Preachers rarely have the luxury of unity on Sunday mornings. More often than not what you have are three cats running off with different threads. The Psalm goes this way, the Epistle that, and the Gospel does its own thing. This morning, however, because of the deep intention of this Advent season, I am gifted with great cohesion in today’s readings.
To begin with, we have that deep beseeching in today’s Psalm, that the Lord would restore us to His favour so that His face might shine upon us. The Gospel replies, with an Angel telling Joseph that the Lord’s face shall be revealed in the babe that his wife shall bare, to save His people from their sins. And then Paul’s letter to the Romans is a neat summary to the faithful. Describing God’s descent to the flesh that all of mankind may be called toward the Lord in the fellowship of saints.
In these three readings we see the conversation that happens in our faith, the deep yearning of our souls that God may shine upon us, God’s answer to this prayer in gifting us with His Son, and then the lingering responsibility to uphold the blessing of His reply. For as God has crossed such a divide to come and know us, so too are we called to make a pilgrimage to him. Advent is a time of pilgrimage where we journey in reflection, and ponder what it means that God is coming into the world.
When one spends a bit time with the literature on the subject, a word that keeps bubbling to the surface is: “scandal.” For it is scandalous to believe that the creator should allow himself to be created, that the infinite should be clothed in flesh, that he who forged the stars should himself be found under a star in Bethlehem. This series of contradictions smash up against our desire for simple reason, and scandalize our understanding.
Today’s gospel begins with a noble man not wanting to cause a scandal. Joseph does not want to cause disgrace, so he seeks to dismiss Mary away from the public eye. But the pure motives of a noble man are not how God chooses to come to us. God begets scandal atop of scandal. The divine becomes mortal through a virgin birth, the logic of the world is overthrown, as Christ will overturn all the tables we put in front of him.
And here we come to the real scandal of the virgin birth, that the Messiah comes not in power and glory to lead the revolution against the Romans, but to lead by an example of vulnerability. The Lord of hosts triumphs neither in reason nor conquest but in surrender. The Christian life is about celebrating that vulnerability, by following that example, and surrendering our desires to the love of God.
After the floods of the Old Testament, our God promised not to destroy again, but hearing his people’s lament in the wilderness of the world, replied to them by entering a manger. God who made all things made himself of Mary. He who was able to make all things out of nothing refused to re-make it by force, but instead became the son of Mary. So God is the father of all created things and Mary is the mother all recreated things. God is the father of all that is established and Mary is the mother of all that is re-established. That last bit is from St. Anselm’s prayer about Mary, and a fitting prayer to remember on the day we consider what God’s entry into the world means for us, and whether we desire to be refashioned as God refashioned creation.
Now in my day job, I spend much time with people who desire to be refashioned. I meet with people, daily, who are struggling with addiction in one form or another, and I am continually confronted with their desire to be reformed. But it is great effort, great effort to repent. And I mean repent here in the purest sense, “to turn around,” to alter the course that the world has assigned you so that you may draw closer to the God of life and turn from the way of death.
How that effort is made is with help, for salvation is a group activity. Where two or three are gathered in my name there shall I be also. Our faith is not a philosophy for individuals but a community that runs the race set before us together. So we gather here on Sunday morning, Sunday the first day of creation, that we may partake of the New Adam, and carry that newness into the world, in remembrance of He who made all things new.
And then we do it again next week, repeating the same confession over and over and over again, wondering if we’ll ever get this right. But this is it, this is the refashioning for confession is the refinement of the soul. The spiritual practice is just that, a practice. It is something you get better at over time. You do it over and over and over again that the skill of salvation may enter your bones, and that when you come across some wayward soul who has lost the thread of life, you may be able to turn unto them and say: “Rejoice, your salvation is at hand.”