The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary and she conceived by the Holy Spirit” … So we say day by day in the Angelus. Yet the question is this – when did she conceive? She did conceive in her womb, as Gabriel foretells, and she did give birth to the one whom she named Jesus, again following the Angel’s injunction. Yet when does Mary conceive is a more difficult question to answer. We tend to presume that it is as soon as she says “I am the handmaid of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me” but we are not told that. It is all that much stranger, however, when a little earlier in Luke’s Gospel we are told exactly when Elizabeth conceived John the Baptist. There is no doubt here as after these days Elizabeth conceived, yet we are not told when Mary conceived and the question then is – why? The answer to that question is because the physical conception is not what really engages the attention of the evangelist Luke. He is not so much interested in when Mary conceives physically and it will be the same when the saviour is born. He will give a very brief account of the physical birth and then he will shift the camera’s focus immediately out into the fields where we find the shepherds. So if he is not interested in the physical conception so much, which conception is he interested in? That is the question on this fourth Sunday of Advent.
St Augustine, one of the great fathers of the Church, and one of the great teachers in history, says Mary conceives in her heart before she conceives in her womb. What does he mean? He means that when she speaks the word of faith she conceives in her heart, and that is the conception which the evangelist really focuses upon. St Ambrose, another one of the great teachers of the Christian people through time, says that Christ has only one mother in the flesh, but each of us gives birth to Christ in faith. That is the conception and birth that applies to Mary and to each one of us who claims to be a believer, a member of this community of faith. Christmas isn’t once upon a time. Christ was born at a particular time and in a particular place but if it is only that, way back then and there, then all we are left with is the tinsel. Christmas is for here and now when Jesus Christ is born from the believing heart, and not just the believing heart of individuals. I’m talking about the believing heart of the whole church, the church which is like Mary and is called to give birth to Jesus Christ, by faith, here and now. If that happens then there is a lot more to Christmas than the tinsel. It isn’t just once upon a time, it is here and now. So we conceive Christ by faith and we give birth to Christ by faith no less than did Mary.
What do I mean when I talk about giving birth to Christ now? Whenever faith gives birth to peace in the midst of conflict, joy in the midst of sorrow, love in the midst of fear, all of that has a face and a name. It is the face of Jesus Christ and the name of all of that is Jesus. So here you have a church, gathered on this day, saying yes to the call to give birth to Christ by bringing peace and love and joy to birth in a world where they are in short supply. In many ways we seem to inhabit crazy times. It was crazy, was it not, that Phillip Hughes was killed by a cricket ball. It’s even crazier still, and far, far darker, when we think of the siege in Sydney or when a mother kills seven children in Cairns. So the shadow of death falls across the sunlit path to Christmas and we simply have to pass through the shadow in order to attain the light. In such a world it becomes absolutely essential that the church be what the church is supposed to be – that we be Mother Church; that we be “Mary” Church. A community of believers saying to the Lord, as Mary did, “let it be done to us as you have said”, a community of believers who say the great “yes” to God which is faith. In speaking that yes we give birth to Christ no less than did Mary once upon a time. Yet we, the “Mary” Church, give birth to Christ here and now, therefore give glory to the God who has made us what we are. Here I am echoing St Paul; “give glory to him on this advent day through Jesus Christ, the word made flesh, the one born once and the one born now; he who is the saviour yesterday, today and forever. Amen
Most Rev Mark Coleridge
Archbishop of Brisbane