Hell before Christmas


Micah 5.2-5a

Song of Mary

Hebrews 10.5-10

Luke 1.39-45

4th Sunday of Advent

Hell before Christmas                                                                     ©Suzanne Grimmett

We are nearly at the end of Advent and it is oh so tempting with the candle of love being lit and the focus on Mary to slip into the kind of sentimental language that emerges when we have really had enough of figures like John the Baptist and would prefer a less confronting message as we make final preparations for Christmas.

We have lit candles of Hope, Peace, Joy and now Love- but turns out there is a lot of disagreement about the traditional order! Perhaps all of this is part of the fluffy sentimentality which has crept into Advent and for a long time now has had a firm hold of the Christmas scene populated by a beautiful mother, pretty baby and well behaved farm animals….not to mention shiny angels and a little drummer boy.

I love George Bernard Shaw’s definition of sentimentality as “the working up of the greatest possible quantity of emotion on the cheapest possible terms.” By this definition the liturgical tone of Advent should be as far removed from the ‘cheapest possible terms’ as can be imagined. Advent claims to be a season that speaks the truth about the present darkness of our lives while proclaiming that the day is coming and indeed is already here when the light will shine out brighter than the noonday sun. It is a season that sits in the tension of past, future and present and demands of us that we are watchful, preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ to us.

Perhaps the power of this way of understanding Advent is better understood by what could be seen as the really traditional way of labelling the weeks of Advent. Far removed from the gentle progression of hope, peace, joy and love, to be true to the way the weeks of Advent have been understood down the centuries of the last millennia we would be lighting candles to recognise the power of death, judgement, heaven and hell. So yes… this week we arrive at hell.

Maybe recovering some of the more serious intent of Advent, an intent that is about seeing the world and ourselves as we really are, might help us to shed some of the sentimentality that can obscure our vision. If I am going to talk about hell, I think I need to make clear I am not talking about a place or geographical location, but a realm or a domain. I think people are capable of creating their own hell. Hell is wherever we allow the power of evil to hold sway over us and our communities. Fleming Rutledge describes evil as “aggressive, clever, wilful, diabolical- that is to say, it has a personality, an intelligence, a purposefulness all its own which explains why we personify it as the figure of Satan.” To invoke and recognise the power of our own Advent candle practices, hell is where there is an utter absence of hope, peace, joy, love. In our own lives when the lights of these four are absent, I think we experience hell.

We know that there is evil loose in the world. We can look to histories of genocides and oppression in the past but also look to our present. Depending on how you calculate it, there are around 100 situations of active armed conflict around the globe in this present moment. If we bring the lens closer to home, we can point to the pain in our families and communities where reconciliation seems far distant and so often things don’t work out as we might want them to. Humankind struggles with an incapacity to make things right.

It is in facing this reality that we may recognise the power of the Advent season. It is a season where we can see and know both darkness and light together in the strangeness of a space that holds past, present and future at once. J. Neil Alexander expresses the potency of the Advent way of seeing beautifully, asking;

Is the content of Advent’s proclamation centered in eschatological dread, judgment and condemnation or eschatological hope, expectation and promise? Is Advent really the beginning of the annual cycle or does Advent bring the year to a conclusion? The fact is that each of these “either/ors” are really “both/ands”. And it is precisely because we cannot eliminate one or the other but must hold them in tension that we have inherited a season under stress…shaped by darkness and light, dread and hope, judgement and grace, second and first comings, terror and promise, end and beginning. [1]

Perhaps our story today of Mary and Elizabeth encapsulates best the sense of timelessness contained in a moment of expectation. It is a story literally pregnant with promise. The coming of the Messiah into the struggling of the human condition is proclaimed and confidently anticipated not by kings or priests but by two poor and ordinary women- one young, poor and unwed, and the other too old to conceive. In many ways the scene is played over by so many women throughout time who share the secrets of their pregnancies and the joy and wonder of feeling the first fluttering of a moving child in the womb. This story is astonishing in its fleshly groundedness. The coming Saviour is celebrated by the unseen but felt leaping of a child in the womb and proclaimed by women who are doing what women have always done, supporting one another with presence and friendship as they marvel at their changing bodies. They hold together the promise of God from the very beginning of Israel’s story with the hope of a future of justice and peace and the very present reality of the holy one nested safely within the body of Mary.

I think we can see in this meeting, and in the proclamation of this miraculous child born of a virgin, the repudiation of patriarchal systems of male dominance, a reversal of hierarchical systems of power and the saving grace of a God who loves us with a mother’s tender love. When Mary lifts her voice to sing, in what we now know as the Magnificat, it is a song about the victory of such a power reversal.

It is in her prophetic words that we hear of the God who is the great equaliser. She sings of God;

….casting down the mighty from their thrones:

and lifting up the lowly.

You have filled the hungry with good things:

and sent the rich away empty.

There is no fluffy sentimentality here. Mary sees clearly the darkness of the world but knows that the radiance of God will never be extinguished. This Christmas as we carry a sense of anxiety about a global pandemic and increasing divisions in the world and indeed in our own families and communities, we can hear Mary’s joyful song that there will be peace and reconciliation because God in Christ has taken the first step and will take the final step. The meaning of Advent that our candles and readings points us towards is that God has entered the lists against the prince of darkness. All the ways humankind has created and continues to experience hell on earth will not endure. God’s vision for a creation defined by hope, peace, joy and love is already being realised. Christ is coming and Christ is with us. Advent reminds us that we always hold both in dynamic tension as we prepare ourselves to be Christ-bearers in a new way this Christmas.

The physical embodiment of the incarnation that Mary celebrates is also what we too are called to celebrate. In these final days of Advent, can we too lift up our voices? How would Mary’s song sound on your lips? How would you proclaim the promise of God’s inbreaking into our world? Maybe as a Christ-bearer, you could write your own Magnificat. This is one I wrote.

My soul sings of God’s greatness,

My Spirit rejoices in the One who has set me free.

For you Lord, have loved me as I am,

And I know that your goodness will extend beyond my life.

All the beauty in my life is from you,

And your presence is like a refining fire.

Your loving kindness is for all who know their aching need,

And I am drawn into your grace

that flows from generation to generation.

You have not been co-opted by the powers of this world

And have revealed the foolishness of those who think themselves great.

You have brought low those who have exploited the vulnerability of others

And lifted up those denied dignity and value.

You have fulfilled the longings of an aching humble heart

And sent away those whose self-satisfaction leaves no room for love.  

You are always present with your people in their need,

And unfailing in your promise of mercy

The promise made to your people Israel from ages past

Now embracing the whole world in a vision of justice and peace.

Even in the face of hell…may we keep singing the song.


[1] J.Neil Alexander, “A Sacred Time in Tension”, in Liturgy, vol. 13, no.3