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.
The prayer with which we opened our liturgy today includes a rather loaded word: “conscience.” We prayed, “purify our conscience, Almighty God…” I’d like to speak about your conscience… which may make some of you inwardly roll your eyes or duck for cover. “Yikes: my conscience!” Our conscience typically gets rather bad press. Our conscience is about everything we do wrong… and we know it. We may hope it all stays a secret, and yet we also know, “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] Is that about Santa Claus or about God? Hmmm. Well it’s certainly about conscience, which comes from the Latin conscientia, which is a knowledge within oneself, an inner sense of what is right.”[ii] With our actions and our thoughts, there’s an inner knowing about our outer doing or saying, a kind of simultaneous overlay of direction and correction. That’s our conscience. In a few moments, we will be invited to make a confession of sin about things we know better about: where it is – don’t we know? – that things should have been different in what we’ve said or left unsaid, things we’ve done or left undone. And we know it. That awareness comes out of our “bad” conscience, i.e., our conscious awareness of being in the wrong.
But conscience is also for the good. We will have a conscious awareness of what is true, and honorable, and just, and pure, and pleasing, and commendable, an inner sense of rightness when we rise to it.[iii]
Conscience figures into this Gospel lesson appointed for this morning. The angel Gabriel coming to the Virgin Mary, saying: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Mary’s immediate response to the angel’s announcement is what? It’s 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? It’s not because the angel’s announcement is a completely foreign thought. No. The message is not foreign, but rather, familiar. She knew it. Mary knew something big was coming. Mary would carry Jesus in her womb for nine months, but, prior to that, she carried some sense of life’s destiny, perhaps for a long time. When did she first have a sense 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. So why was she afraid? She was not up to it. Not now.
You, personally, may know something about this. Many of us will. It can happen more than once in life. We have some sense of our calling, some sense of our life’s meaning or destiny, some great or significant thing that’s ahead in our own life that we conceive… or rather, with which we have been conceived.[iv] We have a sense that it is coming, a growing awareness: that we will have to bear it, or give birth to it at some time. It may be something about which we cannot easily speak – perhaps because we could not find the words, could not find the precedent, could not find the courage, could not find the company, not unlike the Virgin Mary here.
If you know something about this, I suspect you also know something about fear, like the Virgin Mary’s first reaction to the visiting angel. Mary closed her eyes and quietly shook her head, and finally found courage to say: “I cannot do this. I cannot face this. I cannot bear this now. I am not yet ready. I am not the right age. I am not good enough, wise enough, experienced enough, courageous enough, strong enough, faithful enough, willing enough, to do this, to bear this, to give birth to this now. I’m not up to it. I am too afraid.” And yet, the time had come. Saint Paul calls this “the fullness of time.”[v] And that timing, over which Mary and we have little or no control, can be a very difficult thing. There is often neither a road map nor a precedent for our calling. The timing is often very inconvenient. Mary’s immediate response to the visiting angel was full of fear: “How can this be?” Mary may be speaking for you. You cannot face what you know is ahead. Not now.
There is an old adage that goes something like: “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 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. There will be provision. God is with you. You are not alone.”
If you find yourself living with some fear about what’s unfolding in your life, take comfort in this name we have for God: Emmanuel. Which means God is with us. God is with you. Take comfort in that. Comfort, of course, is an inner sense or wellbeing. The word comfort, from the Latin, com+fortis: with fortitude, with strength. Take comfort, take fortitude in this name, God Emmanuel. God is with you. There may be something – perhaps some things – you sense you will face in life, and you are afraid. You are not up to it. You’re not strong enough. You simply cannot do it! True. You simply cannot do it… alone. The truth is, you will not be overpowered; rather, you will be empowered. There will be provision. Do not be afraid. Take comfort in that. Also take comfort in the name that God has for you. God does not call you “competent” or “strong.” God calls you “child,” and God knows and loves children. No matter your age, you are a child of God, as precious, and as vulnerable, and as needy as a child – as the child, Jesus. God will give you the strength you need. You need not be afraid.
Christmastide is nigh upon us. You will probably get keenly in touch with memories of times past. This remembering may elicit in you both gratitude and sorrow, simultaneously: gratitude for so much good in your life: the people and the experiences that have given joy to your world; the many, many gifts in your life that you’ve unwrapped, oftentimes by surprise. Christmastide will shine light on those memories of wonder and joy for the countless gifts that have shaped your life. Christmastide will probably also get you in touch with the experience of sorrow and loss, of what now is only in the past, in fading memory. You can experience joy and sorrow. You can experience joy and sorrow simultaneously. If you are greeted with sorrow this season, you may 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.
As Christmastide approaches, you might also get in touch with the memory of good gifts in life that are still very real: people who love you, people who have 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 and delight in life. Life is a gift, and in so many ways, such a good gift. Pray your gratitude for life’s many gifts. Don’t miss the opportunity to express your gratitude for life. Gratitude makes the good things even more real.
And then there may still be fear. If you are in touch with some residue of fear about something “out there” that you sense is coming to you in some form, and probably at a hour you cannot control, then here is a suggestion as you anticipate Christmas.[vi] See your fear as a Christmas gift, a gift for God. Give God your fear… which is something that God does not otherwise have. Give God your fear, however it’s wrapped up. That’s your Christmas gift for God. Open your heart and open your hands and offer to God your clutching fear, which may be the very thing that makes room within your soul for the gift of God’s provision to face whatever it is that is coming. You may well have some sense of your destiny, what’s ahead. You are being prepared for something which will be no less than a miracle than Mary’s. You can do this. God is with you. You can do this. You are not alone. You’ve been getting ready for this all your life. You need not be afraid. Take comfort. You will know the gift of God’s presence and God’s provision.
[i] “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” written by John Frederick Coots and James “Haven” Gillespie, was first sung on the radio in 1934, an instantaneous hit.
[ii] Latin conscientia: be mutually aware, from com– “with” + scire “to know.”
[iii] A riff on St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 4:8.
[iv] 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…”
[v] “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…” (Galatians 4:4)
[vi] 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.” (Luke 12:39-40f)
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