We beseech thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation, that when thy Son our Lord cometh he may find in us a mansion prepared for himself….
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, we’ve arrived at last at the fourth and final Sunday of Advent; we’re drawing ever closer to the Nativity of our Lord and the festivities of Christmastide. And so it is fitting that our Collect this morning and our lessons from Scripture are concerned with what was necessary for the Incarnation to happen at all. What were the conditions that had to be in place in order for the Word to be made flesh? It’s an important question for us to ask, because the answer will in turn reveal what is necessary for Christ to “be born in us today,” as the carol sings. However it happened that God became man will be the way by which man becomes God. So this is the question on which the entire Christian life depends.
But for us to even consider what was necessary for the coming of God into the world is to assume a crucial truth, which is that Christ did not magically appear out of nowhere. The Incarnation was not like an alien invasion; Christ didn’t arrive as someone who had nothing to do with the world into which he entered. All that to say, there is a reason why Christians have always given such close attention to the Old Testament and to creation as a whole. Because, when we look into either of them with the eyes of faith, we see both a people and a world that are being prepared for redemption. We see a world that groans for its perfection on the one hand and the people of Israel who long for their consolation on the other. We see, therefore, a world and a people that have everything to do with God and a God who has everything to do with the world and this people. So we read the Old Testament as a story of anticipation that is set within a creation that looks beyond itself. The conditions are already there, in other words, because the people of God are waiting in a world that is waiting too.
In our Old Testament lesson, the Prophet Micah says that the people of God will “dwell secure” when the “one who is to be ruler in Israel” finally comes, for he will be the one who “shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.” But significantly, this ruler will not drop out of the sky one day. Rather, he will be brought forth from “she who is in travail” – a mother who represents within herself the creation that groans. So this is the first condition for the possibility of the Incarnation that we can identify this morning: a mother who is in travail.
Let’s move on to our Epistle lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews. Now, recall that the theme of the entire Old Testament could be summed up in the law and the prophets. The law establishes the conditions of the covenant between God and his people – which God’s fidelity and Israel’s obedience – and the prophets are those who call the people back to those conditions when they have gone astray. But even for the faithful in the Old Testament, the law and the prophets were never the end of the story. They were defined by their anticipation for the consolation of God, the Messiah. The prophets especially were those who both called Israel back to obedience and reminded them of the promises that were still to come. But the law itself was also aware of its own inadequacy. As the Psalm which is quoted in our lesson from Hebrews says:
Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired,
See that even the Psalmist knew that all of the sacrifices and offerings commanded in the law were only ever a sign of what the real point was from the beginning: a body, prepared by God. The law was never to be fulfilled by a merely external observance of all its requirements alone; it was only to be fulfilled by the one who has “come to do thy will, O God.” Here, then, is the second condition for the possibility of the coming of Christ: a body that has been prepared.
Now, this is where things get really interesting. Because whose body is this that God has prepared? The first and most obvious option would be Christ’s body, of course, which was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary. Christ, as the Son of God in human flesh, was and is the body that has been prepared to be the ultimate sacrifice and offering. Christ is the one who has “come to do thy will, O God.” But remember the words of the Prophet Micah, who promised that the ruler of Israel would be brought forth from “she who is in travail” – from a mother, that is. It’s quite revealing that, if we read the Psalm as if it’s in the voice of Christ, the “body” that has been prepared for him becomes ambiguous. Could it not be the body of Mary, his mother, that has been prepared for him, so that “then,” he can say “Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God?”
This brings us to our Gospel lesson, which recounts the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth after the Annunciation from the Angel Gabriel. Mary enters the house and Elizabeth, already bearing in herself the child of John the Baptist, greets her with joy.
And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
Mary then completes the series of prophecies that began with Micah and the other prophets and has proceeded through the prophecy of Elizabeth by proclaiming a prophecy of her own. It is the well-known Song of Mary, the Magnificat, which we happen to say at every Evening Prayer. My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
But a body thou hast prepared for me. To close, consider how the words of our Collect this morning are prayed in the voice of Mary. It’s as though we are asking God to make us to be what she is: a mansion prepared for himself. Our prayer today, on this final Sunday before Christmas, is that God would purify us as he purified the Blessed Virgin Mary; that our bodies would be the bodies that God has prepared for himself. And that, receiving him who has come to dwell with us and in us, “our selves, our souls and bodies” would be “a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.” Thanks to the birth of Christ that we anticipate this day – the coming of the Word made flesh, the ruler of Israel – we have been united as members of his body, brought forth and born again by the Holy Spirit from the womb of Mary, who is now our Mother by adoption and grace, just as God is now our Father.
So the wonderful ambiguity returns. We imitate the holy example of the Blessed Virgin Mary by asking God to fill us with his grace and make our souls a mansion prepared for himself. Once prepared, Christ himself enters in so that we can hope in him and purify ourselves as he is pure (1 John 3:3). “God became man so that man might become God,” as St. Athanasius put it. For God was not content to send his redemption in spite of what needed to be redeemed. Instead, God chose to prepare the world for the redemption that he would send; to establish the conditions that would make the Incarnation possible. Indeed, the preparation was itself an integral part of his redemption, because this redemption would go all the way down. And now, because we are in Christ, we too can give thanks that God has prepared a body for us. We can give thanks that, in Christ, we too can now say “Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God.”
O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray, Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.