+ May the words my mouth and the meditation of my heart be alway acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
It is a fortunate quirk of the lessons appointed for this evening that the two canticles from St. Luke’s Gospel–invariably a part of Evensong throughout the year–flank, as it were, the story of the nativity of St. John the Baptist from the same Gospel. It is a fluke of our lectionary, but it mirrors nicely the very intentional order imposed on the narrative by St. Luke himself.
The annunciation of the Baptist’s birth to Zechariah is followed by the contrasting Annunciation of the Savior’s birth to the Blessed Virgin and our Lady’s “Magnificat,” her song of praise, in response to the same. Then follows John’s presentation in the Temple (tonight’s New Testament lesson) and afterward–and again in contrast to it–Our Lord’s own presentation and Simeon’s joyful response to the same in the words of the “Nunc Dimittis.”
We see in this ordering not just a product of your priest’s pedantry but the progression of the promise which Advent holds before us. Struck dumb, Zechariah cannot respond to the Angel’s message; the time is not yet full. Our Lady can respond, and she proclaims the promise of a temporal reördering for the children of Abrhaham, a reversal of worldly fortune for a socially and economically and religiously oppressed people. Then Zechariah, his lips finally loosed, proclaims an even greater boon for the children of Israel: “The Lord God… hath visited and redeemed his people.” Finally, Simeon, whom we are told had been “waiting for the consolation of Israel,” goes even further when he encounters the Christ Child. He is now prepared to conclude his earthly pilgrimage because he has seen salvation dawn not only for Israel, but “before the face of all people, to be a light to lighten [even] the Gentiles.”
Thus we see a progression both from temporal to eternal concerns and from a tribal to a universal scope across the first two chapters of Luke and across tonight’s liturgy. But, as the medievals were smart enough to understand even if we modern people seem to have lost the ability, there is a surplus of meaning in holy scripture, and I believe there is also a spiritual and mystagogical reality inherent in this progression.
This progression from worldly concerns to eternal concerns, and from a provincial worldview to a universal worldview, is the trajectory of both the season of Advent and of the Christian spiritual life. In terms of the former, we are invited during this season to look ever forward, not just to Christ’s nativity in Bethlehem, but to Christ’s return at the end of time. We are asked to accept as a gift the fact that the Christ Child can be born again in our hearts, but even more importantly that the Son of Man can and will establish his eternal Kingdom for all people.
In terms of our spiritual progress, what we call sanctification in the West and what the Eastern Fathers of the church termed theosis (literally “making divine”) proceeds, I think, along the same trajectory. We may begin by believing (whether explicitly or implicitly) that God is mainly the fellow who gives goodies to us and to our families and close friends, but that view cannot hold if we are to grow in faith, nor will that view weather much experience with life on life’s terms. Rather, we must move from these concerns to a recognition that God’s promise is an answer to eternal concerns- life after death, yes, but also meaning and purpose in this life which transcends the concerns of health and wealth and security and touches upon the existential question: Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is the meaning of life? The answer necessarily turns us outward, to focus on the welfare of those outside ourselves and those whom we consider ours to embrace the whole human family as coheirs of the promise of the kingdom which is coming. It reminds us that whatever changes and chances we may experience in this life, the God who is sovereign will establish a reign of peace and justice for us and for all who call upon him.
This is the reality which the season of Advent calls us to consider. I don’t need to rehearse again my perennial hand-wringing dirge about Christmas creep, what Dean McGowan of Yale Divinity in an essay published last week bemoaned as the reality of Christians seeking to observe Advent finding themselves in occupied territory. It will suffice, I hope, to say that this season of penitential expectation calls us each year not only to consider how we might prepare to greet Christ’s first Advent in the Incarnation, but also his second Advent, his return on which day he promises to set all things to rights and to show grace and mercy to the one who, through turning (even at the last) from sin to the righteousness that comes only from faith, may greet his appearing. This is the season in which we take as our refrain that old prayer with which I now conclude:
Purify our consciences, O God, by the daily visitation, that our Lord Jesus Christ, when he cometh, may find a mansion made ready even for himself, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost ever, one God, world without end. Amen.