Advent 4, Year C, RCL
23 December 2018
Back when I was in college, there was a man who lived in the city who was famous for one thing. Every year at Christmas he would put up a massive display of lights, a display so extravagant that every night a long slow line of cars filled his street, making pilgrimage to see his Christmas lights. He must have found some way to make peace with the neighbors, because there was scarcely room to drive in his neighborhood from dusk till midnight. And his electric bill had to be astronomical. But evidently it was worth it to him, because every year the local news would check in at some point to mention him and give the whole viewing area his address.
There is something about this time of year that heightens the contrast of this paradox between what is hidden and what is on display. We do more entertaining at this time of year than any other — or at least it seems like it, as we make our way through the darkness to homes lit up not just with the usual lamps but with trees garlanded with strings of lights, with candles both real and electric on tables and windowsills, with curtains open at picture windows to let people see the oasis of glowing coziness inside. We sweep and dust and lay in stocks of food and convivial drink; we bake cookies and make fudge and open storage boxes full of ornaments and mementoes of Christmases past. We wrap presents, hiding what’s inside from their recipients — and we display them under the tree, their bright wrappings reflecting the colored lights above.
And we ponder in our hearts those thoughts that come when the range of daylight is narrow and darkness reigns. We grieve, we grizzle, we worry. We hold our prayers and excited anticipation close like small candles. We introspect. Do my feelings match this festive mood? we ask ourselves. Am I really feeling it this year? Or am I missing out? We think about the things that are hidden, waiting for the right moment to bring them forth.
Our readings today are all about this paradox of things hidden and brought forth. In the reading from Micah, the prophet estimates that it will take about the length of a pregnancy for Israel’s fortunes to change — “when she who is in labor has brought forth,” he says, a ruler will come who is strong enough to take away the violence being done to God’s people. Meanwhile, “how long,” cries the Psalmist, “how long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people? Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”
Look at us. Look at us where we are, in the darkness, “mourning ‘neath our sorrows’ load.” Our future is hidden from us, like a baby in a womb: it’s bound to come, but we don’t know what it will be. Micah may have been estimating the course of one particular political upheaval, but his words have the power of metaphor and more than metaphor. Like the flare of a candle or the halo of icy clouds round the moon, that waiting is eternally applicable, coruscating and, well, prophetic.
And so we come to a young woman in the first century of our common era. A young woman who has just been told that she will bring forth the Savior of the world. The Gospel of Luke says in several places that Mary “pondered and treasured these things in her heart,” but that isn’t all she did. In today’s reading, she also gets up and makes haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Around this time of year, we like to talk about the great risks Mary dared to say Yes to God; about the shame and the violence she faced for bearing a child that was not the result of a husband’s decision. About how scary such a risk would be to a young girl in a rural village.
And that is certainly something to ponder, something to take seriously. But in today’s reading we are also given a glimpse of something else, the other side of that paradox of risk and undeserved shame: we are given a glimpse of a radical, even an aggressive, joy. The letter to the Hebrews urges its readers to take Christ for their model, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God.” Christ, in turn, it seems, had a model in his mother, whose Magnificat is prayed every day all around the world, declaring that the first shall be last and the last first.
The seventeenth-century bishop Jeremy Taylor writes, in a sermon about the Visitation, a description of this meeting:
Mary found no one so fit as her cousin Elizabeth to share the first emanations of her overjoyed heart, for she was to be the mother of the Baptist, who was sent as forerunner to prepare the way of the Lord her son. It is not easy to imagine what collision of joys was at this blessed meeting; two mothers of two great princes, the one the greatest that was born of woman, and the other his Lord. When these who were made mothers by two miracles came together, they met with joy and mysteriousness. The mother of our Lord went to visit the mother of his servant, and the Holy Ghost made the meeting festival. Never, but in heaven, was there more joy and ecstasy. For these women were hallowed and made big with religion and they met to unite their joy and their eucharist. By this God would have us know that when the blessings of God descend upon us, they should be published in the communion of the saints, so that our charity and eucharist may increase that of others, and the praises of God be sung aloud, till the sound strike at heaven and join with the alleluias which the morning stars in their orbs pay to their great Creator.
The joy of this meeting between two mothers is a festival as bright as the first flare of all the stars in the universe — a joy that we can only attempt to emulate with our Christmas light displays. And it’s interesting that Jeremy Taylor’s takeaway from this meeting that no one else saw or participated in or even heard about until later, is that joy should be published. Witnessed to. Shared as a blessing like broken bread and poured wine.
In the chapter from Hebrews that we read today, a few verses on from today’s reading, we are urged to act in response to Jesus’s offering of himself: “The blood of Jesus makes us free to enter the sanctuary with confidence by the new and living way which he has opened for us through the curtain, by way of his flesh…let us make our approach in sincerity of heart and the full assurance of faith, inwardly cleansed from a guilty conscience, and outwardly washed with pure water.” That which was veiled has been uncovered; that which was hidden has been made known; the light of God’s countenance has been turned to shine fully on us. God sees us; God bears witness to us; that is the joy set before us that makes us strong to dare any hazard.
The word “conscience” in this passage of Hebrews appears many times in the New Testament, and nearly always its context is the act of witnessing. To these writers, our conscience isn’t simply that thing that makes us feel guilty when we do something wrong. It’s our inner witness, the part of us that is awake and ready to testify to reality. So when we pray asking God to “purify” our conscience, we are not just asking to be made aware of our sins so we can repent them. We are asking God to make us able to testify, accurately, to the reality of God’s joy. We are asking for unclouded vision so that God’s face will not be obscured from us.
That’s a thing we really do need to ask for, in this season in which we clean and polish and decorate our homes, in which we are urged to jump into celebrations whether we’re feeling it or not. Purify our inner witness, Lord, so we can see you when you come to visit. Let our praises ricochet like light from a thousand prisms, multiplying our joys like the songs of the morning stars, silent and yet louder than a cataract of shouts.
Let us pray this morning’s Collect again.
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.