Saint James Fordham • Advent 4b • Tobias Haller BSG
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.
Well, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, isn’t it? A white Christmas. Of course, here in New York it’s been looking a lot like Christmas since Halloween. It used to be that Santa Claus had the decency to hold off until the end of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade — just like in the movie “A Miracle on 34th Street.” Nowadays if Santa showed up as late as Thanksgiving store-owners would accuse him of dragging his heels! Nowadays they start talking Christmas before Hallowe’en! How long before Santa Claus backs his sleigh into the Easter Bunny, I don’t know!
But the church does know, and knows better. We’ve got this time called Advent — an anticipation of Christmas, but also an anticipation of that great day when the Lord will come again in glory. For three Sundays we’ve heard news of that second coming: warnings about keeping awake and being alert, having our house in order, and preparing God’s way. The collect today continues the call for preparation, getting our house in order so that we might be “a mansion prepared.”
But on this the last Sunday before Christmas, we begin to turn our attention from the second coming back to the first coming. This Sunday in our gospel we travel back to that quiet little village in upstate Palestine, up in the lake country, up in Galilee— so far from Jerusalem that they called it “Galilee of the Gentiles.”
We travel back two thousand years to Nazareth, and find a young woman about to receive the surprise of her — and everybody else’s — life. An angel suddenly appears out of nowhere, and addresses her as if she were royalty. Mary at first is simply speechless. The angel reassures her, tells her not to be afraid, and tells her she is going to have a baby who will become great and will rule over the house of David.
Mary catches her breath, and calmly, and no doubt with some dignity informs the angel that such an event is unlikely, since she is an unmarried virgin. So the angel finally tells it all: she will be overshadowed by God’s Holy Spirit, and the child she will bear will be called Holy, as well, the Son of God. Before Mary can get in an objection, the angel tells her about her cousin Elizabeth. This woman, well past the years of childbearing, is soon going to have a baby, too; for nothing is impossible for God. Mary pauses for a moment, and then says those famous words, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word.”
Think for a moment what went through Mary’s mind before she answered the angel. Life was harder for an unwed mother two thousand years ago than it is today. She could have been cast out of the village, even been stoned to death, if Joseph had chosen that course of action. Elizabeth’s miracle was different — an old woman long said to be barren getting pregnant must have made for plenty of winks and nods and pats on the back for her equally old husband Zechariah.
But Mary’s situation was nothing to congratulate her or Joseph about. There wouldn’t be smiles — except sarcastic ones — along with clucking tongues, shaking heads and wagging fingers. Instead of congratulations there would be humiliation for Joseph and Mary both.
And yet, this is how God chose to enter this world. What is God telling us by choosing this embarrassing and scandalous Incarnation?
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The collect for today helps us answer that question. “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.” The thing we ask in this prayer is, Lord, help us to clean our house and get it in order for your arrival. That’s the Advent theme. We gather up the dusty old things we’ve moved from shelf to shelf but not used for years. We give away things we’ve outgrown, finally throw away things we’ve held on to “just in case” for so long that we’ve forgotten what the case was. Sometimes we have to part with something we’d like to keep, to make a difficult choice. Perhaps we’re moving to a smaller apartment, or making room for a new arrival.
It is this kind of difficult choice Mary had to make. God asked a very great thing of her. She wasn’t asked to accept a blessing that would bring her honor. She was asked to risk losing the one thing that gave her honor in her society — her good name — and because God asked her for it, she said, “Here am I, your servant.”
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Are we as willing to give up things when God asks us to? I’m not talking about bad habits — we ought to give those up in any case. I’m talking about good things that we hold on to, sometimes so tight that we can’t open our hands to receive the better things God has in store for us. It is risky to give up one’s good reputation to answer God’s call to seek righteousness. But sometimes that is what God calls us to do.
In “Miracle on 34th Street” you may recall that a young lawyer risks his reputation to do what’s right. He’s quits his job at a big law firm to defend an old man who thinks he’s Santa Claus. Something moves that young lawyer, something purifies his conscience not to do the safe thing, but the right thing.
People like that do exist outside of Hollywood. There are lawyers and doctors who give up six-figure salaries to open clinics and legal-aid offices. Ms. Campbell organizes a group of doctors and dentists to go down to Jamaica every year, to help in straitened circumstances. But it happens in the church, too. The Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana has just asked to be permitted to resign his post. In the process of working with people down in Louisiana in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina he has come to realize that is that kind of work he wants to do: helping people rebuild their lives; not spending his days behind a desk, paper-pushing and managing budgets.
I’m also reminded of four Roman Catholic bishops, some years ago in Colombia, who moved out of their episcopal palaces into the slums, into the barrios, to live with the people. They took off their fine ecclesiastical robes and put on guyabera shirts. The political bosses and crime-lords didn’t like the idea of poor people being inspired. For as Mary’s song assures us, when people become aware of their situation, — in what liberation theologians call concientización, a kind of “conscience raising” that is a particular form of purifying one’s conscience in an awareness of what is going on in the world — when poor people become educated to the truth of their situation, the mighty will be cast down from their seats, the poor and lowly will be lifted up. Such people are a danger to the status quo. and a film was made about those four bishops, called, “Such Men Are Dangerous” — two of them were assassinated; they took great risk, they were dangerous to themselves as well as to the establishment — as indeed we all can be when we are inspired by the Gospel to purify our consciences, and speak out against the abuses by the mighty.
And once, long ago, a young woman risked her reputation and her life to answer an angel’s greeting with the words, “Here am I; let it be to me according to your word.” So it is that God challenges us, to be willing, like Mary, to risk our reputations if it means we can serve him more effectively. God calls us to purify our conscience so that we can see what God wants of us.
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And God wants a lot. God wants us. Not just our service, not just our obedience, but us — our souls and bodies. God asked Mary not only to risk her reputation but to offer her self to become the means of Incarnation, to conceive in her womb a son who would be named Jesus.
And that is how our Collect ends. Why do we purify our consciences? Why do we put our house in order? Why do we risk our reputations to follow God, to do justice and work righteousness? So that “Christ at his coming may find in us a mansion prepared for himself...” A mansion!
Well, we know what Jesus found at his first coming — not a mansion. Not a hotel; not even a Holiday Inn, but a stable. But I’m getting ahead of myself — it’s not Christmas yet; we haven’t yet gotten to crowded Bethlehem, with no room at the inn. No, today’s Gospel tells us of something nine months earlier, that bright spring day when an angel walked in on Mary and changed her life — and our lives and the life of all the world — forever. Then God chose, and still God chooses no place so fitting to dwell as in a humble heart — a heart emptied of all the extra furniture of pride and reputation.
As God called Mary, God calls us to become his dwelling place; that we may, as our opening hymn said,“Fling wide the portals of our hearts.” God calls us to be people who show forth God because God dwells in us, in our hearts. God calls us every day, and enables us every day by the visitation of the Holy Spirit, to purify our consciences, to open our hearts, so that we may become Christ’s dwelling place.
Our closing hymn today will include a prayer, “Let my soul, like Mary, be thine earthly sanctuary.” God wants each of us to be his dwelling place, and a humble, loving heart, will always have room for God. You know, we can after all extend the Christmas season throughout the whole long year not so that the stores can stay open, but so that our hearts can stay open, every day.
May God’s grace come upon us abundantly as we anticipate Christ’s coming, in this time of thankful and humble gratitude for his having once come, so long ago to a city far away to a young woman ready to receive him. Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us, as he found in our sister Mary, a mansion prepared for himself. +