Waiting for Emmanuel: sermon on the fourth Sunday of Advent

“Behold, the Virgin will conceive and bear a child, and his name will be called Emmanuel.”

To gain a better understanding of the mystery of the Incarnation, and a deeper gratitude for the gift of Christ’s coming, it is helpful to return, in imagination, to the world as it was before these events had taken place. Let us return in imagination to the first century before Christ.

What did the faithful sons and daughters of Israel possess at that time, to sustain their hope? They had the promises which God had made to them through the prophets. We have been listening and hearing allusions to some of these promises over these past few weeks, at Mass and even more at Matins. All the Jews knew about the promise of a Messiah was that would be the Son of David; they did not even agree among themselves about what he would do. Some thought that, when he came, he would bring about the end of the world and the resurrection of the dead; others, that he would make the Jews the strongest nation in the world, as well as provide an abundance of earthly goods for everyone; others again, that he would be a wise teacher who would give an example to all Israel by his perfect observance of the Law.

Yet the prophets had all finished speaking a long time ago. Even the most recent of them, Malachias, had been dead for some three centuries or more, while Isaias, the most eloquent of them all, had finished his oracles hundreds of years before that. But now God was silent, as if wishing to test the faith of His people. How easy it must have been for the Jews of that time to allow their ancient hopes to be, as it were, buried beneath the external realities of their lives! True, they had been promised a king, but for centuries now they had been ruled by foreign empires: Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman; soon, the very land which God had promised to Abraham would be cut in four by order of a Roman emperor. The high priest, the anointed intermediary between God and the people, was becoming a mere tool of Roman power; soon, the pagan rulers would depose and replace high priests at will, as if they were no more than imperial servants, even going so far as to take possession of the priestly vestments, only lending them to the high priest for great feast days!

Even without these humiliations, the condition of that people, our spiritual ancestors, would have been hard. They had a temple in Jerusalem, but no ark of the covenant, which had been missing since the days of Jeremiah. There was, of course, no Blessed Sacrament in their temple; we may compare it to a consecrated church on Good Friday, whose tabernacle stands empty. They had sacrifices to perform; a vast quantity of animal blood must have been spilled each year and poured out on the brazen altar, which stood outside the veil. Yet these sacrifices could not take away sins. “It is impossible,” says St Paul, “that with the blood of oxen and goats, sin should be taken away.” The Jews could confess their sins, at least in general terms, and hope that God would have mercy on them, but they had no priest who could lift up his hand in absolution. 

They had other rituals to perform, outside the temple: laws about food, and clothing, and washing, and even the design of their houses, and the devout men and women of that time could take comfort knowing that by following these laws, they were doing the will of God, even if they did not understand their meaning. Yet these rituals were not like Christian sacraments. They conferred no grace; they were like pictures of something that God would do for the Jews one day, not glorious pictures in bright colours, but akin to silhouettes in black and white. And the more spiritual among the people must have been grieved to see how often their fellow Jews treated the rituals of the Law of Moses as if these were able by themselves to win God’s favour. As our Lord would one day say to the scribes and Pharisees, “You tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have left the weightier things of the law; judgement, and mercy and faith.”

And when they came to die, what had they to look forward to — even those Jews who had worshipped God from the heart, and not only with their lips? Not heaven, and the vision of God, but the Limbo of the Fathers — Sheol, a place where their waiting would continue, only under a different mode. In one sense, they would feel more remote from God there than they had felt in Jerusalem, since in Jerusalem they had had sacrifices at least to offer to the Most High. But “the dead shall not praise the Lord,” said the psalmist, “nor those who go down into silence.” That is, they will not have any offering which they can make to God’s glory.

And outside Israel, what do we find? For some two thousand years, idolatry had been multiplying among the pagans, taking on every kind of evil, impure, and ridiculous form. “You know that when you were heathens,” St Paul reminds the Corinthians, “you went to dumb idols, according as you were led” (1 Cor. 12:2). With each succeeding generation, too, natural law had become less well understood, as the mass of unforgiven sins grew ever greater and obscured the light of reason, as if a mountain could grow until it hid the sun. The pagans themselves confessed that they were worse than their fathers. If any of them still remembered the covenant which God had made with Noah, and tried to follow it, such people must have been few indeed, and have felt that the state of the world was hopeless. How does the Book of Wisdom describe the result of centuries of paganism? “All things are mingled together,” it says, “blood, murder, theft and dissimulation, corruption and unfaithfulness, tumults and perjury, disquieting of the good, forgetfulness of God, defiling of souls, changing of nature, disorder in marriage, and the irregularity of adultery and uncleanness” (Wis 14:25–26). No wonder the inspired author refers to our world as “the land of destruction”.

One might wonder whether, despite His promises, God would refuse to send His Son into such a world. What could He find, we might ask, to attract Him to it? I think the answer is to be found in the Communion verse of this Sunday’s Mass, taken from the prophecy of Isaiah. “Behold, the Virgin will conceive and bear a child.”The holiness of Mary, of course, was God’s gift to her, given in view of the merits of that Child. Yet at the same time, we can say that when God looked upon her holiness, He fell in love, as it were, with the beauty of His handmaid, and so He did not wish to delay His coming any longer. “While all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her course, Thy almighty word leapt down from heaven from thy royal throne.” The Blessed Virgin, like us, was redeemed by the incarnation; and yet in another sense, she seems to have merited for us the incarnation, since it was not fitting that God should not come in the most perfect way to one whom He had made so holy. Her spiritual beauty drew forth the eternal Word, so to speak, from the Father’s heart. And so, God’s almighty Word was made flesh in her womb, as He joined humanity to divinity in His Person.

The grace of Jesus’s coming is renewed for us each Christmas. If God “looked upon the lowliness of his handmaid”, and became man from her, so He will come to all those who make themselves ready for Him. Hence St Peter says, speaking of the day of the Lord, “wherefore, dearly beloved, waiting for these things, be diligent that you may be found before him unspotted and blameless in peace” (2 Pet 3:14).