“O God, who see how your people faithfully await the feast of the Lord’s Nativity…” So begins today’s Collect.
This is the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday. “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice”. The Entrance Antiphon quotes St Paul. He repeats himself in today’s 2nd reading: “Be happy / rejoice at all times.” In the 1st reading, from Isaiah, even poor old Jerusalem, so often bashed and bruised, says, “I exult for joy in the Lord, my soul rejoices in my God.” In the Psalm we hear the voice of Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” There’s a sense of a choir coming together here. Even our vestments lighten up, and purple turns pink.
The trouble is: you can’t command an emotion. I can tell myself to get out of a chair, but not to feel about something, at least not to immediate effect. We learn too that it’s not wise to say to someone who is seriously miserable, “Cheer up, old girl!”
We’re being summoned today to a joy that’s more than an emotion inside us; rather, it’s a joy with a reason. We’re being invited to look outwards. This is an objective, out-there joy, founded on a reality. “Rejoice because the Lord is near.” This is a real, tangible, down to earth joy. It’s a child. And not just any child, but the Child, God’s eternal Child now become a Child for us. Children can run us through every emotion in the book, positive or negative. But still, surely a child is a joy. And should we want to contest that, well, surely this one is. This one isn’t one too many. This one doesn’t bring grief.
Gaudete: this Child is almost there.
But we can go further.
The Collect begins, “O God, who see how your people faithfully await the feast of the Lord’s Nativity.”
“O God, who see…” God here is God the Father, and he sees us. The Father is looking at us, gazing at us. He loves us so much he can’t take his eyes off us. The Latin word translated “see” here – conspicere – is not any kind of seeing or looking, certainly no blank stare. It is an attentive, appreciative and caring looking. So, God is looking at his faithful, believing people, looking at us as we prepare to keep the birth of his Son. He knows how preoccupied we are, how much there is to distract us, but he sees beyond that. He sees how, as Advent moves on, we do try to focus. In our clumsy way, we are heading for Bethlehem. And the Lord sees that. He loves it. And by looking at us in his attentive, appreciative, caring way, he is carries us with him. He “enables” us, says the Prayer, to get there, to “arrive” (pervenire). This is a beautiful, joy-giving thought. God’s looking does the job. Collects always emphasise the action of God.
Pope Francis is often inspired by the saint whose name he has taken. The opening words of the Encyclical Laudato Si are a quotation from St Francis, and the theme of care for our common home is a Franciscan one. The same with the Encyclical Fratelli Tutti, with its opening words and its likewise Franciscan theme of fraternity. St Francis went to see the Sultan of Egypt in the interests of peace, and the Pope met last year with the Grand Imam in Abu Dhabi for the same purpose. But there’s another connection too: the Crib. Last year, the Pope wrote a beautiful meditation on the Crib, encouraging us to keep up this custom and have cribs at home. Surely all the more reason this year. Cribs make the Gospel story come alive, come home to us literally. They show us God’s tenderness and closeness. They give simple joy. They draw us in. I know a German abbot, a serious man, but every Advent when he’s setting up a crib in the Abbey Church he’s transformed into a young boy – on his knees, arranging the figures, adding animals, putting in a railway line. In this city, there’s a lady who collects cribs from all over the world and fills her house with them during Advent; it makes it such a delightful place. It is a small miracle that there’s the crib just up the road in the cemetery of the church of St Nicholas. That was owed a few years ago to the initiative of two local Councillors not ashamed to be known as Christians. Last year, two teens vandalised the Baby Jesus. He has been replaced and, courtesy of the Episcopalian bishop of Aberdeen, there’s now a large donkey there too.
When we come to Bethlehem and the Crib and Christmas night, we come to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, to the angels and shepherds and animals. Somewhere on the horizon are the wise men with their camels and gifts. Even an Emperor and a Roman governor are unwittingly involved. But there’s Someone else as well: “O God, who see…” Over the whole scene, framing it, holding everything together, like the stable roof, like the night sky, is God the Father. We can think of him looking at his Son and in his Son at us, looking attentively, appreciatively, caringly. Mary and Joseph, the angels and the shepherds, are looking too in the same direction, looking with the Father at his beloved Son and the world reborn in him. We are all united, all one, one in the Son, one with each other, linked by the Father’s look.
“May you all be kept safe and blameless, spirit, soul and body, for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”, says St Paul. “God has called you and he will not fail you.” Here are we, people of faith, sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker, pilgriming to Bethlehem in spirit, soul and body, with the Father’s attentive, appreciative, caring eyes upon us. And it’s not just to a memory we’re travelling. It’s to a fullness. It’s to what Bethlehem points to. It’s to that we pray to reach (pervenire). This is where we hope to end, to be complete as human beings. We are called to a great unity of creation and humanity and our whole selves in Christ. To his glorified mystical body, the heavenly city, the kingdom of God, where we will see everything as the Father sees, and joy will overtake us like a flood.
God has called us, says St Paul. And he is faithful. He looks at us, body, soul and spirit. He “will not fail” us. What Paul actually says is, “he will do it” (ipse faciet) – the action of God. We will get there because he will get us there: to Bethlehem and beyond. It might be an idea to worry less and trust more.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 13 December 2020)