There was once a Jewish rabbi who asked some of his colleagues, ‘Where does God dwell? Where does he live?’ They were learned men who knew their Bible, and they laughed. ‘What a thing to ask! Isn’t the whole world full of his glory?’ Then the Rabbi answered, ‘God dwells wherever man lets him in.’
Today is the last Sunday of Advent. Christmas is close. And this day belongs to the young Jewish girl who let God in. She did that at what we call the Annunciation, the first joyful mystery of the Rosary. She did it at the end of her conversation with the Angel. Her answer was sung at the Gospel Acclamation: ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord: let what you have said be done to me.’ As so Elizabeth says in today’s Gospel: ‘Blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.’
God dwells wherever we let him in. The relationship is consensual.
Yesterday I rang three doorbells and no-one answered. On God’s behalf, the angel, as it were, rang the doorbell at n. 21 Side Lane, Nazareth, and Mary opened the door. And afterwards – in what we call the Visitation, the 2nd joyful mystery of the Rosary – Mary entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. And the child in Elizabeth’s womb, John the Baptist, answered the door when he leapt for joy, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and sang the praise of Mary and her child. This is what happens when we let God in: the whole Trinity arrives and joy erupts.
Mary answered the door. Why did she do this? How could she do it? She was a daughter of Abraham. She knew he had believed God’s promise of a child, despite his and his wife’s great age, and how joy had come to them through the birth of Isaac. She could remember how when, in the time of Moses, the Lord wanted to come to his people through the law and the covenant, they had responded ‘with one voice, and said, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do”’ (Ex 24:3). They let God in. She knew how the leaders and judges and prophets of her people, for all their fear, had accepted their missions from God. She knew how the old priest Eli had told his young acolyte, Samuel, what to say when his name was called: ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening’ (1 Sam 3:9). There’s a history here, a history of obedience and faith. The history was in Mary’s spiritual genes, as it were: the ear of her heart was an open one. She was a child of this listening culture. And her inner hearing was honed, more finely still, by the grace of her Immaculate Conception. So, when the fullness of time came, when what was being offered became more and greater than before, when the angel began to speak of a Messiah who was Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, she could let God in.
God dwells where man or woman lets him in. And then like oil or water or fire, God as it were spreads and humanity expands. Mary becomes the virgin Mother of God, a dwelling place of God, and the joy of this presence spreads: to Joseph, to Elizabeth and Zechariah and John, to the shepherds and the wise men, and then in the power of Pentecost out into the whole world.
The 2nd reading takes us even further. It puts words on the lips of Christ as he came into the world. Jesus takes up that whole history of Israelite obedience which culminated in his mother’s fiat, and crowns it with his own. ‘This is what Christ said – to his Father – on coming into the world: “You who wanted no sacrifice or oblation, prepared a body for me…God, here I am! I am coming to do your will”’. And through that human obedience of the Son, renewed in Gethsemane and fulfilled on the Cross, God the Father could come in. To echo the Psalm, he could rouse up his might, come to our help, shine from his cherubim throne. He could visit this vine and protect it. He could be fully Father, raise his Son from the dead and breathe the Holy Spirit into the world. Thanks to the Annunciation, thanks to Gethsemane, the Resurrection and Pentecost have happened, the whole Trinity has come in and a new humanity begun.
Once some Jews went to another Rabbi and told him about all the human misery there was around them. And the Rabbi listened, sunk in grief. Then he raised his head: ‘Let us draw God into the world’, he cried, ‘and all need will be quenched.’
Here are we, St Mary’s parish, an assembly of the baptised, the Church in this place, on this 4th Sunday of Advent. Who are we? We are Mary. And there is the same knock on the door and ring at the bell. The Liturgy is like the Angel. It comes with this huge promise: Christ is coming, Christ present in the Eucharist, Christ filling each and all of us with his truth and grace, Christ sending us forth, Christmas renewed and continued in us. ‘Blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.’ That blessing is for us as well. Here we are, brothers and sisters, making our way through life, hobbling along in the time allotted us. What’s it all for: my life, my body, my freedom? What are we for? What am I for? What is this parish community to which I belong for? To be the place where the God of glory dwells. And where does he dwell? He dwells where man lets him in. He dwells where we say, with the faith and trust we can muster: ‘I am the servant of the Lord; be it dome to me according to your word.’
St Mary’s Cathedral, 23 December 2018