Sunday, 18 December 2016

Advent Week 4 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 24; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24

If it is to attract attention, a sign should be outstanding, striking, different, dramatic. And yet the sign offered to us at Christmas time is so ordinary: a young woman gives birth to her first child. The child's name might seem like an important clue: Immanuel, God-is-with-us. And yet we too call our children John, beloved-of-God, or Dominic, man-of-God.

It is when the life of Jesus is read with hindsight that the extraordinary nature of this ordinary sign becomes clear to the eyes of all who believe. It was the events at the end of Jesus' earthly career which revealed the mystery hidden, from the beginning, in his person. It was then that the stories about his conception and his birth were gathered. It was then that the way in which he fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies became clear. It was then that the wonder of his birth was recognised.

Saint Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, already expressed the fundamental Christian belief in what was later called the Incarnation. In Jesus Christ, two realities - the uncreated nature of God and the created nature of humankind - were united in a mysterious, unique way. He was a human being, a descendant of King David, a member of the Jewish race. This is what he was 'according to the human nature he took'. He was also, 'in the order of the spirit of holiness', proclaimed Son of God through his resurrection from the dead.

God had been with the people of Israel for centuries: in their joys and sorrows, in their faithfulness and inconsistencies, consoling and challenging them. But the Jews who were the first disciples of Jesus teach us that he was, for them, a unique presence of God among them. He is the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament, says Matthew. His conception itself was out of the ordinary, unique. He would save his people from their sins, says Matthew again. Through him we receive grace and we preach in honour of his name, calling people to belong to Jesus Christ, says Paul.

Looking back from the splendour of Easter and Pentecost, the full wonder of God's coming in the birth of Jesus Christ is to be seen. How extraordinary is this ordinary presence of God with us. He is the Lord and his is the earth and its fulness. He is the one who set the earth on the seas and made it firm on the waters. How strange that he should be with us in the helplessness of an infant. How mysterious that he should be present in the vulnerability which accompanied the fragile life of his human parents, Mary and Joseph.

The most extraordinary thing about this presence of God is just how ordinary it is. Here there is no violence to humanity, no assault on our senses, no rejection of what is ordinary, fleshly, profane and human. All flesh, all time, all space, all human living and struggle and toil, all loving and weeping and laughter, is sanctified, blessed, and made radiant by this en-fleshment of God. He has hidden himself at the heart of humanity, making our ordinary lives holy. In the words of a contemporary poet, speaking of the Eucharist, 'we break this ordinary bread as something holy'. Likewise we greet this ordinary person as someone holy. Holy with the holiness of God.

Could it be that God's hidden presence in the ordinary and the poor, in the fragile and the vulnerable, in powerlessness and simplicity, would inevitably escape us were it not for this revelation of God in human flesh which we celebrate at Christmas time?

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