Monday, 18 December 2017

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 24 December 2017

The Annunciation depicted on the Nativity Façade of the Basilica of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Next Sunday, 24 December 2017, is the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The Christmas Eve celebrations begin in the evening, and I shall post about these tomorrow [19 December 2017].

But if we use those Christmas readings on Sunday morning, we confuse the celebration of Christmas Day on Sunday evening and Monday morning. We also miss the opportunity to bring a thoughtful and meaningful close to the Season of Advent on the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for the Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year B are: II Samuel 7: 1-11, 16; the Canticle Magnificat or Psalm 89: 1-4, 19-26; Romans 16: 25-27; and Luke 1: 26-38.

There is link these readings here.

II Samuel 7: 1-11, 16:

This passage recalls a conversation between God and King David. Despite David’s plans to build a fine temple as a dwelling place for God, God insists that he will dwell with his people always, no matter where they are.

The Canticle Magnificat or Psalm 89: 1-4, 19-26:

There are good reasons for providing the Canticle Magificat as the first option this morning. Note that the psalm is only the second option, and should only be used if used Magnificat in this place the previous Sunday.

This is a wonderful opportunity to use this canticle in the morning. It is normally reserved for Evensong or Evening Prayer, which means fewer and fewer parishioners have an opportunity to hear this canticle. There are two hymn versions of this canticle that are easy to sing in parish settings 704, Mary sang a song, a song of love; and 712, Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord.

My notes on this canticle are integrated into my notes on the Gospel reading.

Nevertheless, Psalm 89 is appropriate for this Sunday, for this is a hymn of praise, thanking God for his faithfulness in fulfilling the promise given to David.

Romans 16: 25-27:

This epistle reading, which concludes Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, is a doxology that praises God for his revelation through the ages. God is now fully revealed through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. This is the heart of the Gospel, and the reason we are celebrating Advent and Christmas.
A Christmas scene on a street in Limerick this Advent (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Luke 1: 26-38

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850), now in the Tate Gallery, London


This Gospel reading is the same we had almost nine months ago on 25 March for the Feast of the Annunciation, which is one of the 12 Great Feasts of the Church. We have the same Gospel reading again, almost nine months later, because the action initiating Christ’s Incarnation is so significant as we prepare to celebrate that Incarnation.

However, there is a cultural antipathy within many parts of the Church of Ireland (though not throughout the Anglican Communion) that makes it difficult to deal with Gospel stories about the Virgin Mary.

The Friday before last [8 December 2017] was an ordinary day in the Church of Ireland calendar and lectionary. But those of us who have a residual memory of provincial shoppers travelling to Dublin on that date to start their Christmas shopping in earnest would have realised the significance of this date for our neighbours.

Nor do we mark 15 August, although we mark the date on which other saints are said to have died, including Charles Inglis on the following day, 16 August.

Most of our parishes are unlikely to even notice that 8 September is marked in the calendar and lectionary of the Church of Ireland.

Many of us, too, find it difficult to take on board the plaster statues and their portrayal of the Virgin Mary, in demure robes of white and blue, which run contrary to the strong Mary celebrated in the canticle Magnificat, which is offered as a first choice in the readings instead of the Psalm for next Sunday; the strong Mary who stands by the Cross when most of the disciples have run away; and the strong Mary of the Pieta.

A Pre-Raphaelite painting:

We are all used to these images of the Virgin Mary that lack challenge and message, images that have been inherited through Mediaeval and Renaissance art. But one of the most challenging presentation in art of the Annunciation is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850), now in the Tate Gallery in London.

The poet, painter, and designer Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) was a co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of Victorian artists who wanted to emulate the richness and purity of the mediaeval period. The son of an exiled Italian patriot and scholar, he was a brother of the poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1893), author of one of the greatest Christmas carols, In the bleak mid-winter, one that might be worth singing today

This painting is one of the earliest Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and when it was first exhibited in 1850 it shocked and stirred controversy.

In this painting, Rossetti offers a radical reinterpretation of the Annunciation, rejecting the traditional representation of the Virgin Mary passively receiving the news. Instead, he seeks to give the picture a supernatural realism.

