This is the first of four short meditations, one for each Sunday in Advent, 2022. Each will include a piece of art by an artist close to my home here in Ulster; a poem; and some carefully chosen music. I hope you will enjoy them and find them helpful.
The image featured in this first meditation was created by artist and sculptor Ross Wilson. Ross’s work has been included in collections globally, including The National Portrait Gallery in London, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Ross has long been an advocate for community outreach, via creativity and educational interaction, within marginalised communities in Northern Ireland, and more recently, in Rwanda.
Today’s music is a beautiful and evocative setting by Irish composer Shaun Davey, of an ancient Irish text attributed to Saint Patrick. The performance by New Irish Arts, directed by Jonathan Rea, and featuring soloist Stephanie Devlin, took place in Saint Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast.
It is my hope that each of the four meditations will be a little oasis of stillness, carved into the hectic schedule that the run-up to Christmas can often be. I want this to be a place to rest, even for just a moment or two. A place to seek the presence of God; a place to marvel at the great mystery of the Incarnation: God manifest in the flesh. At the end of the day, this is what it’s all about. For at the heart of the Christian faith is Emmanuel, ‘God with us’. God, reaching out to meet with us. To help us. To save us. To dwell with us.
God wants to meet us where we are. We might feel small or lonely or broken. We might feel we can’t put up a fight anymore. That’s where Hannah found herself. But ultimately, Hannah found strength and peace in God. From the depths of her trouble she poured out her heart to Him – her story and prayer are recorded for us in the Old Testament (1 Samuel chapters 1& 2). The people around Hannah just didn’t get it. But God did. He heard her prayer. Hannah gave her future over to God, and in Him she found peace. God did give Hannah the child she longed for. But Hannah gave her child back to God. He grew up to be Samuel, the priest and prophet of Israel who one day would go to Bethlehem to anoint David, the boy shepherd, as King.
There are echoes of Hannah’s prayer in the words of the Magnificat, the song of Mary in Luke chapter 1. Over the centuries since Hannah’s day, people have kept on crying out in their pain to God. We still do. Yet God has not always chosen to answer each of our prayers in the just way we might have hoped. And so, our broken hearts can remain. We still know pain and sadness and loss. But this Advent season, we can find comfort. For in the birth of the child who is is Prophet and Priest and King, God comes as Emmanuel to walk with us in our sadness, as well as in our joy. He comes as a tender-hearted Shepherd, to carry us. That’s what Christmas is.
I’ve been thinking about Mary in recent years. Mary knew what pain and loss are like. She would even see her own child crucified. But her Magnificat tells us that, even in her pain, Mary knew that ‘God’s mercy extends to those who fear Him, from generation to generation’. She understood that God is ‘the Mighty One’. Mary pondered all the things that she experienced in her heart. And she placed her trust completely in Christ. ‘Do whatever He tells you’, she said.
According to Scripture, Mary’s close relative Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah belonged to priestly families, families who worshipped God faithfully at the temple. They were waiting in their worship for God to reach out, for Him to meet with them, to help them and to save them. And the day came when God did just that and more: He made His dwelling with them.
In Hebrew, Mary’s name can mean ‘beloved’, or ‘bitter’. Tradition suggests that her family were devout worshippers like Elizabeth and Zechariah; her Magnificat reflects a deep knowledge of and engagement with Scripture. Mary was a woman of God who took hold of the ancient promises of the prophets. In the child given to her, to her family and people, and to us at Christmas, Mary found strength and peace.
Centuries later, Amy Carmichael was born in Millisle in County Down, Ireland. Like Hannah and Mary, Amy found her strength and peace in Christ. Amy shared her faith in serving people in poverty, first of all in Belfast and later in India. She wrote poetry too. This is Amy’s poem ‘My Quietness’, which takes the form of a prayer:
My Quietness O Thou who art my quietness, my deep repose, My rest from strife of tongues, my holy hill, Fair is Thy pavilion, where I hold me still. Back let them fall from me, my clamorous foes, Confusions multiplied; From crowding things of sense I flee, and in Thee hide. Until this tyranny be overpast, Thy hand will hold me fast; What though the tumult of the storm increase, Grant to Thy servant strength, O Lord, and bless with peace.
It is my Advent prayer that this year, each of us, just like Amy, Hannah, Mary, and the little worshipping remnant of which she was part, will find strength and peace and all that we need, in Christ.