Saturday, December 22, 2012

At the Eleventh Hour before the Nativity: The Fourth Sunday of Advent

And it is by God's will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
(Hebrews 10:10)

The Fourth Sunday of Advent has long fascinated me. It stands at the edge of the mystery of the Incarnation and peers into its depths through relating stories—the Annunciation, Joseph’s angel-filled dreams, or today’s account of the Visitation. As we are about to jump down the chute of the Twelve Days of Christmas, we are for a moment stopping and pondering in the silence of faith what is about to happen.

Hebrews 10 puts today in a context: the Nativity is part of the process by which we are saved, restored by God and put on the road toward union with Him. That relationship could never—can never—be renewed by our own efforts. All the self-help books in the world cannot make us holy. Holiness is a sovereign gift of the author of holiness, God. This being made holy, sanctification as Hebrews calls it, requires a new type of life. This life is not derived from the normal sources to which we turn: power, control, sex, money, success, pleasure. No, it is found in something completely different: humility.

The Gospel story of the Visitation paints a picture that seems fairly comprehensible to us after two millennia of Christianity, but which must have seemed completely ludicrous to its first Gentile audience. In a village in the middle of nowhere, two women—one elderly and previously written-off for being childless, and the other a young mother whose pregnancy was the occasion for scandal in her own town—meet up and are revealed to be heroes of the first order. These two “nobodies” are transformed into central figures in the drama of world salvation. And so it has been for us ever sense.

The world into which the Gospel was born was a world that worshipped power, violence, sexual vitality, and success. Sound familiar? But, it was a world in which there was almost no temporizing element. Power ruled unchallenged. The Gospel changed all of that in every place where it gained a foothold. It put compassion, not the passions, as the highest good. It glorified not just a God of all might, but a mighty God who demonstrated that power in mercy and caring for those in need.

The Church’s great heroes were first and foremost those who “got it” about what this new life would be like and took the risk to live accordingly. We call them saints. They are people who, in the words of the collect today, have been purified in conscience so that they became a mansion prepared for God himself.

As we prepare to receive the Holy Mysteries of the Eucharist today, we too are perched on the edge of a mystery. God is seeking to be born in us: in a work of power, yes—but a kind of power manifested chiefly through care, nurturance, wisdom, and holiness. All around us, the leaders of culture and business glorify violence, carnality, division, and acquisition of possessions. The old Pagan world of power/passion/pleasure is being revived with the belief that it will yield peace. But, it never has and never can.

Christmas is only secondarily about comfort and contentment. It is really about the beginning of a conflict: between those who worship Love, and those who worship power. The love of God was coming into the world. Those who would choose that love are heroes of hope and mercy, but will often appear to be the least powerful, least “sexy” on the planet. Their wealth is found in the one they serve. Those who choose power will take every opportunity to exercise the power they worship, but will ultimately find it empty of meaning and satisfaction.

For the world around us, Christmas is a gigantic orgy of work, worry, and expense that cannot get over soon enough. For us, it is an annual rejoicing that God has acted to destroy the worship of power by offering himself in love among us. Our response is not to arm ourselves to the teeth with weaponry, but to be purified in conscience so that our hearts may be fitting dwellings for the one who comes to make His home in us. Thus the utter holiness and significance of this and every Eucharist in the life of a Christian believer: Christ is coming to His temple in our hearts, our actions, our choices.

When God does, our hearts—like John the Baptist in Elizabeth—will leap with joy for the gift of being in the presence of the One who frees, the one who redeems, the one who loves perfectly.

It is the last minute before the Nativity, the precious moment that we have been given in which to choose what and whom we will worship...and we say to God: Yea, Amen! Bring it forth!

Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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