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Veni, veni, Emmanuel
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel…
This is the second sermon in a three-part series exploring ‘the body’ as the Sacred Language of Christianity. This Advent and Christmas Season offers us a space to reflect a bit more deeply on these core themes of our tradition.
It may have surprised you to hear a poem as one of tonight’s Lessons. From time to time, it is the custom at a Lessons and Carols services to include a poem that highlights a particular facet of the mystery we are celebrating during this rich liturgy.
There is one line from the poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that always makes my heart vibrate a bit.
You, sent out beyond your recall,
Go to the limits of your longing.
It is a gripping image that helps focus our hearts on the vital themes of this Advent season: that we are called to prepare ourselves for Christ’s arrival in our lives, to welcome Christ into our midst, into our hearts.
Embody me, we hear Rilke say. Go to the limits of your longing…
Rilke’s words highlight the other shades of color from the readings, with prophets and sages, seers and saints all calling us to pay attention, to prepare for our own embodiment of Christ’s presence. Advent and Christmas readings are fleshy readings, I think.
We encounter Angels with messages of conception as our own imaginations lead us to wonder how we, too, are called to bear God in our own age. Our spiritual hearts wonder at our own vocation to be God-bearers. Each of the Lessons and Carols is pregnant with wonder—as are our own souls!
In this season, Blessed Mary becomes not some historical figure but a living symbol of that deepest part of ourselves, our own deepest potential to give birth to hope and peace in our time.
Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariæ. The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.
The Angel of the Lord declares unto us still.
We see in this encounter with the Blessed Mother how her own desire aligned with God’s desire for her: to be a vessel for God’s presence in the world, to give birth to God Incarnate, to bring forth the redemptive hope of God in a struggling world. To have her own body, her own being, be a channel of grace.
God speaks to Mary: Go to the limits of your longing. Embody me. And Mary responds: Fiat, let it be so.
So, we see, desire and embodiment are at the heart of it all, aren’t they? Advent is a fleshy time, indeed.
Advent is a time to ask ourselves profound questions, like “What is your deepest desire?”
Have you ever spent time with that question, wondering just what it is that lies at the heart of your heart? What is your deepest longing? Beyond and behind all the things in our culture that surround us: wealth, fame, success, position. Go past them. Get under them. Those are distractions. Dare to look beyond them and see what deepest truth, what deepest longing seeks to take root in the fertile soil of your own soul.
What is your deepest desire?
Here is where we see the true meaning of our practice of faith, because only the language of faith—the language and images of the spiritual heart—can even try to express those deepest desires. We encounter words and images like Wholeness. Healing. Peace. Love. Belonging. Home.
What God most desires is to come among us, to be born in us. To dwell in us, live in us, and so transform us that our very lives become vessels of God’s grace. And, we come to see that God’s desire for us—what the great English Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore described as “the wanting-to-be of God in our world”—God’s desire fuels the flame of our own desire.
We are drawn to God, because God is drawn to us. We are pulled into orbit around God, like planetary bodies around the sun. We are drawn toward God like iron filings toward a magnet.
So long as our deepest desire fails to align with God’s deepest desire for us, we cannot be satisfied. There is a yearning in us that we will seek to fill with something else, hence so much of our struggle in life.
St. Augustine’s words ring true: “Our hearts are restless until they have found their rest in you, O God.”
This is where we find ourselves tonight: at the intersection of our own desire with God’s desire for us. This intersection, it turns out, may just be the best definition of an Annunciation that I can come up with. This space of longing, yearning, desire—and fear, resistance, ambivalence, for such is the truth of freedom.
Perhaps we can look at the Blessed Mother as the inspiration for our own lives, for our own participation in the Annunciation.
I have always found Denise Levertov’s poem “Annunciation” probing and promising. I will give her the last word for now:
She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child–but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power–
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love–
but who was God.
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Advent Lessons & Carols
Advent III, Year C
December 16, 2018