Ken's Pastoral Letter, December 2021
As we once again enter the season of Advent, we commit together to a time of preparation for the coming of the Messiah a second time, according to His promise (John 14:1-3). And we do this by reflecting upon His coming the first time at the incarnation, the Virgin Birth. This truly is a 'most wonderful time of the year,' during which the whole country, and indded the whole word, enters a time of celebration of light shining in darkness. Other faiths besides Christianity of course have their festivals of light but for Christians that light is supremely the Person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the light of the world (John 8:12).
The fact that almost everyone is onside during this season is what makes it so special. That sense of collective endeavour and common engagement. From the media to the retail sector, to sprot, policitcs and education, everyone is caught up in the spirit of Christmas. Industry pauses briefly and even doctors and nurses who must work the Christmas shifts are given to consider this comething of a privilege, and we think especially highly of them for turning out to do so. There is everyone, one might say, 'magic in the air!'
After Mary learned of her calling to bear the Christ-child she visited her cousin Elizabeth, the wife of Zacharias the priest, who had himself been told by the Angel Gabriel that theyw ere to have a child in their old age, a child who was to go before 'Him' (The Messiah) turning the hearts of many in Israel to the Lord their God. Elizabeth's child leapt in the womb as Mary approached her and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, spoke prophetically to Mary saying: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" (Luke 1:42b). Mary responded during what was clearly a wonderful moment of otherworldly significance, though crucial to this world and shared by these two chosen women, with the words that have come to be known as the Magnificat: Manificat anima mea Dominum, runs the Latin, "My soul magnifies the Lord!" There was truly something in the air that night! For many at this time of the year there is, amidst all the decorations, the food and the presents, somewhat of an attempt to recapture that 'something' that is instinctively felt to be lingering in the air. That magic!
When Mary uttered from her heart the words of the Magnificat she was praising God from the deepest part of her soul. As she did so she made recourse to words familiar to her from Scripture and uttered thereby many of the same sentiments that were expressed by Hannah in the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) when she learned of her answered prayers for a son to be fulfilled in the birth of Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10). The words Mary used in her blessedness were both fitting and beautiful and it is not suprrising given that she, like Hannah, was a devout Jewish woman she should bring scripture to mind at such a very special time.
Jewish children, boys and girls together, in their very earliest years with their mothers were taught the Scriptures and memorizing was a recognized method of instruction. In short Mary would likely have known Hannah's words off by heart! There are sufficient differences for the words of Mary to be considered original to her, but also sufficient similarities for them to be considered inspired in their own right, though resourced by Hannah's.
For Christians today the words of Advent liturgies and of Christmas carols will contribute to that sense of 'something in the air,' as we pass through this season, and the Magnificat will be a part of this. Modern translations of the Bible still preserve something of the beauty of the language of the King James Version which was translated to preserve the meaning of the original languages of course, but also to be attractive to the ear of the listener. In his book entitled The Book of Books, Melvyn Bragg examines the radical impact of the King James Bible, 1611 - 2011, and writes of its use in services for public reading:
"As a book designed to be read aloud, it is reader-proof. Children's voices pipe it shyly in their high clear tones and pick up the music. Adults, however cautious, always feel the urge to step up to the lectern and be at their best and find the rhythmic truth in the ancient, so well and widely heard words. Those who are carried away by their readings in church or assembly from the prophets and the Gospels can fire on seven cylinders and find salvation in a set of syllables. It came out of a time of ardent reborn faith as well as passionate reborn language." (pp124 - 125)
Bragg believes that the King James Bible has outdone Shakespeare in its effect upon and integration into the English language. Many people can quote its verses in a crisis finding comfort in their sorrow or solace in their grief, e.g. "The Lord is my shepherd shall not want," or "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." (Psalm 23:1, 4)
If we desire to be equipped for worship throughout Advent and be ready to capture for ourselves a moment whereby 'something in the air' connects with our souls, then we will assist ourselves in this aspiration if, like Mary, we commit to memory, or at least spend a good amount of time studying, the Scriptures for ourselves. I personally love the KJV but I cite it only as an example; whatever version is your preferred reading will do.
I have many volumes of systematic theology on my shelves, and they all recommend the repeated and cyclical reading of Scripture all the way through to grasp its whole contents and message, often giving memory texts for each subject covered - in one volume even suggesting that serious Christians should consider that fifty pages a day will take them from Genesis to Revelation inside a month! "Memorization was oversued in times gone by," says another volume "but is sadly underused today."
Well, whether we can run to fifty pages a day or not, a commitment to more time spent within those pages will surely prepare and resource us for an encounter with the child in the manger this Christmas:
"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace." (Isaiah 9:6)
May you have a very blessed Advent season this year and may God Himself draw near to you through it. I leave you with words written at a high lvel of inspiration which, outside of Holy Writ, come closest for me to capturing that sense of magic in the air:
"O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark street shineth
The everlasting light:
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming;
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in." (Phillips Brooks 1853 - 93)
Have a very wonderful Christmas. Yours ever in Christian love,