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Fourth Sunday of Advent: “God Is with Us”
Hymns 56, 265, 437,
“Canticle of the Turning”
Have you ever had a moment when your world turned? Not a season of gradual change, but an abrupt turn of events that shocked you, made what you thought was real unreal, shoved you into a future so strange you could hardly breathe? Or find your way forward?
One dimension of Advent teaches us how to wait patiently for good things to come. This morning, I want to explore with you how we respond when life startles us with harder things than we can comprehend. Advent is meant to prepare us for these times, too.
And who better to teach us than Mary and Joseph, their paired stories at the center of our lessons today? Readings for this fourth Sunday of Advent usually feature Luke’s account of Gabriel announcing a shocking pregnancy to young maiden Mary. We read her response, a powerful song called The Magnificat, last week; we’re singing her story in our hymns today. And in our Gospel from Matthew, we enter her partner Joseph’s altered reality. What just happened to this very ordinary couple, anticipating an ordinary future together?
These two were on a strictly defined path forward: a teenager and an older man in a contract to be married. They were betrothed, a social arrangement between families so formal that it could only be broken by the equivalent of a public, painful divorce. This relationship did not require love. But it did require that the man and woman adhere to a strict code of sanctity. And commit to building a future together.
Mary and Joseph were in a time of enforced waiting, patiently preparing for a new life. But then their world turned.
Now, we may have heard this story so many times that we’ve lost sight of these two people as they are in this critical moment. Not the glorified Mother Mary or the reliable husband Joseph, but a couple challenged by a pregnancy that could barely be explained: to themselves, to their families, to their society. This was unimaginable.
And in this moment, young Mary knows very well the terrible consequences of pregnancy before marriage. Joseph, her betrothed, would be within his rights not only to break his contract with her. He could also publicly and cruelly shame Mary and her family for an obvious act of sexual betrayal. She could even be vulnerable to stoning. And Joseph, too, if he chose to remain with her, would be subject to ridicule or rejection as a man who had violated the sanctity code.
In this acute situation, facing a frightening unknown, how would these two people respond: to each other, to their future, to God?
For me, this question does not take me back in time, to reflect about the historical accuracy of the annunciation or the virgin birth or about how extraordinary Mary and Joseph were in their virtue. It leads me to look around me today—at friends and family, men and women close to me and in the news—ordinary people who have also been struck head-on by life and have to choose a way forward. Even when they are disoriented, even when their future is uncertain.
I’m sure you have examples in your own life. Times of accident, fear, or sudden loss. For me, I’m pondering the situation of two close friends whose lives have just been upended. I had been asked to officiate at their upcoming wedding this Saturday. Plans were happily in full swing until, two weeks ago, the bride’s stubborn backache was diagnosed as a rare and advanced form of cancer. Their long-awaited marriage day was replaced by a rush into oncology appointments, immediate chemo. Unimaginable. What next?
There are so many ways we can turn when a future we’ve counted on is suddenly taken away. Of course, the truth is, at some level, we know we’re not in control of what happens in our lives. But this realization can be overwhelmingly painful when we’re jolted off course. And we can turn this pain into anger or bitterness. We can turn inward and away from others. We can get stuck in blame or fear.
That’s certainly where Joseph was heading when, Matthew tells us, Mary was “found to be with child.” He had determined to sever this relationship—not in the most destructive or punitive way possible, but leaving Mary extremely vulnerable. “Dismissing her quietly” would have been an act of abandonment—and despair for both. A sign of blame, a loss of faith.
And then an angel appears with a message for Joseph. The same message Mary receives from Gabriel: “Do not be afraid.” This visitation allows Joseph to execute what Bishop Dan has called a “spiritual pirouette”—a dramatic reversal of his own, back from despair into a life-giving relationship.
However we conceive of this transforming shift—an angelic visitation, a dream, a vision, a deep shift in consciousness—a new awareness breaks through to both Mary and Joseph that allows them to accept what is. To consent to the pain and the joy of a future with this miraculous baby. To choose a partnership with each other not because of social convention but because of the promise of mutual support. To choose a connection to God.
That, we’re told, will be the sign of their faith and the name of the child they will raise together: Emmanuel, “God is with us.”
How do we choose a connection to God in our own times of reversal and dislocation? Is this kind of faith possible only for the most holy? Joseph may be the most ordinary person we meet today, and I’m grateful for his example. It gives me hope. I may not be able to summon an angel to spin me back toward God in my darkest times, but I can practice his motion.
By not turning away from others when I’m hurt, but by allowing them in. By not blaming life when I’m disappointed, but by staying present in it, facing it, as it is. By not cutting off love, but by choosing to stay open to it.
I see my friends bravely responding in this way during their present ordeal: forging a new bond of love stronger than any wedding vow.
Remaining open to life and to God in the hardest times takes spiritual courage. I don’t say it’s easy. It takes courage to face pain. It takes courage to determine if a turn back into a relationship will generate love or drain our spirit. Our God always calls us to choose love.
So this is why we have times of spiritual preparation—like Advent—to practice how to discern love, to practice how to remain open to life and to God. We’re encouraged to contemplate the pain and joy, the dark and light, in each day—and allow both to be true. We’re invited to take more time in prayer, to listen for angels. We urged to become more awake and less afraid. And we’re given the beautiful examples of Mary and Joseph—who had the faith to allow God’s presence to enter their lives.
So that when the world turns for us, in ways we cannot predict or even imagine, we may have their courage and resilience to accept what comes and say, even in the darkness, “God is with us.”
I close with
Denise Levertov’s poem honoring Mary, “Annunciation”:
We know the
scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are
told of meek obedience. No one mentions
did not enter her without consent.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in
a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child–but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a
destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power–
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love–
but who was God.
This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.
A breath unbreathed,
She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
opened her utterly. Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Associate for Interfaith Ministry
St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada
December 22, 2013
 Denise Levertov, “Annunciation” in The Stream and The Sapphire (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1997).