Fourth Sunday of Advent

Reflection – 12/20/20[i]

Barbara Metcalf


We come to the last Sunday of Advent and we welcome the Annunciation as our gospel lesson, the precious words that Mary hears from the angel, and to which, perplexed as she is, she assents. We cherish Mary’s words at the Annunciation. She is our model in obedient behavior,

“Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

By that assent, she will become our model in being, not just in obedient behavior, because she will physically embody the Christ, the Incarnation, the radiant symbol of who we are, who all humanity is.

Part of the pleasure of this season is the familiarity of words like these – of all our holiday traditions, and, for many of us, the very words of our lessons in this season, heard over and over.

In just a few days, it should be close to midnight and we are all assembled, the tree put up by Chuck and lights arranged by Susan, the glowing candles clamped in place after Sean’s repairs, the creche before the altar filled with mis-sized animals by the children at 4, and Richard playing the organ as we reach the last verse of Phillips Brooks’s beloved carol:

“O Holy Child of Bethlehem….be born in us today.”

This is a special time. But this year is a time when even time, as so many people have commented, seems suspended — or maybe moves too quickly — unmarked by familiar routines. This is Covid-Time. And the seasons are off.  Camellia bushes are already blooming in our neighborhood. Covid-Time and Global-Warming Time. But disjointed as time is, limited above all in the gatherings of friends and church and family — since we of course won’t be singing together close to midnight on Thursday — we gratefully embrace the prayers and readings of the Advent cycle. Their very repetition is an anchor in reality.

So, what to my wandering eyes should appear but today’s Old Testament lesson, which I have no memory of ever seeing before. Where did that come from? Why not more verses from Isaiah, so familiar that we hear Handel’s music playing in our head?? Why are we reading about the Ark? But reading to the end of the passage, we find our anchor:  God’s promise to David that he will preserve his lineage forever. That certainly puts us back on familiar Christmas ground: the resonant phrase, “of the house and lineage of David.” And that is familiar ground because it means that the Israelites will have, as the passage says, “their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more.” This is the promise we have circled back to again and again in Advent.

We have that promise in the Magnificat that we have repeated every week and again just now:

the promise of God’s faithfulness, that however dark the challenges of the moment, the

humble will be lifted up, the lowly exalted — and all will be restored. As Bishop Marc told us last week: We trust a God who loves us and will do the work of restoration, as of a garden that will grow and flower and yield fruit.

But what about all the rest of the Old Testament passage, all that about the Ark and the tent?

I’ve never thought much about the Ark of the Covenant except in a general way. That it contained the stone tablets of the ten commandments and was a potent presence, carried as the Israelites journeyed and as they went into battle.

But though I was initially puzzled by it, I actually think the discussion of the Ark is perfectly on target for today.

Last year when I went to Ethiopia, I was fascinated by the extent to which Orthodox traditions make the symbols of the Hebrew scriptures central in a way that I had never encountered them before. And of those symbols, none matters more than the Ark. Ethiopians believe themselves to be the possessors of the actual Ark, brought back to Ethiopia by the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, preserved at the high altar of the Church of St Mary of Zion in the ancient city of Axum. And it’s not just that Ark. In Ethiopia, a church cannot be a church unless it contains a replica of the Ark, there too kept in the seclusion of the high altar. Every church, large or small. The Eucharist and the Ark together at the high altar.

But there’s more. In Ethiopia, Epiphany is celebrated as Christ’s baptism. We of course also link the baptism to the Christmas cycle, for us on the first Sunday after Epiphany. But in Ethiopia the conjuncture brings an extraordinary two-day celebration. The celebration entails not only exuberant immersions but processions of all those precious rarely-seen Arks from each parish’s church.

The Ark, which seems to hold God’s power, and the Epiphany Baptism, the public revelation of Jesus’ divinity, are each a powerful sign of the intersection of a transcendent God with the mundane – with us. Once we have encountered the combination, it makes sense. Each enriches the other.

As for the tent, the passage in Isaiah tells us something very important, which could not be more timely. David is troubled that “the ark of God stays in [something as flimsy as] a tent.” He says this is not right; the Ark needs a permanent place.  The prophet Nathan seems to concur. But God tells Nathan that he must stop David. God says in so many words, “I have been moving all over the place, in a tent.  I never asked David, or any of the other leaders of Israel, to build me a house of cedar. Forget it.” And this is another way of telling us that God is not limited to one place. God does not want David to build a house; God instead will give David peace where his lineage will last forever. It is that promise that is sung out in the glorious, exuberant words of today’s Psalm in praise of God’s faithfulness, God’s righteousness and justice, God’s steadfast love, and the promise of David’s eternal lineage.

To be sure, in due course, Solomon, David’s son, will build a temple. To be sure, we have our church buildings. But, as we know this year, as we have perhaps never known before, we don’t need them to know God to be present. It is uncanny to be reminded of this on what is usually a day when the building matters, when in a normal year in a few minutes we would be joyously “greening” (to use the old-fashioned word) the church for Christmas, planning for the luminarias to light the path in.

The novelist Marilynne Robinson apparently likes to quote her brother that “God is a sphere whose center is everywhere but whose circumference is nowhere.” Maybe God put off David’s wish to build a temple because of his shady past. But maybe God put him off to make clear that God had no circumference, that God was not tied down to one place more than any other.

The Bridegroom is not tied down. We need to stay awake, we were reminded a few weeks back, to be ready when the Bridegroom comes. But we also need to be awake because the Bridegroom appears in unexpected places. That too we’ve been reminded of this season – the Bridegroom is the one who is hungry and needs to be fed, or sick and needs to be tended, or unhoused and needs sandwiches and kindness – and shelter – or cruelly imprisoned and needs to be visited, even freed. And the Bridegroom is far too easy to miss.

We, like Mary, need to hear the angels who are all around us, not least when we meet like this and read scripture and sing with YouTube and pray for each other and the needs of the world. We need to aspire to Mary’s answer to the angel that all be “according to your word.”  The Bridegroom is always there, and we know his presence when we give and when we receive love and generosity, the human communion that is Divine.

Whether in our familiar, beloved, “greened” Christmas Eve setting or not: That is what we pray for in this season:

“Oh Holy Child of Bethlehem…be born in us today.”


[i] Thank you to Stephen Hitchcock for his good thoughts as I drafted these comments.