Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent

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Christmas is very close now. To take Isaiah’s words, ‘the maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son’ (Is 7:14). In some liturgies, during the last days of Advent, there’s a feast of the Expectation of Mary.

And I think there’s a hidden question behind all we’ve just heard: who is this maiden’s child? Who is this expectant mother carrying? Surely every mother wonders what kind of child she’s going to have, and Mary all the more so. Mary all the more so given the circumstances. Mary all the more so, this woman so inclined, the Gospel says, to ponder in her heart. No one lived Advent like Mary.

It’s as if we’re all en route to Bethlehem. There’s the pregnant young woman, side-saddle on the donkey, and a man walking alongside, solicitous, preoccupied, and behind them all of us. I think today’s liturgy invites us to enter into Mary’s wondering, to wonder with her, in her company. Who is she carrying? What is the sacred cargo in her womb? In a sense, it’s always Advent, and the whole Church, down all the long roads of her history, keeps on wondering with Mary. ‘Who do you say the Son of man is?’, Mary’s son himself would later ask. It’s a question that can be asked and answered over and over again, generation after generation, over and over again in our own lives. It’s a question that will fill our eternity, when, please God, we’re ‘lost in wonder, love and praise.’

What, from the texts we have, might Mary have known? There were no pre-natal scans in those days, but she knew she was carrying a boy. Would he be healthy? Would he be strong? Who would he look like? What to call him? That was already settled: angels had told both Joseph and her. She could already ‘call him Jesus’. And she knew this Jesus was the son of David, the long-promised one. Not just her expected one, but the hope of her whole people. And this at a time when the Jews had as their puppet king someone in no sense a son of David, Herod the Great, and when they sweated under the iron yoke of Rome. This at a time when there was a sense of abandonment and dispersal. She must have sensed her son was the answer. All the promises of better things must have echoed through her. He was the sign God hadn’t abandoned Israel and would put everything right. He’d reunite the scattered, vindicate the poor. He’d bring peace and purification from sin. The land would be full with the knowledge of the Lord and the Temple filled with the glory of God, drawing to it even the pagans. All this had already burst into song within her when she visited Elizabeth and let loose her Magnificat: ‘He has shown the power of his arm, / he has routed the proud of heart. / He has pulled down the mighty from their thrones / and exalted the lowly./ The hungry he has filled with good things, / the rich sent empty away.’ In time, she would learn that it’s by his passion and cross we’re brought to the glory of his resurrection (cf. Collect). But for now there must just have been joyful anticipation. She knew how concerned her Joseph was about where they’d lodge, but she knew all would be well. She loved and trusted him and loved and trusted the Lord. And she had this astonishing child within her. I think her heart was singing.

And she must have wondered even more. She knew that the child hadn’t come about in the usual way, thanks to a man. She had conceived what was in her by the Holy Spirit. There’s something intimate and mysterious about every conception. But all the more with this one. And here was this baby inside her, growing and moving and kicking as babies do, but with this strange, deep difference: conceived by the Holy Spirit. ‘He will be called the Son of the most High’, the angel had said. ‘He will be called Emmanuel, a name which means, God-is-with-us’. In time, Peter would say to Mary’s son, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of God.’ In time, Thomas would hail him risen from the dead, ‘My Lord and my God.’ In time, Paul would write to the Romans of ‘the Gospel of the Son of God’ and how that had shone out through his resurrection. In time, John would write the immortal lines, ‘The Word was God..the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ Yes, in time, the Church would articulate her deep and beautiful teaching on the Incarnation: how the Son of God, born of the Father before all the ages, God from God, was born of the Virgin in time, a man like us in all things but sin, God and man in one. But we are still behind the donkey on the way to Bethlehem. We’re still wondering with Mary. Perhaps it felt like climbing: she’d climbed the foothills of prophecy, and then she saw chain upon chain of snow-capped mountains. And surely, knowing how this child had been conceived, she must have sensed with her heart that her child was something even more. Even more than the fulfilment of Israel’s hope, even more than God’s Messiah. He was all that because he was something ‘more’. Mary, without sin to cloud or confuse her, must have begun to see that God had given her the most precious thing he had: his very self, the beloved of his heart, his only-begotten Son. She must have already glimpsed the long-locked door of his Godhead swinging open, seen the Son coming through it, and in the silence of her womb heard the call to become the Father’s beloved sons and daughters, children of God.

All the paths in Mary’s heart must have been leading this way. Already the spirit of adoration was rising in her, and enveloping Joseph too. Already the angels were gathering round her, and a new worship was about to be born.

So, let’s keep on to Bethlehem. We’re nearly there, Let’s ask Mary to make us party to her wondering. And when we receive Holy Communion, if we do, let’s think with Mary who we’ll have within us, who God is giving us.