We are all very busy preparing for Christmas: there’s an obvious statement! And those preparation are now in disarray. Life is complicated. From the 26th of this month, mainland Scotland will move into Tier 4. The good news is that our churches will remain open. The bad news is that Mass attendance will be reduced to 20. And this will be so for at least three weeks. After that, we don’t know.
Let’s, though, keep the focus and come back to Christmas. Before any of us prepared for Christmas, before the Church took on the habit of preparing through a season called Advent, and while we rush here and there, just trying to find a quiet moment to pray, Someone else has been preparing. In all eternity, God the Father, with his Son and Holy Spirit, has been preparing. Preparing before time, beyond time. God just is, let’s say. God the Father is Father and never wasn’t, never isn’t, never won’t be. He is always begetting a Son, his Beloved, one with himself and distinct from himself, bound to him in the Holy Spirit. In the 2nd reading, St Paul spoke of “a mystery kept secret for endless ages”. That secret is the Son of God. St John describes him as “in the bosom of the Father” (Jn 1:18). He is there before time, beyond time, above all our time. He is the divine Christmas gift wrapped in the love of the Father, hidden from humanity, but destined to be sent in “the fullness of time” from eternity into time. Of ourselves, we are just little scraps of being. But the Father’s plan is to bind and bond us to his Son, so that we will be enfolded in the same love with which the Father loves his Son. Thus time and eternity will blend.
And on our side too, the time-side of things, God has been preparing. Today’s readings and prayers suggest three ways of this. They suggest that everything has been preparing for the “fullness of time” when God would “send his Son, born of a woman” (Gal 4:4).
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). The first preparation. “Drop down dew from above, you heavens…let the earth be opened and bring forth a Saviour…”. “Heaven and earth” is the biblical way of putting together everything that isn’t God: all creation, the multiverse, the universe, our solar system, our planet. In a way, planet earth is the manger where Jesus is laid. The early Christians came to the astonished realisation that Jesus is the reason anything, everything is; creation’s “final cause”. “All things were created through him and for him”, says St Paul (Col 1:16). He pre-exists everything and everything finds its meaning and purpose in connection to him, and through him to the Father. Let’s put this concretely. Following a verse in Isaiah (1:3), Tradition has an ox and an ass in the stable. Perhaps there were also rats and mice, a stray cat, a wandering dog, certainly insects galore. I’m not being completely crazy if I say they stand for the whole animal kingdom, prepared from the beginning to be Christ’s entourage. Again, why were invisible spirits part of God’s creation? So one could be sent to Mary, another to Joseph, others to a group of astonished shepherds to message the advent of the Saviour. Either the world is purely random, a throw-away line of a random universe, or it was made for itself (yes), for us (yes) but most of all to host an Incarnation, to frame God-with-us: born, growing up, working at his father’s trade, going out on a mission, talking about soil and seeds, fish and sheep, bushes and trees, agonising among olives, dying as the sky goes strangely black and rising in a garden with the sun on Easter morning. Before being our environment, our mother, Planet Earth was shaped by the Father to cradle his incarnate Son and, in the end, be transfigured by him. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”: they’re the first Bethlehem.
Secondly, he called Abraham and made him father of a people. And this people became the people of Israel. We know their story. It’s a story of being prepared – through so many experiences, Exodus and Exile especially, prepared through prophets, prepared by so many trial and purifications, to give birth to the Christ, the son of David and the Son of God. “Salvation is from the Jews” (Jn 4:22). We mustn’t think they failed. When he came their response was, indeed, complicated, but enough of his people received him, believed in him and like St Paul “broadcast” him to a pagan world. Today’s 1st reading and Psalm focus on Jesus’ ancestor David. The Father gave his Son wrapped, as it were, in the colours and cloak of the Messiah. He came as the long-awaited King of the Jews, born in Bethlehem, David’s place, his “origin from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2).
Creation is God’s first preparation, Israel the second, and creation and Israel come to flower in the third, our blessed Lady. This Jewish girl was predestined from all eternity to be the Mother of God: to receive the Secret in her secret virginal body. She was prepared by being sanctified in her own mother’s womb, the grace of the Immaculate Conception, prepared as a fitting Bethlehem and manger herself. She was prepared by the spiritual tradition of her people. And when the Angel came she made her own their deepest self-understanding: “I am the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). In a way, all creation spoke in those words, all humanity, all Israel. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”, and preparation passed into fulfilment, Advent into Christmas.
That’s a sketch of something this Sunday suggests. “Christ is the reason for the season”, we sometimes hear. Indeed. But the reason for so much more as well. I suppose we feel like St Martha at the moment, distracted by so many things. But only one is needed: to glimpse the great divine work as it goes majestically forward: the Father’s plan to gather and reconcile everything in Christ. Everything is ready: come to the feast. Like creation, like Israel, like Mary, let’s just say a deep-down “yes” to God at work, and be a Bethlehem, a stable, a manger to welcome the Father’s secret gift, the Son he loves.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 20 December 2020)