While the angel is announcing to the Virgin Mary that she is to give birth to the Christ Child, she appears to be recoiling, as if disturbed from sleep.

Although Rossetti relies on earlier traditions for many of the symbols he uses in this scene, his use of these symbols, his depiction of space, and most significantly his portrayal of the two figures represent significant departures from earlier traditions.

This painting is unusual in that the artist shows the Virgin Mary in a state of fear – see how she cowers against the wall and casts her eyes down. This is a far cry from many depictions of the Annunciation where the Virgin Mary is shown in a state of humble acquiescence or acceptance.

White is the dominant colour in the painting, relieved only by small areas of blue, red and yellow. This use of white emphasises the quality of the Virgin Mary’s purity, and is reinforced by the lily embroidery – the same one that she is shown making in Rossetti’s painting of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, also on display in the Tate.

Early great paintings of this scene usually depict lilies, the symbol of the Virgin Mary’s purity, in a vase nearby the scene as the angel addresses the Virgin. Although Rossetti also uses lilies, he integrates them into both the action and the environment of the scene.

Notice how the Angel Gabriel holds out a stem with lilies, offering them to the Virgin Mary and seemingly presenting her with an embodiment of the chastity and purity she is fated to continue throughout her life. At the end of the bed hangs an embroidery on which the Virgin Mary is also working on in his painting, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. This plays a contextual role – this is a young girl’s bedroom, so we might expect to find her needlework in this space – as well as, perhaps, representing her active choice to live purely since she has chosen to embroider a lily.

The Virgin Mary is not dressed in her traditional blue; instead she wears a simple white dress. Yet, Rossetti does not ignore the importance of blue as the colour associated with the Virgin Mary and heaven: he places a blue screen directly behind her, and looking through the window, the sky is a similar shade of blue, alluding to heaven.

Most Annunciation scenes have candles that have just blown out with the entrance of the Holy Spirit. Instead, Rossetti gives us a hint of a flame – a different presentation of a usual symbol. He includes a dove, embodying the Holy Spirit, although in this case he has not drastically transformed a traditional symbol.

Rossetti’s imagined space shows great innovation. Compared to traditional interiors, that were rich with elaborate floor tiles, stained glass, wooden furniture, rugs, pillows, and similar details, the Virgin’s bedroom in Rossetti’s painting is shockingly simple. White stone tiles cover the floor; the walls have white paint; the window has no panes; and the only other object in the room is a simple, low wooden bed with a white mat and pillow.

In traditional paintings, the room draws the viewer in and the eye is allowed to move through the scene to the back wall of the bedroom. But Rossetti places the Virgin Mary in a room that is almost claustrophobic it is so small. The use of perspective is unconvincing: her bed appears about to slide out of the painting, and the floor on the left of the painting blends into the wall, furthering the effect of a steep plane.

For the view out the window at the back, Rossetti might have given the scene depth by allowing us to see a scene in the distance. Instead, however, he shows only blue sky and part of a tree.

Look too at the angel. Rather than a winged, long-haired boyish angel, Rossetti paints an androgynous Gabriel, without wings, his face only visible in highly shadowed profile, with the hints of yellow flames around his feet.

The Virgin Mary sits on her bed and slouches against the wall. She is markedly adolescent with her beautiful young features, un-brushed straight hair, a childishly thin body, and the hesitance, fear and melancholy with which she responds to the Angel Gabriel’s news. Wisps of her messy, auburn hair spread around her neck, silhouetted against her white dress, reminiscent of a bloodshot eye or perhaps intentionally hinting at Christ’s crown of thorns.

Rossetti has no use for the stiff, exaggerated poses of primitive Virgins. He seems most concerned with the sincere response of a young girl who has been given a burden that is both wonderful and laden with responsibility. And in this task, Rossetti thoroughly succeeds.

The Virgin Mary is keenly aware of her position, and it is this self-awareness and terror that endows the painting with its power. This painting inspires the viewer to religious contemplation and prayer. But it also speaks strongly to universal issues of growth, responsibility and youthful vulnerability.

