Come Lord Jesus! Welcoming the Messiah
by Sr Ann Catherine Swailes o.p.
Over the years, I’ve lost count of the people who have told me that Advent is their favourite season in the Church’s calendar – and I think I’d number myself among them. There are a host of reasons for loving these weeks leading up to Christmas. The readings we hear at Mass are beautiful –sometimes breathtakingly so, the music that accompanies them is often hauntingly lovely. Advent Sunday is, of course, the Church’s New
Year’s Day, and there is something poignantly attractive about new beginnings for many of us, even when, perhaps especially when the old year hasn’t gone quite as we might have hoped.
But I’m also aware that, many people have a somewhat uneasy relationship with this season, and I don’t discount myself here, either. However much we love it, we don’t always know quite what to make of Advent, and find ourselves afraid, therefore, that we shall, once again, fail to make the most of it, and I suspect that at the root of our ambivalence lies a rather strange question: are we, or are not, supposed to be happy in Advent?
In Advent, our churches (and our priests) are decked in purple, as they are in Lent, and we know that this is because, like Lent (which I suspect is rarely anyone’s favourite time of the church’s year) this is a penitential season, a time for repentance, but does that mean we are supposed to make ourselves miserable in sackcloth and ashes when the rest of the world seems to be at a perpetual party? The short answer is no, and of course that’s not exactly what Lent is about either, though we’ll come back a little later to the question of just how Advent and Lent might be both similar and different. In any case, be reassured: it is OK to be happy during Advent.
But what then about those times when, despite the relentless feel-good music pumping into malls and high streets at this time of year, the sweetness of mulled wine and mince pies, the repeated tinny assurance that Santa Claus really is coming to town, we can’t be happy? It is surely understandable that we occasionally at least feel less than full of the joys of spring in the sometimes all too bleak midwinter. For most of us, the run-up to Christmas is a busy time, sometimes exhaustingly so; this year, especially, we may be juggling multiple anxieties about making ends meet, about giving those we love the Christmas we feel they deserve; we may be struggling too with depleted energy in the dying months of the year as the days shorten and the light dwindles: there can be a hundred and one good reasons to be afraid and despondent, at the moment, and in every Advent, for ourselves and for our world. It seems then that it’s also OK then not to be happy in Advent, and certainly OK not to be corralled into expressing a cheeriness we can’t honestly feel, when we’re simply not having a wonderful (pre) Christmas time. And yet, sometimes, we find ourselves feeling oddly guilty about all this, even as we may also be tempted to feel a touch of superiority to those who seem not to know “the reason for the season”: and, then, of course, we feel guilty about that, too, guilty about our tendency to be judgemental and self-righteous and smug, the last sort of Christian any of us here, I’m sure, would want to be, and hardly compatible with celebrating the birth of the One who came that we might have abundant life.
I’m not going to attempt to tell you how to reconcile all these mixed feelings about Advent – it would be inappropriate and impertinent, as this is very much work in progress for me, too.
What I want to offer instead today is a suggestion for where we might all go to find companions who can help us to wait for and in due course to welcome Jesus once again, as he is born into our hearts and our homes at Christmas, as we all long to do, whatever complex cocktail of emotions inhabits our hearts as this time rolls around once again. In particular, I’m going to invite you to explore with me the way in which two characters who feature in the account St Luke gives us of the run-up to the first Christmas –one very central to that story, another who we probably think of as a bit more marginal, if we think of him at all – might encourage us this Advent to say, once again, “Come, Lord Jesus”, by shedding perhaps a little new light on just who it is that they – and we – are waiting for. They are, first of all, Mary, the mother of the Lord, and secondly her cousin-by-marriage, Zechariah, the father of that very Advent figure, St John the Baptist.
Mary and Zechariah speak to us, above all, of expectation, the expectation that looms so large in our hearts and minds at this time of year. Or rather, they sing of it, in two outpourings of praise, which are recorded in the first chapter of St Luke’s gospel: one, Mary’s song of exaltation as, fresh from her meeting with Gabriel she rushes to the hill country to greet and to support her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant in her old age with John the Baptist, and exclaims that her soul glorifies the Lord; the other in which Zechariah, released from the muteness he has experienced since his refusal – or inability – to accept what he has been told by the Archangel - proclaims, at the naming of the son he thought he’d never have: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel”.
