[This is a brief reflection for the 4th 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.
(Collect for the 4th Sunday of Advent)
Over the past several weeks, as we’ve observed the season of Advent, we’ve reflected on the theme of waiting. We’ve been reminded of the need to practice patience and considered what it means to proclaim on the one hand that the Messiah has come, and on the other, that we await the consummation, the fulfillment of his work in the Kingdom of God. Like Lent, Holy Week and Easter (the Paschal Cycle), Advent, along with Christmas and Epiphany (the incarnational cycle of the church year) highlights the great tension at the heart of Christianity. It highlights the tension in a different way from Lent and Easter, but it highlights it nonetheless. We proclaim that the Messiah has come but are forced to admit that the world is still broken.
Over the past weeks the lessons appointed in the lectionary have provided us with an image of what it is we’re awaiting. On that first Sunday of Advent, we rejoiced to hear God’s promise in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, that all nations would stream to his holy mountain, and dedicate themselves to learning his ways. On the second and third Sundays Isaiah directed us to consider what it is we are awaiting during this advent season. We considered that, like Isaiah, we still await the coming of the righteous judge, the one who will judge not by what his eyes see or his ears hear, but with righteousness and equity. But recognizing the ways in which Jesus exercised his authority and judgment during his earthly ministry demonstrates to us that we have seen the righteous judge and await his return.
Last week we considered the fact that it is not only the Righteous Judge that we await, but the one who will being healing to the afflicted, relief to the suffering–indeed, the one who will restore all of creation. We again heard the promises of God in the words of Isaiah, and felt the concern and the frustration of John as he languished in Herod’s jail cell. Then, we heard the words of Christ to John, echoing the promise of Isaiah, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt. 11:4-5).
Today, on this final Sunday of the Advent season, we shift gears. We move from hearing the Gospel stories of Jesus ministry, to hearing of the circumstances of his birth. We transition from the theme of self-preparation for the second coming, to the theme of celebration for the first, for the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, in a babe in a manger. And as we make this transition we are challenged: have we prepared ourselves? Have we been able to quiet our hearts and minds in the midst of the season, not only for the coming return of our Lord, which may occur at any time, but even for the appropriate celebration of his birth?
And so it is that on an occaison of many distractions we hear the story of how Joseph overcame his own anger, frustration and distraction in order to become a husband to Mary and an earthly father to Jesus. The circumstance that Matthew treats in a few words could hardly have been more frustrating and even volatile. The New Revised Standard Version unhelpfully uses the term “engaged” to refer to Mary and Joseph’s relationship. They were betrothed, and though the term may not be used today, it had a specific meaning at the time: namely it meant the couple were married in every way except that they had not yet (usually) taken up residence together. The relationship was as binding as marriage, and would’ve taken a divorce to break. Joseph would doubtless have been frustrated at the news that Mary was pregnant, even if they had not been betrothed, but the fact that they had been said to him that she had broken their contract and shamed them both. Joseph demonstrated something of his character in that, while he planned to divorce Mary, he planned to do so quietly, so as not to damage her reputation too badly.
With the aid of a welcome angelic messenger, Joseph is able to put these thoughts behind him and to commit himself to caring for his new wife and her child. Joseph could have disregarded the message, but he did not, and as one preacher put it:
“He looked after her, loved her, and struggled down that road from Nazareth to Bethlehem with her. Once the child is born and reaches maturity Joseph just fades away and is mentioned no more. If Mary is extraordinarily faithful in accepting God’s calling to be Mother of the Eternal King, the Messiah, in his own way, Joseph shares in that faithfulness to a remarkable degree.
It is not too late to get Christmas right this year, to stop, reflect, realize that all you have done since Thanksgiving has maybe been many things, but it isn’t Christmas. This year, perhaps in the next few days, you can stop thinking that all depends on your presents and your cooking. It all depends on God’s giving.”
It all depends upon God’s giving…
That’s the message for us on this fourth Sunday of Advent. Earlier in the season we’ve considered what we’re awaiting. Today, we focus on being prepared to receive it, on purifying our consciences to welcome the coming Lord. The good news is that even in this we are not left to depend solely or even primarily on our own strength, but instead we pray for God the Father’s “daily visitation,” to make us worthy mansions for his Son.
So indeed, the season’s preparations at their heart do not depend upon our presents or our cooking, and the preparations of our hearts do not depend upon our own feats of spiritual asceticism, but instead, we are taught to depend upon the grace of God in all things. And being in a place to understand that is perhaps the best form of Advent preparation.