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Doorway to Christmas

Advent 7 (4B): 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26;

Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

The Rev'd Cameron Partridge

December 24, 2023

            Dear St. Aidan’s friends, welcome to the final Sunday of Advent. We have traveled far this season and seen much. Our extended observance of this season has reinforced for us and in us a posture, a practice of waiting, of preparation, of anticipation. To render this season spatially and architecturally, I think of us as having made our way through a kind of liturgical narthex—if I can use weird church language for what we could otherwise call an entryway. We have been dwelling in a space between doors. We have dwelt together in this narthex listening to stories of Advent, being invited to attend to the nearness of God’s reign. Sometimes these stories have been fearsome and overwhelming. Sometimes they have been glimpses, foretastes even, of joy. Over the last two weeks we have received stories of John the Baptist who prepared the way for the coming of the Christ Jesus, the Holy one of God, Emmanuel, herald and presence of God’s in-breaking dream. The way is leveled for Christ’s arrival. Now on this last day of Advent our narthex preparation shifts as we near the Christmas door. We turn with the Apostle Paul and especially with Mary to welcome the mystery of Incarnation.

            The word mystery rings out in our passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, along with a distinctive message of strength. It is the final portion of Romans, in fact, known to scholars as its “doxology,” its declaration of glory. And even if this language was added later by another Pauline writer —which scholars agree it most likely was – its wording and its location as the letter comes to a close issue a powerful benediction.[1] Standing there at the edge of the letter’s own narthex, preparing to step out of its space, we might say, we are given encouragement, wisdom, inspiration: “Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel” that is, Paul’s rendition of the Good News – “and the proclamation of Jesus Christ,” this doxology begins (Romans 16:25). We are being given a blessing, a sending forth in strength, even as God is being acknowledged in deep thanks. Then the Pauline writer continues (in characteristically over complicated sentence construction…), describing how God is strengthening us: “according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed” (Romans 16:25-26). The mystery at hand is what we now, on the final Sunday of Advent, are finally and fully prepared to celebrate: the coming of the Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us. This revelation has been covered up, the Pauline writer suggests. It has not been obvious all along the way. But this mystery is now revealed, disclosed, uncovered for us and for God’s world with wondrously glorious implications.[2] To God in God’s wisdom, be glory forever, the doxology concludes, launching us in encouragement and strength through the Advent door.

            Even more pointedly in this threshold between Advent and Christmas is our story from the Gospel of Luke, the Annunciation. In it the young woman Mary, who is betrothed but not yet married to Joseph, is visited by the angel Gabriel. Especially if we recall that the Greek word for angel is messenger, we can hear Gabriel exercising his angelic vocation as he shares with Mary a glorious mystery. That mystery begins with a greeting: “Greetings favored one! God is with you” (Luke 1:28). God is with you. Gabriel’s language echoes the title Emmanuel – God with us – by which we would come to know the child whom Mary would name Jesus. God was with Mary even as Gabriel was sharing profoundly unexpected, deeply mysterious news. The God of Mary and Joseph’s ancestors, rooted in the house of David and opened wide to all the Gentiles (as Romans emphasized), was coming into the world afresh. As John’s gospel would later write, the divine Word was made flesh and was coming to dwell among us. And not coming in from outer space but – to return to Luke’s gospel – was coming to birth among us. Mary was invited by Gabriel, God’s messenger, to hear that good news and to actively collaborate with God, ushering in the emergence of God’s dream in the world. I love that Mary first questions this absurdity: how can this be? (Luke 1:34) Her question is an essential expression of her agency in this moment. What you describe seems impossible, does it not? Yet even so, let it be with me according to your Word, she ultimately responds (Luke 1:38). The God with whom nothing is impossible is to be glorified, as she goes on to declare in the Magnificat which we shared together last week (Luke 1:46-55). The God of liberation and consolation, of hope and joy, is to be praised. Coming to the edge of Advent and the birth of Christmas, she invites us to receive and revel in a mystery that always welcomes our wrestling. I do not know how what you are describing can possibly come to pass, yet I have prayed with the stories of old. I have waited. I have prepared and anticipated. I have made my way through this Advent narthex and I welcome wildly unexpected good news. Bring on the mystery.

            I leave you this morning with two recent images from our collective life. The first of these is from our narthex. As you know, the Food Pantry takes place here each Friday. The community comes into this space for a Farmer’s Market style pantry, in which people can make their way around a square and pick out produce. But before they come into this space, they make their way down the driveway and through the narthex. Interactions happen with a number of people as they check in and make their way inside (for example, with Judy Bley at the outer door or with Susan Spencer to have their blood pressure read partway through the space). And then they encounter Janice Tickner Leonard who stands at the door to this space. Her role is to greet, to welcome, to be a steward of order, letting people know when they can move forward to the first table in a way that leaves enough space for the person ahead. Janice stands at this threshold with grace and grounding, always treating everyone with respect, warmth, and invitation (which is why the vestry recently sent her a thank you card). Her part in this collective ministry strikes me as an unspoken emblem of the threshold of Advent into Christmas, saying with actions if not words, Come, be welcomed in all the mystery of who you are. Glory to God in this meeting, doing in each of us more than any of us can ask for or imagine. 

The second image is from our sanctuary, from last Saturday evening when we hosted the neighborhood Holiday Party, organized by Resilient Diamond Heights. I know I shared last Sunday the joy of seeing Peter and Linnea in their Mr. and Mrs. Santa roles here in this space. But a second moment, an image from the evening, struck me earlier this week and has not let me go. Toward the end of the party, Linnea and Mary Pruyn greeted one another. Both were seated, and as Linnea rolled toward Mary in her chair, each reached out to the other in sheer gladness. I have two photos of the moment, and as I looked at them (and shared them in Kaffeeklatsch via Zoom on Thursday) I kept thinking about the moment just beyond our gospel reading when Mary goes to greet her relative Elizabeth and they receive each other in joy (Luke 1:39-45). The good news of God doing the seemingly impossible, bringing people together, ushering in a new world, was revealed in that greeting, then and now.

            And so this morning, as we have now made our way through the Advent narthex to the verge, the very doorway of Christmas, may we give glory to God. In a world so fraught with pain and sorrow, in fear and foreboding, let us usher in strength and courage. The radiant good news of Christ’s birth in this world comes to us tonight, bringing light and life. Let us step through this threshold together embracing in wonder and gladness. Glory be to God who comes among us in mystery and hope this day and always.

[1] Wayne Meeks, The Writings of St. Paul (New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1972), 94. Reginald Fuller, Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1984), 212-213.

[2] Adrien Nocent, The Liturgical Year: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1977, 2013), 129-130.

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