These two songs of praise – the Magnificat and the Benedictus, as they are known respectively, from their first words in Latin, are sung daily in our Church’s evening and morning prayer, and this afternoon we are going to be spending a little time with some of the beautiful music to which these texts have been set. But there is a sense, clearly, in which they do belong especially to Advent, to that time when we commemorate every year the events that evoked them in the first place. So this morning let’s explore together what we might learn from them and from their singers about Advent Expectation. Maybe it’s worth beginning by unpacking a little bit more what we might mean when we talk about expectation at all.
Basically, expectation simply means waiting, or, more literally, looking out for, but our usage of it tends to be a bit double edged, bringing us back to that question of to be or not to be happy in Advent. Expectation can be a joyful word: we speak of pregnant women as “expectant mothers”, and while pregnancy, birthing and responsibility for the care of a new baby are, of course, far from emotionally straightforward in themselves, still, when we talk about a friend or relative “expecting” in this sense, what is uppermost in our minds probably is joy, not necessarily unmixed with apprehension, but joy nonetheless. Joy like that with which, St Luke reports, the unborn John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth’s womb at the approach of her cousin, pregnant with the Lord and Mary sang in response. Insofar, then, as Advent is for us a time of excitement, of preparation, of looking forward with joyful longing, maybe we can look to Mary’s Advent song to give us words with which to express our own gratitude and wonder at the great things the mighty one has done for us. Perhaps, too, reflecting on this text will show us new reasons to be thankful, unseal for us new springs of praise.
But expectation, in another common sense of the word, can also be a barrier to joy: a burden. We can fail to live up to expectations in our professional and personal life, our own expectations or those others have for us, and be bowed down by the experience; expectations unmet can highlight all those things in our lives that feel like reasons not to rejoice; they can make us feel shameful and barren, at the most extreme, they can enshroud us in the darkness of despondency, so that we fear light may never shine upon us again. Expectations unanswered may erode our very sense of expectation, until we feel there is nothing left to look out for with hope. And we can think here, not only of our own individual circumstances, the stories of our own souls with whatever they may contain of disappointment and unfulfilled potential but also of the life of our Church, the life of our world, with all the horrors we see, or perhaps shield our eyes from, day by day in the media. Insofar as Advent may sometimes find us waiting, still waiting, or waiting yet again, for the light to dawn on a darkness we may fear to be impenetrable and interminable, maybe Zechariah’s song of blessing can give us fresh hope. After all, as we’ll see, he certainly knew what it was to live with the sense that expectations wouldn’t, couldn’t, be met, on both the personal and the political plane.
So far what I’ve said suggests something of a contrast between Mary and Zechariah. And there are obvious differences between them – a young girl and an old man, the inhabitant of an obscure north-country village and a priest serving at the Temple at the heart of the religious Establishment. But surely at least as important as their differences is what they have in common, how that is, they share a common vision, a way of looking at the world, and it’s a vision that they invite us to share too. That, I think in fact is precisely the point of St Luke drawing attention to the differences between these characters in his gospel – as in fact, he rather often does - the good news is not for just one kind or category of human being, but for everyone, without exception. It must, therefore, also be good news for us.
Speaking of a vision that Mary and Zechariah share, and that they invite us to share, brings us back to a question I flagged up a little earlier. I once heard a homily at this time of year in which the preacher – I think very helpfully – suggested that the difference between the two penitential seasons of Lent and Advent is that in Lent we train our wills, while in Advent we purify – or allow God to purify – our vision. Lent then is a time to discipline our bodily and emotional appetites, to hone our spiritual muscles, if you will: at its most basic, it’s about our doing things, taking on things. Advent by contrast, is less about our doing anything than about our receiving a new perspective on everything; about spending time accustoming our eyes to a new landscape, a new vision we couldn’t possibly have imagined for ourselves.
Of course, these aren’t hard and fast distinctions: on the one hand, in Lent, our fasting and abstaining, whether from food and drink or from things like time spent on social media, is meant to de-clutter our hearts and minds so that we are ready to see things with new eyes; on the other hand, there is certainly no harm in deciding to give up something for Advent, as so many of us routinely do during Lent, just so long as we are not too hard on ourselves if we find our resolution crumbling in the face of the social obligations of the season. But it is an important contrast, because it helps us to get things in the right order: both in Advent and in Lent – and throughout the year, repentance is first and foremost a matter of a change of heart, a turning around, turning ourselves towards the God who longs to gift us with peace and forgiveness and hope. The things we take up or give up are in response to this: intended to make us ever more free to accept God’s free gift of a new vision, a new way of seeing ourselves and our world.