Favoured and perplexed

The Annunciation … an icon by the Romanian icon writer, Mihai Cocu in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When the Virgin Mary hears the Angel Gabriel address her as the ‘favoured one’ and tell her, ‘The Lord is with you,’ she is ‘much perplexed by his words’ and she ponders ‘what sort of greeting this might be.’


We might think she was perplexed, to say the least.

She has been told she is to bear a child, who would be called Son of God, and who would receive the throne of David.

‘How can this be?’ she asks.

And well she might ask.

She might well wonder how she is going to survive a full nine months until this baby is born, once her father, her family, her friends and her village hear she is pregnant.

Both the BBC and the Guardian reported some years ago, in the weeks before Christmas, how there has been a frightening increase in ‘honour killings’ in Britain. At the time, the topic also provided a story line in EastEnders.

So-called ‘honour killings’ were frequent too around the time of the first Christmas. A woman who was sexually violated by a man – even against her will – could be killed, usually by her own father or brother, so the illegitimately conceived child would bring no further shame to the family.

The newly-betrothed Joseph would know he is not the father of the Virgin Mary’s baby. If a man and a woman who were betrothed to each other had sex with each other and the village knew it, they were considered to be married. This, and not some religious ceremony, marks what we might call the ‘consummation’ of the union, and the engagement now becomes a marriage in common law.

Should Joseph intend to stay with Mary, then he has to protect her and protect himself by acknowledging the child is his.

On the other hand, if he does not do this, Mary’s pregnancy becomes known and her father or brothers do not kill her, then the Biblical code commanded the death penalty both for her and for the man – if he is known too – who has stolen Joseph’s betrothed and made her pregnant.

And, of course, if child’s true identity is truly known, there are others who would like to ensure that Mary does complete her full term of pregnancy.

Herod the Great, who rules as king with Rome’s support, would not be very happy with another claimant to David’s throne arriving on the scene.

If the authorities realise this child is going to be honoured as the ‘Son of God,’ they too would have to take action. This is a title used for the Roman Emperors; any usurper or pretender is likely to end up on a cross rather than on a throne.

Anticipation and challenge

The Annunciation depicted on a panel inset on a house in the village of Castle Bellingham, Co Louth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the choice of the Canticle Magnificat to accompany the readings, both responses are anticipated and challenged in Mary’s song, in which she praises God and proclaims:

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
– Luke 1: 52-53.

In our world today, despite financial and economic problems and banking and trading scandals, are the proud and the powerful still on their thrones?

Are the lowly still waiting to be lifted up?

Are the hungry waiting to be filled with good things?

Do the rich still find themselves still walking away with all they want?

What are the promises of this Advent, of every Advent, of the coming Kingdom?

What are the promises and prospects for a child who is born among us this Christmas?

We live in a world where the survival chances of a child depend not just on attitudes to ‘honour killings,’ but even more so depend on the financial and economic climates where mothers live.

The American blogger and theologian Sarah Dylan Breuer cites Mike Russell when she points out that this is a world in which one more child dies every three seconds from extreme poverty; where 300 children die during an average Sunday sermon in an Anglican church; and where 1,600 children die during each celebration of the Eucharist.

Yet, the Advent readings tell us repeatedly that God’s promise is that through Christ the hungry will be filled with good things. We might ask, with Mary: ‘How can this be?’

We too may ponder these things in our hearts. But having pondered them, what do we say about them next Sunday?

We too are called to bring the Good News of liberation to the prisoners, of food for the hungry, of dignity for those regarded as lowly.

We too are called to do that not just in words or song, but like the Virgin Mary, by giving flesh to God’s hope, God’s peace, God’s justice, and God’s love for the world.

