Fourth Sunday of Advent

If there is any word to take away from today’s readings, it is Rejoice!’. The word ‘Greetings!’, which we heard at the start of today’s gospel, is one translation of the original Greek ‘kiare’. Another translation is  ‘Hail!’, and we use that when we recite today’s gospel as a prayer, the ‘Hail Mary’. But ‘Rejoice’ is the full sense of ‘kiare’ and expresses best of all the angel’s greeting. ‘Rejoice!’ To exult. It is the only possible response to a recognition of the momentous event which is happening: Christ coming into the world, God finally fulfilling his promises, throwing in his lots with what are now his fellow human beings. It is for Mary to rejoice! It is what the shepherds in the fields will do when the angels ‘bring news of great joy, kiare; the Saviour has been born, Christ the Lord’. It is what the apostles did, we are told, after the resurrection: ‘they rejoiced to see the Lord’. We too are invited to rejoice at what is in effect the beginning of the New Testament, God’s new covenant with all humanity. ‘ 

And the angel continues: ‘Full of grace!, or, truer to the original, as we heard, ‘favoured one’. It is not that Mary is filled with anything; she is favoured by God’s magnanimity! Grace has often been represented as a divine fluid or power but, rather, it is the unmerited favour of a sovereign ruler who needs to justify his choices to no one. And what is that favour? ‘The Lord is with you.’ That is the gift: He is with her; he is in our midst. This is the marvel of the incarnation, of Christmas.

And it seems, for some at least, that he has been a long time coming and that it is also a long time before his ‘Second coming’ and the full establishment of the Kingdom of God! The psalmist evokes our long wait’ very well. He writes: 

“Lord, my God, I call for help by day; I cry at night before you. 
My soul is on the brink of the grave. I am reckoned as one in the tomb; 
like the slain lying in their graves; like those you remember no more.
                           My one companion is darkness.’

That is where we would be without the Saviour. How many of us have experienced this! and even are experiencing it! The meaning of Christmas is that we are not alone in such a dark place, without the knowledge or love of God. And for some that darkness means very great hardships, today for instance, in many parts of the world. 

To know that one is not alone, that God is with one, Emmanuel, makes all the difference. It will not resolve our problems but it can change the way we approach them and their hold over us; it changes the way we respond to them. It is like the child, or a person at any stage of life, who, knowing he / she is loved,  can therefore remain calm in adversity, has the courage and ability to endure, and can even perhaps go to the point of death in the sure hope of the resurrection. 

Faith like this, in God’s trustworthiness, in his presence, is what made Mary’s faith exemplary; she had no end of perplexity and reversals in her life! St  Paul too, in today’s reading to the Roman, praises God for, as he says, giving his readers ‘the strength to live according to the Good News that he preaches’.   

One thousand years before the coming of Christ, King David had vowed to build the temple of which the foundations still lie in modern Jerusalem. Dare we say that he never understood the kind of temple it was to prefigure, the real temple, the people in which he takes up his residence, us, Emmanuel. And Mary, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, would only gradually come to such an understanding. 

We too are called to live with an heroic faith in God’s continued presence in our world and let it stand the test of time. Christians today, are called on to rejoice in it, to make it visible and to allow raise the morale of all and let it guide decision-making in these troubled time – by acts of love which go beyond a more or less selfish purpose. The need for this is great today. We need only look around us. And if practical help is not possible for us to give let us at least pray that the hope our God gives may reach those most in need of it.

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