And what a new vision we are given in Advent! Think of the readings we hear at Mass at this time of year: strange and wonderful readings that tell of mountains melting like wax and valleys convulsing into hills ; of carnivorous predators turning vegan and wolves implausibly making friends with lambs; of medical miracles promised in which the lame dance and the dumb sing.
It is indeed a new vision, an intoxicating, even a surreal one. But it is also an old vision, and, as we hear it year on year, there is a comforting familiarity in these images, even with all their dreamlike and sometimes quite violent oddity. Without perhaps entirely knowing why, without exactly being able to articulate just what it is about these pictures of reversal and upheaval that brings us consolation, we find in them once more a kind of assurance that all will indeed be well. And, of course, this Advent vision of all things being made new is far older than us: these are images that have fed the imagination of countless generations of Christian believers before us, fed too – as they still do today – the imaginations of our Jewish brothers and sisters long before there was a Christian Church. And so, of course, these images formed the background music for the lives of Mary and Zechariah as well, music we hear echoed in their own songs of praise. And just as for us, the season of Advent, year on year, can be a matter of both hopeful excitement and – sometimes – anxious despondency, so too it was for Mary and Zechariah, living through the Advent Season of all history.
For both Zechariah and Mary, these pictures of lives and landscapes transfigured will have provided language in which to rejoice at the wonders God was doing in their lives. But there is a sense in which these wonders break in on that hour before dawn when the darkness is most intense. In Zechariah’s case, we know something about the sadness of his personal circumstances, how he and Elizabeth have been denied the blessings of children, and how their sorrow and shame has played out against the backdrop of their nation’s humiliation under Roman occupation. Mary’s situation is very different in some ways: her pregnancy is a totally unexpected expectation: and, when she sings he Magnificat, she has had less than a week to get used to it, to the marvels the mighty one is doing in her flesh. St Luke tells us that she left “immediately” for the hill country after her interview with Gabriel, and, though it would have been an arduous – and a courageous – journey for her to make, it would have taken her, on the best estimates, 3 days to cover the distance from Nazareth. So there is a radical kind of freshness about Mary’s rejoicing at God’s extraordinary blessing, which contrasts with Zechariah’s decades of being denied the ordinary blessings of fatherhood. But for both of them, there is a sense in which, to say the least, the sunrise has been a long time in coming. For centuries, their people - the people of God - have suffered oppression, exile and persecution, and at times it must have been tempting to believe that they had been forgotten by the God who had chosen them for his own. Mary and Zechariah, and other like them – Simeon, for instance, who proclaims the infant Jesus to be the light of the nations when Mary and Joseph bring him into the Temple in obedience to the Law of Moses, and who is described by St Luke as “looking for the consolation of Israel” – wait nonetheless in patient hope, and surely they will have been sustained in that hope, sometimes in their hope against hope, precisely by the texts that are given us to sustain us, too, in our season of Advent waiting. And in Mary and Zechariah’s songs we can something of the use to which they put these texts.
In Mary’s Magnificat, for instance, we hear of the hungry fed with good things, and the mighty cast from their thrones; we hear Mary speak of how she rejoices in God her Saviour. She, in her turn, will have heard – as we do every Advent - how it is written in the book of the Prophet Isaiah that the oppressor’s pride will be humbled, high fortifications cast down; will have heard tell, too, of divinely provided food that does not merely satisfy but that delights, as the Lord makes for all peoples on his holy mountain a feast of rich food, of well matured wines, so that all who have waited for him will rejoice. And, now, miraculously, in her becoming the Mother of the Messiah, who was to liberate and nourish his people, all this has come to pass. In her Magnificat, then it’s maybe not too fanciful to say, we are eavesdropping on Mary’s delighted realisation that the sacred text has come alive for her, is meant for her.