The young, unmarried teenage Mary found the courage to face her father, her family, her potential husband, her friends, her village, despite the risk of pointing and whispering … and even stoning to death. There would be a birth … and there would be another death. And I recall the words of TS Eliot:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

– TS Eliot, Journey of the Magi (1927)

The Annunciation depicted on a panel on the triptych in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford / Lichfield Gazette)


God our redeemer,
who prepared the blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son:
Grant that, as she looked for his coming as our saviour,
so we may be ready to greet him
when he comes again as our judge;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Advent Collect:

This collect is said after the Collect of the day until Christmas Eve:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Heavenly Father,
you have given us a pledge of eternal redemption.
Grant that we may always eagerly celebrate
the saving mystery of the incarnation of your Son.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain,
whose day draws near,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Liturgical resources:

The liturgical provisions suggest that the Canticle Gloria may be omitted during Advent, and it is traditional in Anglicanism to omit Gloria at the end of canticles and psalms during Advent, which would, of course, include Magnificat this Sunday morning.

These additional liturgical resources are provided for Advent in the Book of Common Prayer (2004):

Penitential Kyries:

Turn to us again, O God our Saviour,
and let your anger cease from us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Show us your mercy, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Your salvation is near for those that fear you,
that glory may dwell in our land.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

In the tender mercy of our God,
the dayspring from on high shall break upon us,
to give light to those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1: 78, 79)


Salvation is your gift
through the coming of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ,
and by him you will make all things new
when he returns in glory to judge the world:


Christ the sun of righteousness shine upon you,
gladden your hearts
and scatter the darkness from before you:

The Advent Wreath:

On the Advent Wreath on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the fourth, purple, symbolising the Virgin Mary, is lit this morning alongside the two puple candles, symbolising the Patriarchs and the Prophets. and the pink candle from last Sunday symbolising Saint John the Baptist.

The prayers at the Advent Wreath on the Sundays in Advent can help us to continue our themes from the Sunday before Advent [26 November 2017], which we marked in these dioceses as Mission Sunday, supporting projects in Swaziland in co-operation with the Anglican mission agency, the United Society Partners in the Gospel (USPG).

As we light our Advent candles in anticipation of celebrating the coming of the Christ child, USPG is inviting churches and parishes to pray for mothers and children who are served by the mission world church in Tanzania, Ghana, Bangladesh and Palestine.

The first purple candle lit on the Advent Wreath on the First Sunday of Advent was the Purple Candle, recalling the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. The second purple candle, lit on the Second Sunday, represents the Prophets. The third, rose-coloured or pink candle, which we lit last Sunday [10 December 2017], the Third Sunday of Advent, represents Saint John the Baptist.

USPG suggests this prayer when lighting the fourth candle representing the Virgin Mary:

The Virgin Mary

O God of promise,
whose mother Mary carried your Christ in an occupied land;
we pray for mothers in the Holy Land
who today live with restrictions and violence.
Bless the church-run hospitals that serve them and their children
regardless of race, religion or financial status.

Suggested Hymns:

These are among the hymns suggested in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling:

II Samuel 7: 1–11, 16:

342, Sweet is the solemn voice that calls
73, The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended
343, We love the place, O God

Canticle Magnificat:

704, Mary sang a song, a song of love
712, Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord
373, To God be the glory! Great things he has done!

Alternative Psalm (Psalm 89: 1–4, 19–26)

690, Come, worship God who is worthy of honour
374, When all thy mercies, O my God

Romans 16: 25–37:

636, May the mind of Christ my Saviour
175, Of the Father’s heart begotten

Luke 1: 26–38

119, Come, thou long–expected Jesus
263, Crown him with many crowns (verses 1, 2, 5, 6)
462, For Mary, mother of our Lord
123, God the Father sends his angel
125, Hail to the Lord’s anointed
92, How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
94, In the name of Jesus
97, Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
99, Jesus, the name high over all
133, Long ago, prophets knew
704, Mary sang a song, a song of love
175, Of the Father’s heart begotten
472, Sing we of the blessèd mother
139, The angel Gabriel from heaven came
73, The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended
185, Virgin–born, we bow before thee
477, We praise you, Lord, today

Jacques Yverni, ‘The Annunciation,’ ca 1435, in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Updated: 20 December 2017

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