Today the 4th Advent candle has been lit. The Lord is close. There’s a sense of heaven and earth, the divine and the human, coming together. Dew and rain falling from above and the earth bringing forth. The Lord is entering his Temple and we are climbing the mountain to meet him. A maiden, a virgin, is with child, and he is called Emmanuel, God with us. The Lord is close.
The other day St Joseph’s School had its Carol Concert here. It was a lovely thing. We know how Christmas is hijacked by so much nonsense, but there – here! – was the real Christmas story being read and sung and acted. A girl dressed as a winged angel walked slowly, solemnly down the aisle towards the crib, a bearer of good things. And here again today, we’re treated to the real thing – dressed as liturgy. Angels feature at this time of year. Gabriel appears to Zechariah, then to Mary; an angel comes to Joseph; angels appear to the shepherds. The job of angels is to initiate people into God’s action. The Christmas liturgies, in turn, are so many angels, sent from God to take us deeper into divine things. “And Joseph did what the angel told him.” Let us do that too!
This 4th Sunday of Advent is devoted in an especial way to Mary’s virginal conception. In this year’s cycle of readings – Year A has just begun – we hear Matthew’s version. St Luke’s version privileges Mary’s part, with the Annunciation and Visitation, but Joseph is St Matthew’s focus. Today’s Gospel is an annunciation to Joseph. Let’s try and enter it. His fiancée, his betrothed, is “found to be with child”. A shock, to put it mildly. We don’t know what Mary told him or was in a position to tell him. He has to do something, though. He forms his plan: it’s gentlemanly and honourable, but it must have broken his heart. He was losing his beloved, losing the future he had envisaged, going back into the shadows, perhaps to be remembered thereafter in the village as the would-be, the failure. A good man, a good Jew, thoughtful of Mary, he wears himself out thinking it over. He worries himself to sleep, and it’s then, when his own thinking is suspended, that God’s word comes to him. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, says the Lord.” First, says the angel, this conception is the work of the Holy Spirit, it’s a fulfilment of prophecy. It’s God at work. And, then, you, “Joseph, son of David”, you have something to do. You are part of this new story. Two things immediately: take Mary home as your wife and when the child is born name him Jesus (Jesus meaning Saviour). Be husband to Mary, a father to Jesus. So, the angel draws Joseph back: gives him his life back, draws it back into meaning and purpose, gives him back Mary as still more precious than he already knew she was, gives him grace and a mission, calls him to be an player in the great divine drama of heaven and earth, God and sinners reconciled, humanity returned to peace. What a Christmas, and the child not even born! “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord told him to do.” He didn’t have to drag himself out of bed that morning. He must have leaped like a tiger, with tears running down his cheeks.
“Let the Lord enter! He is the king of glory”. Brothers and Sisters, the Word becoming flesh, the incarnation of God, the birth of Jesus: these are things that happened at a given time in a given place. In the womb of a teenage virgin (suddenly the centre of the whole of creation), in Nazareth, in Bethlehem, in the time of King Herod and the Roman Emperor Augustus. These are things which involved people some of whose names we know – Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, John, Simeon, Anna – some of whose names we don’t know, the shepherds and the wise men. This coming of God touched that time, those places, those people, and caught them up into things greater than themselves. “Let the Lord enter! He is the King of glory”. The Word becoming flesh, the incarnation of God, the birth of Jesus happened “then” and “there” and to “them”, “once upon a time”. That, as such, cannot be repeated. But in the Holy Spirit, these things happen “here” and “now” and to “us”. They are for everyone, every time, everywhere. Christ can be born in us. God’s work of uniting with our humanity goes on in us. The same things happen, not in their unrepeatable “past-ness”, but as they are forever in the risen Christ, in God’s eternity. “Let the Lord enter! He is the king of glory”.
If we don’t say “no” like King Ahaz, if we yield St Paul’s “obedience of faith”, we find inspiration from so many people in the Bible, from the stories of saints, from people in our own time and place, little and great, famous and obscure. But today perhaps – as we light the 4th candle – let’s be inspired by Joseph, the just, quiet man, “Joseph, son of David.” Let’s fall asleep sometimes – to our worries and miseries and frettings or angers or whatever. Let’s fall asleep to our own plans, even the good ones. Then the angel of the Lord can get his word in and lead us into things greater than ourselves. Things more wonderful. “Let the Lord enter! He is the king of glory”. Amen.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen)