Fourth Sunday in Advent – December 19, 1976 – CNR
Over at the Seminary yesterday, a group of us were chatting about what to preach on today. Jokingly (I trust you will understand), I said, “Well, you can just pull out your old Fourth Sunday of Advent turkey.” One of the students picked it up and said, “Yeah, that’s the one about the crass materialism of Christmas, and about putting Christ back in Christmas.” Terribly cynical, the seminarians you get these days.
I’m not sure it was necessary to tell this story, and I hope it doesn’t take away from appreciating what I think leaps straight out at us from the readings we have heard today. I mean the contrast between the two New Testament readings. On the one hand, we have St. Luke’s account of the visit of Mary to Elizabeth, and we understand it as part of the lovely series of vignettes which his first two chapters have left for artists of all ages to portray–the very human scenes which everyone associates with Christmas, centering, of course, in the scene in the manger. That is Christmas for most of us.
But then there is that other reading, from the Epistle to the Hebrews. And this places the coming of Christ in the harsh light of sacrifice—-“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you have prepared for me.” We are thus called to remember throughout our Christmas, that Jesus of Nazareth was born in order to live a life which replaced the endless ritual offerings of Old Testament priesthood and sacrifice and which would end with his surrendering of his own body for all. The Incarnation was the preparation of the sacrifice of the new and eternal covenant.
The association of the two readings says something very important about the great feast we will celebrate this week. Christmas is not mainly a feast of sentiment, but a feast of faith. It is not to be celebrated as a kind of grateful relief from the pain of sin and death, a temporary shutting out of the unpleasant and the tragic; it is to be a celebration of the overcoming of sin and death, a time for looking them straight in the eye and for saying, “You are not the final truth about human life; I–we–know of something more, of a love surer than sin and stronger than death, of a light that has dawned in your darkness which your darkness cannot overcome, of One who suffered your best and worst blows and surrendered, not to you, but to his Father, and in his surrender we ourselves win the victory.”
A sentimental celebration of Christmas will not take us that far, but a faith-full celebration can. In preparing for such faith and such celebration, we cannot do better than to turn to the example of the Mother of the Lord, praised in the Gospel today, because “she trusted that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled.” In these last days before the feast, let us pray that we may first listen for what words the Lord would speak to us during this Christmas and then believe that his words will be fulfilled for us. If we can listen and believe, then this feast will be more than a memorial–it will be once again the coming of the word and grace of God in and among us, God’s light scattering our darkness and his love lifting our fear.