Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’” Luke 1:26-28
The prayer with which we opened our liturgy today – what we call the “Collect,” that is, the prayer that “collects” our intentions for today, the fourth Sunday in Advent – includes a very interesting word: conscience. We prayed, “purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation …” I’d like to reflect with you on the theme of conscience… which may make some of you inwardly roll your eyes, and sigh, and squirm a little. Ugh: my conscience! Our conscience typically gets very bad press. Our conscience is about everything we do wrong… and know it. Probably all of us here know the Santa Claus jingle that plays this season almost incessantly on the radio (and replays in our conscience): “…He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sakes…” (i) Quite. That’s about conscience, which comes from the Latin conscientia, which is a knowledge within oneself, quite literally, to be mutually aware. (ii) That is, with our actions or our thoughts there’s a kind simultaneous overlay of familiarity, an inner direction or correction. We know about this. It’s like we’ve been there before, and we have kind of inner knowing about how we should outwardly act, what we should say or think or do in this certain context. That’s our conscience. In a few moments in our liturgy we will be invited to make a confession of sin about things we know better about, where we should have been better concerning things done or left undone, said or left unsaid. And that awareness comes out of our conscience, our “bad” conscience, i.e., our conscious awareness of the wrong.
But I want to say something here about our “good” conscience, i.e., our conscious awareness of the right… which is how we hear this Gospel lesson appointed for today. The angel Gabriel comes to the Virgin Mary: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” And Mary’s immediate response to the angel’s announcement is fear. Mary hears that she is to bear a child, and she is immediately afraid. That fear comes out of her conscience. Why is Mary afraid? Not because this the angel’s announcement is a foreign thought. No. The message is not foreign, but rather, familiar. Mary knew something like this was coming.
How was it for Mary to carry not just Jesus for nine months, but to have carried this sense of calling perhaps all of her life? When did she first have a sense about what her life would be about, I wonder? She conceived at least a glimpse of her life’s calling, her life’s meaning, long before this angel visited. I’m certain of that. When Mary finally hears from the angel that the time is now, she is afraid. It’s not because this is new news; this is old news that she knew it was coming all along. She had been preparing for this, or being prepared for this, all of her life.
I suspect that many of us know something about this. We have some sense of our calling, some sense of our life’s meaning or destiny, some great or significant thing about our own life that we conceive… or rather, with which we have been conceived. (iii) And we have a sense that it is coming, that we will bear it and birth it at some time. It may be something about which we have not been able to speak easily – perhaps because we could not find the words, could not find the precedent, could not find the courage, not unlike the Virgin Mary here. But there is a clear sense of something that we must be or become or bear or birth… and we have known it in some deep way in our heart, and maybe for a long time.
If you know something about this, I suspect you also know something about fear, like the Virgin Mary’s reaction of fear to the announcing angel. I suspect that Mary had known this news was some day coming. On the day of this visiting angel, Mary closed her eyes and quietly shook her head and said what she had finally found words to say: “I cannot do this, I cannot face this, I cannot bear this now. I am not yet ready. I am not old enough, good enough, wise enough, experienced enough, courageous enough, faithful enough to do this, to bear this, to birth this now. I am too afraid.” I’m wondering if you, too, know something of this story, whether this isn’t also the story of your own life? That there is something out there – whether it be big or small – that you cannot pretend not to know… You do know it, and have some sense of your place in it, what you must be or become or bear or birth… and you are being invited to say “yes” to the life you have been given by God. Saint Paul calls this “the fullness of time” when it comes. (iv) And that can be a very difficult thing. At those moments of our conscious awareness, we are so aware there is oftentimes neither a road map nor a precedent for our calling. Yet there is this inner, familiar knowing that comes out of our conscience about our destiny. I suspect that most every one of us here can understand in a very deep way Mary’s immediate response of fear to the visiting angel: “How can this be?”
There is an old adage that goes something like this: “Don’t worry, the things that you are most afraid of probably won’t happen anyway. Not to worry.” I find that saying neither helpful nor true. I would change the old adage in light of the reminder we have in today’s Gospel lesson. I would change it to something like: “Don’t worry, the things that you are most afraid of probably will happen to you. But not to worry; they are nothing to be afraid of because God is with you.”
If you find yourself living with some fear about the unfolding of your life – that sense you have of what is coming, what you are being called to be or become or bear or birth – take comfort in this name we have for God: Emmanuel. God with us, God with you. Take comfort in that. Comfort, of course, is with strength. Comfort, com+fortis: with fortitude, with strength. Take comfort, take fortitude in this name, God Emmanuel; God is with you. And secondly, take comfort in the name that God has for you. God calls you “my beloved child.” And God knows and loves children.
As Christmastide approaches, you will probably get keenly in touch with conscious memory of times past. Some of this remembering may elicit deep sorrow in you, because some good things of times past are no more: people, occasions, opportunities that are now only in the past. If you are greeted with sorrow this season, you may actually find the companionship of the Virgin Mary quite a source of comfort, she who knew both the height of joy and the depth of sorrow in this life. You might find it helpful and hopeful, in some way, to welcome the companionship of Mary into your own heart’s memory.
As Christmastide approaches, you might also get in touch with the memory of good gifts in life that are still very real: people who have loved you, formed you, rescued you, delighted in you. You may get in touch with sights and sounds and tastes which smack of God’s grandeur, and the sheer and amazing goodness of life. Life is a gift, and it is, in so many ways, such a good gift. Pray your gratitude for life’s many gifts, which are so very, very good. Don’t miss the opportunity to express your gratitude for life. Gratitude makes the good things even more real.
And then there’s this other thing: fear. If you are in touch with some residue of fear about something “out there” which you know is coming to you in some form, and probably at a hour you cannot predict, then here is a suggestion as you prepare for Christmas. (v) Your fear is your gift. Give God your fear… which is something that God does not otherwise have. Give God your fear. That’s your Christmas gift for God: your fear. Open your heart and open your hands and offer to God the gift of your fear, your clutching fear, which may be the very thing that makes room within your soul for you to face whatever it is that is coming. You may well have some sense of your destiny, something you are being given to be or become or bear or birth in life. And, like Mary, you may find that trickling conscious awareness overwhelming. “How can this be,” you say to yourself in your alarm. You are being prepared for something which will be no less than a miracle. You can do this. God is with you. You can do this.
Phillips Brooks, sometime rector of Trinity Church, Copley Square, then Bishop of Massachusetts, said nearly 125 years ago:
“Do not pray for easy lives! Pray to be stronger!
Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your task.
Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle. But you shall be a miracle.
Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness which has come in you, by the grace of God.” (vi)
You can do this.
(ii) L. conscientia: be mutually aware, from com– “with” + scire “to know.”
(iii) See Psalm 139 – “…For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well. My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb; all of them were written in your book; they were fashioned day by day, when as yet there was none of them. How deep I find your thoughts, O God! How great is the sum of them…”
(iv) See Galatians 4:4 – “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…”
(v) See Luke 12:39-40f – Jesus said, “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he* would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
(vi) The Rt. Rev. Phillips Brooks (1835-93), pastor and hymn writer, has been called by many “the greatest American preacher of the 19th century.”
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