Something similar is true of Zechariah, too. As his voice is restored and he names his son John, he sings in his Benedictus of the daybreak of God’s redeeming love: the day star that visits us like the dawn from on high. That, too, is a familiar refrain in our Advent music:, drawn, once again, from the book of the Prophet Isaiah, from a source, therefore, that will have shaped and warmed Zechariah’s imagination as it did Mary’s, as it did their ancestors and their contemporaries in all their trials and tribulations : the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. We are brought face to face here with Zechariah’s startled realisation: what has motivated his prayer and sacrifice for the entirety of his long life, what his people have longed for throughout centuries of oppression and humiliation, what he has read of in the sacred texts with their talk of lament giving way to celebration has come to pass: in Mary’s pregnancy with the Messiah, in his own fathering of the Messiah’s forerunner, the mourning veil has indeed been removed from the face of all nations, those in darkness have been visited by the sunrise of God’s initiative, taking away their shame, bringing them home to peace. What seemed too good to be true when Gabriel spoke of it has come to pass after all. The Scriptures have come alive for him, too. We see here then Mary our sister and Zechariah our brother receiving gifts from the images that have accompanied them throughout their lives and which now come to fulfilment in their own stories, and maybe this can encourage us to believe that something similar can happen for us.
We could do worse, here, of course, than reflect on the texts from Isaiah and the other prophets of the Old Covenant that our Church gives us during Advent. To take any one of the OT readings from Sunday or weekday Mass during the Advent season and ponder it slowly and prayerfully is a wonderful way to invite the Lord into our hearts as we make ready for his coming, and as I’ve suggested, in so doing we find ourselves in very good company; the company of Our Lady and Zechariah, Father of the forerunner John the Baptist, who have prayed and pondered on these texts before us. But, if we’re right to discern echoes in the Magnificat and the Benedictus of the Advent music we hear week by week, day by day, in our readings from the prophets, we also have, astonishingly, something of the results of their own prayerful pondering of the scriptures we share with them. These too can, in turn, be gifts to us as we wait on the Lord. And I would like now, to share just one thing that has struck me afresh about each of these texts this year; something of what these songs of praise have told me of whom it is we await in Advent.
Mary opens her song of praise by telling us that the Lord has looked on the lowliness of his handmaid, and a little later speaks of the humble and meek being lifted up. How, if we’re honest, do we feel about this? How do we hear Mary’s words here? Humility is a virtue with a somewhat mixed press and for a good reason. Enjoining humility on people, after all, can be a way of seeking to ensure that the mighty very much stay on their seats and that it’s the hungry who continue to go empty away, but only, I think, if we fail to understand what humility really is. It would, I think, be a serious misreading of the Magnificat to see the exaltation of the humble of which Mary sings as being a kind of reward for knowing our place, as if, providing we are only humble enough, passive and unquestioning enough when things seem unjust, then we will be raised up in some heavenly future when the tables are turned. This is a misreading of the Magnificat because it is actually a misreading of who our God is, the God whose coming the Magnificat proclaims, and whom we are awaiting from heaven. And that is because, when we hear the word humility, we need to remember its – literally – down-to-earth origins. The same Latin root that gives us words like humble and humility also gives us the word humus – soil. And that turns out to be really important.
In the ancient Latin-speaking world, to describe a person as having humility was to make a statement less about morality than about sociology: the humble were the lowest of the low, those on ground level, so to speak, down in the dirt, in distinction from those above them in the pecking order. But for Christians, there is rather more to be said here. Soil, after all, according to the book of Genesis is the raw material from which all of humanity has been crafted, emperor as well as slave, saint and sinner alike, as the carol “O Come, O Come Emmanuel" reminds us as it calls out to God “creating man from dust and clay; to us reveal salvation’s way!” To encourage humility in order to keep people in their place, then, is, for the Christian, a blasphemous abuse of language, unless the place we are thinking of here is that place where all of God’s children are equal.
But there’s still more to be said about the lowliness of soil, and what it means to be made of soil, and this is specifically an Advent point. What we are celebrating at this time of year, is the astonishing fact that in the one Mary carries in her womb as her spirit rejoices in her Saviour, God himself comes into our world precisely as one of us, as one of the lowly made of the dust of the earth. However almighty He is, however much we can and should be in awe of His power to move mountains and overturn the existing order of things, He does this in our frail humanity. In one of our gospel readings at Mass over the last week, we were reminded of this, as Jesus tells us that He is “meek and lowly of heart”. And that word lowly, again, is the same as the word Mary uses of herself as the Lord’s lowly handmaid, the word that binds Jesus to all of us as our brother, made of the same stuff as us, willing to share our identity. We should never then fear to come to Him, and find rest for our souls.
