‘Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord, your grace into our hearts, that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son was made known by the message of an Angel, may by his Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of his Resurrection. Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.’
Today we are on the brink of Christmas. On 25 March each year, we celebrate the Annunciation: ‘the Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Spirit.’ This Sunday we do too. It’s March in December. It’s a dramatic foreshortening, not nine months before Christmas, but seven days. It’s spring in winter. And this Year, Year A, we hear not St Luke’s account of the Annunciation to Mary, but St Matthew’s account of the Annunciation to St Joseph. ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit.’ Like Mary, Joseph puts fear aside. Like Mary, he gives the ‘obedience of faith’ to what he hears.
The Incarnation is the ultimate free download, and to access it, to agree to its terms and conditions, all that’s needed is that click of faith. ‘You are now connected.’
Think of today’s Sunday as an Annunciation to us. Think of the liturgy as an angel announcing the birth of Jesus, asking for our faith.
‘The Lord himself will give you a sign,’ Isaiah says to King Ahaz. Ahaz does not respond with faith: ‘I will not put the Lord to the test’, he says. This is sophistry. But the sign will still be given, and it is: ‘the maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Emmanuel.’ The Hebrew word here translated ‘maiden’ refers to a young woman of marriageable age. It implies virginity, rather than affirming it. But in the ancient Greek translation of Isaiah, and in our Greek New Testament, a word was used making the virginity more explicit. So we have ‘a virgin shall conceive’. A hidden depth in the text has been brought to light; it’s a prophecy of Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus. This is what the New Testament affirms and the Church believes: ‘he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.’ This is a basic and non-negotiable article of faith.
‘The Lord himself will give you a sign.’ This is it. Jesus had a human mother, but no human father. Mary’s conception came from above, from the Holy Spirit. That he had a mother shows his humanity, that his mother was a virgin signifies his divinity. And so: ‘Emmanuel, God is with us.’ He is with us in a new, unprecedented and, oh! so gracious and courteous a way. The Old Testament is full of stories of infertile women unexpectedly conceiving, beginning with Sarah. The New Testament itself begins with one in the person of Elizabeth. These conceptions were always a sign of God drawing close to his people. They were a sign of his mercy and creative power. When Israel was down and out, these unexpected conceptions revived their hope. They meant new life, a new beginning. But in a virginal conception, God is drawing still closer. There’s a quantum leap. God is respecting the dynamics of his own creation, respecting the power to reproduce he has given living things, but he is entering into it more intimately. He’s raising generativity to a higher power. He’s introducing a new charge of divine energy into it. A woman becomes ‘Mother of God’: the mother of God made man. A virgin conceiving is a sign of God coming. There’s a new creation, a new beginning, a second genesis. In Genesis, the Spirit of God is seen moving over the primal waters. He makes them life-giving, and out of them springs the ordered, beautiful world, with man and woman as its crown, made in the image and likeness of God. We could say, we are the fruit of Mother Nature and the Spirit of God. Now the Holy Spirit moves over the virginal waters of Mary, and she conceives and gives birth to the only-begotten Son of God himself, God from God, the eternal image and likeness of the life-giving Father. And so everything can begin again, everything be regenerated. We too, we most of all. God is with us in a quite new way: in the person of Jesus, the God-man, fruit of the Father’s heart and Mary’s womb, one of the Trinity and one of us.
‘The Lord himself will give you a sign.’
Christmas and Easter go together. At Christmas, the baby God-man comes from a virginal womb. At Easter, the crucified God-man rises from a tomb ‘where no one had yet been laid.’ At Christmas, we see the Son of God in weakness. At Easter, we see him proclaimed Son of God in power through his resurrection from the dead. The Christmas sign of the Virgin Birth points to the Easter sign of the Resurrection. And both say the same. They signify God is with us, God is close. They mean a new beginning, new life, a new world. And this isn’t outside us. It’s interactive, as it were. It’s only the ‘click’ of faith away. Ahaz stood outside it because he wouldn’t believe, but Mary and Joseph did believe and they entered in. When we’re baptized the Spirit of God moves over the waters of our mortal life and we’re reborn as children of God. We’re the fruit of Mother Church and the Spirit of God. It’s the one same pattern, unfolding in stages. It embraces us. And it’s always spring in winter, life from death, the new in the midst of the old.
‘The Lord himself will give you a sign.’ And here’s the final wonder. In the obedience of faith, Joseph takes Mary home as his wife. Together they become a sign of the Christ in their midst. St Paul, a Jew, proclaims the Resurrection to the Gentiles, and by the preaching of the Apostles, the Church is born as a sign of reconciled diversity, a miracle of unity. We are here now, thanks to the Eucharist. We’re laity and clergy – baptized, married, ordained – with a diversity of vocations but one in faith. We’re a sign of a new beginning, an alternative future. We sense the closeness of God, our Emmanuel, and we can communicate it. What an empty, glitzy Christmas the world puts on! How full it is of empty signs, signifying little or nothing. How like Ahaz it is, not wanting what God offers. But ‘The Lord himself will give you a sign,’ nonetheless. And if we give this sign, this presence, the obedience of faith, we become it ourselves. It’s interactive, and we’re part of the story. We can signify the newness and closeness of God. We can feel it ourselves and sign it to others. And Christmas can become very real.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 18 December 2016)