My sermon this Advent 4 about Mary was inspired by Banksy and Danny Boyle’s Alternativity and Malcolm Guite’s Annunciation sonnet. I post the text of the sermon here as my Christmas message this year. May you have a blessed Christmas and a very happy and healthy 2018!
We’ve had a week of nativity plays here in church. I wonder if you can remember who you played in your nativity play as a child?
A few years ago a survey was undertaken of adults about their role in a nativity play. When children, 42 percent of women said that they would have liked to play Mary and 23 percent of men would have liked to play Joseph. When asked which character they would like to play now if they were given the chance, most people responded with either Herod or the Innkeeper – people for some reason wanted to play the ‘baddies’!
This week an unusual production of a nativity play called the Alternativity was broadcast on BBC2. This was a staging of the play directed by the artist Banksy and film director Danny Boyle by the big wall in Bethlehem in the West Bank. Sadly, today, if you look up pictures of Bethlehem on the internet you will see that a huge two-story wall – twice the height of the Berlin Wall cuts directly through the town, dominating the landscape and making it feel like a prison with men with guns manning the watchtowers. Local Palestinian children were brought in to play the roles in this special production of the nativity. I was very moved by the young girl who said she wanted to play the part of Maryam (as she pronounced Mary). She had a beautiful pure singing voice and sang a beautiful hallelujah to the baby Jesus – all with the appalling backdrop of the wall that keeps the Palestinian people from travelling freely into the occupied parts of the West Bank. It really gave me a new perspective on the little town of Bethlehem about which we sing.
Would I want to play Mary in this nativity play? I don’t think so.
Some of the parents of the children who were in Banksy’s play in Bethlehem weren’t sure about allowing them to perform. Many of them had been shielded from the presence of the wall – their parents had kept it from them for as long as they could so that they could have as normal a childhood as possible. Being in the play would expose these children to the reality of the wall and their position as people living under occupation. Engaging directly in the nativity story for these children was literally dangerous. They were not even sure if anyone would want to come and watch – you don’t hang around a wall that has snipers at every tower.
I’m not sure you’d want to play any of the characters in this nativity play.
The Alternativity in Bethlehem that I watched this week reminded me that the nativity story is dangerous too. It’s fraught with danger. Which makes Mary’s response to the angel’s message that we heard in our gospel reading, all the more amazing.
If you read it closely, Luke has written his gospel in such a way that it makes us want to play Mary, or at least, want to be like Mary. She is an example to all of us.
Tonight we are going to be celebrating the incarnation – God becoming one of us, God becoming enfleshed, God reaching down literally into the mess and danger of our world on the edge of an occupied town where all life was fragile. This morning, the 4th Sunday of Advent we celebrate the role of Mary the mother of our Lord. Without Mary’s ‘yes’, we would have no Christmas. This is a reminder that God chooses to work in partnership with us, to work directly through ordinary human beings. God chooses us and then gives us the choice.
Gabriel tells Mary that she has found favour with God. He then tells her what will happen to her. She is allowed to question this experience she has of God speaking to her. And then, she says ‘let it be to me according to your word’.
God calls each one of us and just like Mary, God says to us, you didn’t choose me but I chose you – God is waiting for our reply.
Do you want to play Mary?
Oh that we can be like that young girl playing Maryam in the nativity play by the wall in Bethlehem, risking her life to bear the message of good news to all, singing hallelujah into the darkness of the listening audience. Oh that we can be like Mary and even knowing how much more challenging life is going to get once we allow God into our lives, we can still say ‘yes’ to God, yes to working with God to bring his presence into the world, into this dangerous and dark world.
I want to finish with a sonnet by Malcolm Guite called Annunciation:
Annunciation – Malcolm Guite
We see so little, stayed on surfaces,
We calculate the outsides of all things,
Preoccupied with our own purposes
We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,
They coruscate around us in their joy
A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,
They guard the good we purpose to destroy,
A hidden blaze of glory in God’s world.
But on this day a young girl stopped to see
With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice;
The promise of His glory yet to be,
As time stood still for her to make a choice;
Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred,
The Word himself was waiting on her word.