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4th Sunday of Advent

10 December 2020

2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16; for Psalm: Magnificat (or Psalm 89.1-4, 19-26 [or 89.1-8]); Romans 16.25-end; Luke 1.26-38

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THESE readings begin with a conversation between God and his prophet Nathan. “Nathan” is the root of two modern boys’ names: Nathaniel (“God has given” and Jonathan, “the LORD has given”). It describes God’s action and nature: God is the one who gives. Here, he challenges Nathan to explain why his people want to give him a house to live in. He does not need it, and says as much.

Though he questions the naïveté of David’s wish to build him a dwelling place —prompted (v. 2) by the concern that a humble tent might dishonour him — God does not reject the instinct that underpins that wish. It is good for us to want to give (2 Corinthians 9.7). The desire to give is one way in which human beings prove themselves to be truly made in the image of God. But, when we try to give something to God, he turns the action back upon us.

In this case, he is giving his people a land to belong in. It really matters to know where we belong, and who belongs there with us — as any migrant or refugee would agree. Migration is part of most people’s identities; many nations know that at some point in their history they were migrants. The ancient Athenians saw themselves as special because they believed that they were “autochthonous” (always having lived in the same land).

For now, the challenge of whether we regard God’s gift as a cause for self-congratulation or as a blessing to be shared remains open. Either way, setting the act of giving at the heart of the conversation between God and humankind prepares us for the challenges of the next readings, and ultimately for Christmas itself.

The reading from Romans comes with a complication. Many editors see it as an addition by someone other than Paul, at the time when Paul’s letters were being collected together. It is a doxology — the grandest of all those that conclude Paul’s letters. Behind it, we catch the echo of an early liturgy, ascribing glory to God for ever, through Jesus the Christ. It fits perfectly with the Advent theme of revelation (the Greek word for this “uncovering” is “apocalypse”). It speaks in terms which make sense in this generation, when pietist obedience has given way to sceptical questioning.

Juliane Thiere/AlamyLook into Eternity by the Ukrainian artist Oksana Mas: the face of the Blessed Virgin Mary from the 17th-century icon Virgin Eleusa, depicted in a mosaic panel comprising 15,000 hand-painted traditional Ukrainian wooden Easter eggs

It also provides an explanation of God’s silence, using the term “mystery” as a virtual synonym for “gospel”. Mystery preoccupied Paul. It recurred in many of his letters. He uses it for the knowledge, formerly hidden, of God’s purpose, which has been revealed in Christ. But “mystery” is a loaded word. For Paul’s readers, it would have evoked ideas about the mystery-cults of the ancient world, which people joined to gain access to truths kept hidden from non-initiates. The Christian mystery, though, is good news to be proclaimed openly, for all. Gnostic heretics claimed exclusive secret “knowledge” (falsely so called, 1 Timothy 6.20). The knowledge that Paul declares is freely offered to everyone.

Both these readings prepare the ground, and make level the path, for the annunciation. That is also a revelation of a mystery. For centuries after Christ, the sacraments of Christianity were kept as secret as any ancient mystery-cult. But, like Paul, Luke reveals the mystery of God’s Son for anyone with ears to hear. That mystery is the virginal conception.

Despite what some critics claim, it is not like the Greek and Roman myths surrounding the births of gods and heroes. There is no grandeur in the circumstances: Mary is just a young woman. Nor is there grandeur in the consequences — life goes on as normal. What is astonishing (and this is obscured by too much familiarity with this Gospel passage) is how plain and simple it all sounds. Mary has “found favour” with God. Here is a clear contrast with her Son, who was the eternal Word from the beginning.

There’s something about Mary. She has “found” favour; God has recognised her nature. That is ultimately why Christians should learn from her — from the example of her obedience and her questioning. God has chosen her, not for what she was “in the beginning” (John 1.1), but because she has become a person whom he highly favours. That ought to direct our minds to the infinite possibilities of a life lived in tune with God.

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