And just one other thought here: if we were asked to give the opposite of humility, we would probably– and I’m sure rightly – think of pride. Mary speaks of pride, too, or at least of the proud, in her Magnificat. And here, too, the full force of what she says is perhaps a little bit hidden from view in at least some of the translated versions of her Magnificat. If you pray the Divine Office, for instance, you will read or hear at Vespers every evening the rather bland assertion that the “proud hearted” are scattered by the Lord. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer puts it perhaps more powerfully, as does the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament: there, we are told, that the proud are scattered “in the imagination of their hearts”. In other words, Our Lady seems to be telling us, in the end, there is something illusory about the pride of the proud, of the mighty on their thrones: a world in which they tyrannise us is not the world as it is meant to be, not the world as it most truly is. And we can think here, I believe, not only of all those places where the rich and the powerful literally oppress their brothers and sisters, though such places are all too marked a feature of our world, and Mary’s words are rightly a source of hope when we reflect on them in prayer. But there are, too, the proud voices of oppression in our own heads, voices perhaps of haughty dismissal of our dreams of doing something great for God, the voices that say to us “who do you think you are?” If the answer to that question is “I think I’m made of nothing more than the dust of the earth”, it is good to remember that this was Mary’s answer too, and our Lord’s. The world in which we do not dare to believe we could possibly be called to do great things for the God who does great things in us is not, then, is not the world as it is meant to be, not the world as it most truly is.
As we’ve seen, there are contrasts as well as points of contact between Mary and Zechariah as they sing their respective Advent songs. It has often been stressed, for instance, that while Mary believes in response to Gabriel’s annunciation – and, in consequence, all generations, as she tells us, call her blessed - Zechariah doubts, and his rebellious words are punished with speechlessness. It’s a good point, not least because it reminds us that it is not a bad thing to question, even to question God. Mary doesn’t believe unquestioningly: she asks “how can this be?” while Zechariah’s failure is in fact a failure to question enough: he cannot imagine how he is to be a father, in the circumstances, and so he is unprepared to consider how it might come about. But if he is punished for this, it is the kind of punishment that is designed to educate and redeem, not simply to humiliate and penalise. Because, in his period of retreat from daily conversation, in the silence that descends around him, God speaks to him, until he bursts out in prophecy. Traditionally, this is one of the reasons why, while Mary’s Magnificat is sung at Vespers, the Benedictus features in our morning prayer: the silence of the night is broken by the voice of the Church raised in praise and adoration as Zechariah cries out in gratitude and wonder.
The other reason, of course, for this being a morning hymn, is to be found in Zechariah’s exclamation that, in the events unfolding around him, God has come to visit his people like the dawn from on high. Especially at this time of year, there can be a lovely fittingness in singing Zechariah’s words first thing, as the sky colours and brightens. But here, too, it is easy to miss the full significance, the full force of what is being said. Again, the translation, for example, we are given in our divine office books is, in fact, somewhat pallid, somewhat lacking in the dramatic colours of sunrise: it speaks of the “loving kindness of God” coming to us, and loving-kindness, perhaps sounds a little tame, even trite. Many other translations speak of tenderness here, the tender mercy which is surely better. But the actual word that is used in St Luke’s Greek is one closely related to the description of the emotion that energises the Good Samaritan as he tends the man left for dead on the road to Jericho, and that Jesus himself experiences when confronted with those who come to him for healing. And this is something much more –literally - visceral: what we are being told here is that it is gut-wrenching compassion, passionate commitment, in other words, on the part of God that brings him to visit his people. For all his infinite gentleness, for all his coming like dewfall and morning star, this is God coming in power into our world, to bless it with light and joy and peace.
Is it all right, then, to be happy in Advent? Yes, of course it is. The Lord is at hand, and it is right to herald his coming with song, as Zechariah did, and Mary. Sometimes this will feel like the most natural thing in the world. But at those times when the darkness seems still to overwhelm and it feels as though the dawn will never come, then too we can remember the songs that sustained Mary and Zechariah, and sing, as they did, of the hope they hold.