of bread.

They knew Jesus’ teaching, and the prophecies made about the Messiah. As verse 21 reports, “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” But their sorrow clouds their ability to have faith in all they had learnt. It’s as though their hope has been buried in the tomb alongside Christ.

Jesus – although they still don’t know who he is – chastises them, saying: “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” As he outlines the ways in which prophecy has been fulfilled, they realise later that their hearts were being warmed. Once he has revealed his identity, they say to one another: ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’

Just as we can relate to their sorrow as they set out on their journey, we can also relate to their disbelief. Jesus’ explanation consisted of teaching what they had heard before, but their grief prevented them from fully believing until the moment when bread is broken.

Our journey of faith is one that follows in the footsteps of these disciples. We can draw confidence from this resurrection appearance because it is a witness to who Jesus was, is and shall be: the Messiah.

That moment when Jesus breaks bread and they are able to see who he is? That is the moment of purest joy, pushing aside all the sorrow and confusion of the preceding days!

We need to share in that joy of the resurrection. To emulate Cleopas and his companion who returned at once to Jerusalem to share the joy with the other disciples, telling all who they met on their journey of the amazing event that had occurred.

Many of us will have moments where the joy of the resurrection has shone in our lives in a similar manner to this moment of revelation for the two disciples. A moment when our hearts have overflowed with the elation of the truth that Christ is risen.

I have a taste of this every time I’ve begun our Easter Sunday services with the words: “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!” Simply proclaiming that truth fills me with immense joy – especially having journeyed through the grief of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Or every time I get to say the Eucharistic Prayer and once again share the story of who Jesus is and why we remember him in bread and wine.

Then there’s my own testimony of how the risen Christ has been at work in my own life. Of the difference that this glorious news has made – which I often get to share with others when they ask how I came to be ordained.

So the question I want to leave you with is twofold:

  • What is the moment that fills you with joy at the truth that is the resurrection?
  • Who can you run and tell about it?