Sunday, December 21, 2008

IV Advent


Dec. 21, 2008

Luke 1.26-38

Well, here we are. The last Sunday of Advent. The big Day—Christmas—is now almost agonizingly close. On the surface level, we hopefully, are as prepared as we can be. Presents are hopefully bought (I still have a few to buy). Cards have been sent. Menus have been prepared.

But spiritually, where are we? This time of Advent was a time for us to prepare ourselves spiritually for this glorious event. Has it been worthwhile? Are we prepared spiritually for this day?

The truly honest answer to that question can only be another question: are we ever truly prepared? Or maybe even more honest would be the question: what exactly are we preparing ourselves for? The answer to the first question finds its answer in the second question. What are we preparing ourselves for? What do we believe about this day that is about to dawn upon us? Do we believe it is just another holiday full of trinkets and caroling? Or do we believe that this Day is an awesome Day—a Day in which, truly God draws near to us. Probably the most meaningful way to examine our beliefs of this day is to examine what we believe about that auspicious doctrine Christians believe in called the Incarnation.

Now before you begin to groan inwardly (or outwardly) about another one of those big , overwhelming Church words, bear with me. Usually, whenever I teach a religion class, I begin with the Incarnation. And when I bring it up, I always get a collective blank look. The Incarnation immediately illicits a reaction similar to what most of us react to when we hear about algebra or calculus. It seems beyond us. The Incarnation does seem like a strange, difficult thing for us to wrap our minds around. But I then usually break the word down.

In-carn-ation.

Let’s start out with some simple Latin. Carne means? Meat, or flesh. Think carnivore. Meat eater. Carnival, the celebration before Ash Wednesday, means “farewell to the flesh.” It means, giving up meat for Lent, but it also reminds us that we all must say farewell to our own flesh one day. So carne means flesh. Incarnation means, In the flesh. And when we apply it to theology, it means that God has come to us in the flesh.

That is what we are hearing about in today’s Gospel reading with the Angel Gabriel coming to Mary and that is what we are celebrating this coming week in the birth of Jesus. In the Gospel reading, we are looking back roughly nine months from now. We are looking back to that moment when the Divine took flesh, when God became human at Mary’s “yes” to the Angel.

Incarnation—God made flesh—is at the heart of what we as Christians believe. It is the defining belief among us. It is what makes us different than our Jewish brothers and sisters. Yes, we believe in the same God. But we believe that this same God has taken on human flesh and come among us. It is what makes us different than our Muslim brothers and sisters. Again, we believe in the same God. Yes, they revere Jesus as a great prophet and Mary as a truly holy servant of God, but they cannot quite accept the fact that God has become flesh in the person of Jesus.

We, as Christians, do believe this. We profess it every week in our Creed. We celebrate it in our scripture reading. And we partake of this belief in a very tangible way at the altar when we share Holy Communion with each other. Everything we do as Christians proclaims the fact we believe that, in Jesus, God has come among us.

The fact is, most of us probably haven’t given the Incarnation a whole lot of thought. Even the early Christians struggled with this belief and defined it in various ways. For us, though, as Episcopalians, we do believe in this remarkable fact. And we celebrate it at every opportunity we can.

Certainly every Sunday we celebrate it—here at the altar. Our Eucharist is a remembrance of the fact that, yes, he did have a human body. He had a body like our bodies and blood like our blood. But he was also more than us. He also encompassed everything we longed for and hoped in. He was—and is—God.

When we look at the history of the relationship between God and humanity, it has been a difficult one at best. As we’ve seen in scripture, over and over again, whether it was in the Garden of Eden, with the Israelites wandering the Wilderness, through years of exile and repatriation, God seemingly is always trying to break through to us , and we have been consistently resisting it. But in Jesus, we find the ultimate breaking through.

God speaking through oracles and prophets, through pillars of cloud by day and pillars of fire by night, through burning bushes, donkeys, and even pagan kings, just didn’t work. Finally, God took on human flesh and dwelled among us as one of us, speaking to us as one of us. And although many of us are still resisting it, those of us who recognize it and see it, realize that God has truly broken through to us.

There is a wonderful tradition of prayer in the Christian Church that I have always loved. It is called “the Angelus” Traditionally, the so-called “Angelus bell” would ring three times a day, usually once in morning, once at noon and once in evening. People would stop at the sound of the bell and would pray the Angelus. No doubt you’ve sent the very famous painting called “The Angelus” by Jean-Francois Millet of the farmers pausing in the midst of their field work to bow their heads in prayer.

The Angelus consists of three Hail Mary’s—the prayer based, yet again, on our Gospel reading from today—interspersed with vesicles from our Gospel reading today. It begins with:
V. The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary.R. And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.
V. Behold the handmaid of the Lord.R. Be it unto me according to your Word.
V. And the Word was made flesh.R. And dwelt among us.
Then it ends with a wonderful collect that summarizes the Incarnation for us:
Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that as we have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel to the Virgin Mary, so by his cross and passion we may be brought to the glory of his resurrection; through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Angelus is, in a sense, a theological microcosm of the Incarnation. The Incarnation is certainly mystery. It is beyond our understanding and our rational thought that God could come and become flesh.

But at the same time, for those of us who have faith in God, we can just easily ask the question: why not? Why couldn’t God do just this? Why couldn’t God come among us and dwell with us as one of us. Certainly this is the reality we face Wednesday night and Thursday. For those of us who have been preparing ourselves spiritually for this day, this is what we are forced to examine and face. Our faith might not be quite at that point hat we believe all of it. But what our faith does tell us is that, whatever happens on that day, it is God breaking through to us in some wonderful and mysterious way. And all we have to do is not be stubborn or close-minded and cold-hearted. Rather, all we have to do is be open to that breaking through to us.

The Word was made flesh. And dwelt among us. Our response to that word should be the words of Mary when this incredible mystery descended upon her.

Let it be with me according to your word.

God has broken through to us. Let us meet God at that point of breakthrough rejoicing. And let us come away from that breaking through to us with God’s word being proclaimed in our own voice.

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