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This Advent, the Christmas child calls you and me

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Mary’s call and response is a powerful reminder of how Advent calls us to model her in humble obedience and service, whatever our vocation.

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We arrive at the Christmas stable. We have prepared. The Christ child is come to us—Immanuel.

We begin by taking a step back. The candle that is lit for the final Sunday of Advent reminds us of Mary, the one who brings the Lord into the world.

The Protestant Reformers reacted against Catholic overemphasis on the nature and role of Mary. (Catholic readers, forgive me—and do read on!) One consequence of this was that Protestants ever since have been so wary of giving too much weight to Mary that they have underplayed her role such that deep spiritual truths are missed.

The first example of call in the New Testament is the call to Mary.

Mary was a virgin betrothed to Joseph, “of the house of David” (Lk 1:27), reminding us of the royal line into which Christ would be born. The call to Mary was from God and mediated through an angel. The message was simple yet profound—“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you. ” The angel continued to tell Mary that she had found favor with God and would bear a son, to be named Jesus, who “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (Lk 1:32) and that his kingdom would be eternal and everlasting.

O how Mary must have quaked. This young woman, facing disgrace, rejection, alienation from family and friends and, indeed, from Joseph. What was her response?

My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed:

for he who is mighty has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

Every Protestant, every Catholic, simply every Christian, should be able to sing out those extraordinary words of the Magnificat in deeply grateful admiration and thanks for Mary’s call and response.

And in the same way, God calls us. He calls the entrepreneur and he calls every player and participant in the divine economy. He calls you and he calls me. Will our response be the same as that of Mary? Humility, acceptance, submission, joy?

How have we got our understanding of call and vocation so wrong?

An attorney friend of mine tells me that the message he hears from the front of church is that his role is to earn money to pay for more priests and pastors. Nothing could be further from the truth. Particularly in Protestantism, we have replaced vocation and calling with pietism. An overemphasis on the inner life has distracted us from recognizing the true value of our daily call, work, life, and discipleship. Darrell Cosden, in his book, A Theology of Work, describes one consequence:

Ordinary, daily, mundane work was at best a mission field, and at worst a distraction in the spiritual life.

True Christian vocation involves using God’s gifts in service to others, an acknowledgement of the call of God and indeed of the rule of God. Vocation belongs to this world as much as to the spiritual realm. We too often prioritize the spiritual over the secular. Spiritual work is seen as superior. Correcting this erroneous notion is a powerful Advent theme. We would do well to dwell upon it.

When we debate Christian ethics in the workplace, in business, and in the economy, it is essential we have something more than a merely instrumental view of work, wealth, and business; not just to provide for earthly things but also to provide a place for the exercise of calling. To do so is the beginning of any ethical approach to business.

Vocation and calling are central to any theology of business and work. Dorothy Sayers in her famous essay Why Work? argued that it

is the business of the Church to recognise that the secular vocation as such is sacred.

Sayers, reflecting Luther’s influence, puts her finger on the power of the idea of vocation:

If your heart is not wholly in the work, the work will not be good—and work that is not good serves neither God nor the community; it only serves mammon.

Calling invests work with both meaning and ethics and hence sits alongside the creation mandates as a central feature of the theology of work and business. We mentioned a couple of weeks ago how modern Roman Catholicism in the Vocation of the Business Leader has embraced the concept of vocation and calling to work and business. In this piece, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace refers to the vocation of the businessperson as “a genuine human and Christian calling.” The reflection goes on to remind us that wealth creation serves the common good and requires both a form of market economy and adherence to truth, fidelity, and freedom.

As we may remember from last week, Christians have historically affirmed the creation of wealth and value but criticized what one might call the luxurious arrogance of wealth. A deep sense of humble call affirms before God our calling in life and in the economy and equips us with an ethic of both wealth creation and wealth responsibility. This has been the historical approach of Christians to business.

A prime example is with the Quakers. In both the U.K. and the U.S., there are a significant number of businesses with Quaker origins, including Cadbury in the U.K. and Bethlehem Steel in the U.S. Certainly in the U.K., the Quakers often found themselves excluded from public life and the universities, and hence they turned with passion and commitment to business. It was their call. However, it was the Quaker spirituality that seemed to equip them in particular for business, and their spirituality carries deep resonances with Advent and Mary’s call.

Quakerism is essentially a subjective rather than an objective faith. They adhere not so much to creeds, councils, or scriptures, but to the conviction of an inner light, which gives them an internal discipline, commitment, and focus. They have a purpose and they know this purpose. This discipline reflects itself in plainness of dress (though not all comply with this), but more significantly, a frugality in living, a discipline in life. This internal discipline and purpose is ideally suited to innovation, technological development, and entrepreneurship—with an often long, patient wait for an economic return, itself a discipline to which the Quakers are ideally suited.

Call and vocation are key concepts in understanding the Christian view of business, work, and the economy. Mary, in the last week of Advent, reminds us powerfully and deeply of these themes. Perhaps vocation can best be understood as the exercise of calling in the whole of the period between the original creation and the new creation, a dynamic expression of discipleship under God in the temporal kingdom. Not the end of ethics, but the beginning. Not a retreat into pietism, but rather a full expression of the creative wonder and beauty of God in which we participate, in Christ.

Advent recalls us to the central power of the call from God and our humble response.

I hope you have enjoyed these Advent reflections and how Advent relates to the divine economy.

May the Lord bless each of you deeply as we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.

Richard Turnbull

Rev. Dr. Richard Turnbull is the director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics and a trustee of the Christian Institute. He holds a degree in Economics and Accounting and spent over eight years as a Chartered Accountant with Ernst and Young and served as the youngest ever member of the Press Council. Richard also holds a first class honours degree in Theology and PhD in Theology from the University of Durham. He was ordained into the ministry of the Church of England in 1994. Richard served in the pastoral ministry for over 10 years. He was also for 7 years the Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He has authored several books, is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a visiting Professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.