Today we are close to Christmas. Expectancy is in the air. “Drop down dew from above, you heavens, and let the clouds rain down the Just One; let the earth be opened and bring forth a Saviour”, says the Introit. The time is coming, says Micah, when “she who is to give birth gives birth”. Last Sunday coincided with the feast of our Lady of Guadalupe, with its well-known image of Mary imprinted on the cloak of St Juan Diego. And in that image Mary is not, as so often, holding her child; she is pregnant. As she is also in today’s Gospel, visiting her cousin Elizabeth after conceiving herself. Expectancy. “All the oracles of the prophets foretold him”, says the Preface, “the Virgin Mother longed for him with love beyond all telling”. In a sense, the Church too is pregnant, pregnant with Christmas, when he who was born in Bethlehem will be born again in us, today’s world his second stable. And what happened once in the past will happen afresh for us.
And who is he?
Let’s begin with the prophet Micah. Micah was one of the Hebrew prophets. He lived in the 8th c. BC and was a contemporary of Isaiah and Amos and Hosea. Israel was in a bad way socially and economically, and politically and militarily was under major threat from the Assyrians. In the words just before our reading, Micah had been speaking of Jerusalem being under siege and of how the Jewish ruler had become an object of contempt. Then suddenly, he swings his camera to a tiny, unimportant village a few miles away, Bethlehem, the wee place where David came from, and he prophesies the birth of another king, the Messiah. And who is he? If we listen closely, we hear Micah saying two things: first, he will be born of a woman in Bethlehem. He will “come forth” from her. Naturally, the early Christians saw this fulfilled in Jesus’ birth from Mary in Bethlehem. Then, he says, “his origin goes back to the distant past, to the days of old.” His “coming forth is from ancient days”. And in that the Christians of the past saw something more: he comes forth from “the Ancient of Days”, God the Father. He has a double origin: one rooted in time and place, another in eternity. David’s son, the Messiah, will be the son of Mary and the Son of the Father. He will be human, one of us, our brother. And he will be divine, from above. The two origins give him two natures: divine and human. He will be God and man, one person in two natures. And so Micah ends his oracle: “He himself will be peace.” The Messiah is peace in person. In him God and man come together, man and God are reconciled, the age-old battle of the wills is resolved. Those polar opposites, ancient combatants, old enemies, are suddenly at peace.
“Drop down dew, heavens, and let the earth bring forth.”
When the Incarnation happened, said St Leo, “lowliness was taken by majesty, weakness by strength, mortality by eternity” (Letter 28). And so, “he is our King who makes both one” (Vespers Antiphon for 22 December).
Our Lord is twofold, binary. We can see it everywhere. “Blessed is the fruit of your womb”, Elizabeth cries to Mary, and then, a few words later, calls him “my Lord”. “Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord?” Jesus is the fruit of Mary’s womb: what could make him more human? But he is also the “Lord”, from another realm, conceived by the Holy Spirit. “Such an [origin] befitteth God”, says St Ambrose. Who is he, then, the One Mary’s carrying and we’re expecting too? “He who is true God is also true man”, says St Leo once more, and “the loftiness of God and the lowliness of man are brought together” (op. cit.). So again, when the angels announce his birth, they say, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will.” God and man at peace.
What happens, then, as Jesus’ life unfolds is that this peace is opened up to us. It doesn’t stay locked up in Christ. The coming together, the oneness, the reconciliation, concentrated in Christ, is poured out. It becomes something we can imbibe and enter. Thanks to his human origin from Mary, his humanity, Christ shares our own experience, all the way to death and burial. In his body, he lives out the joyful and sorrowful mysteries of our own bodies and lives. Thanks to his divine origin as Son of the Father, his divinity, he can rescue us from our predicaments and raise us from within, all the way to a share in his resurrection at the end of time: his glorious mysteries. Thanks to his humanity he could die with us and thanks to his divinity we can rise with him.
Who is he then, the One who comes over the hills towards us? Peace in person and peace for us. The 1 st Antiphon of the 1st Evening Prayer of Christmas calls him Rex pacificus – the King who makes peace. A great door swings open, and we can walk out into a new space. When we are baptised, we go through water into his death and we’re taken by the Spirit into his risen life. And so, says St Paul, “justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1).
This is the Peace Mary is carrying and we are expecting. The One in whom all things hold together. The One to whom the stray and scattered can return, who makes our sad divisions cease, reconciles Gentile and Jew, man and woman, old and young. O, O, O, O, O, O, O – seven times in the Vespers of these last days the Church cries out a great O. “O Wisdom, O Adonai, O Root of Jesse…come!” Come with your peace! O, how we, our families, our friends, our countries, our world need this peace! So, with the prophets and Mary and John, let us go out to meet it. And for the sake of our ravaged, peace-less world, let’s open our own small human hearts and allow God’s great peace to come. It is not just for us.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 19 December 2021