A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
The Episcopal Cathedral of the Nativity
in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (in Spanish)
Lord God, we adore you because you still come to us now.
You come to us through other people and their love and concern for us.
You come to us through men and women who need our help.
You come to us as we worship you with your people.
One of the most powerful descriptions of the Christian vocation which I have ever encountered is taken from the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict. In it, he speaks of the monastic as one who is “truly seeking God.” Of course, he recognizes that most Christians who are beginning that journey will be quite clueless as to how to even begin. And so it is, to assist them on their journey, that he establishes a “school of the Lord’s service.” He offers tools such as prayer, work, and Lectio Divina. But it is clear to anyone who has spent time in one of these schools—or monasteries, as they are more commonly called—that the essential tool is that of life in community.
This makes perfect sense to me, because—at its best—Christianity is truly incarnational. In the Nativity, we celebrate that God chose to become one of us—one with us. One who completely understands our limitations, our frustrations, our sufferings—as well as our joys and moments of transcendent connection. All the theology and theories about God will make sense to us—but only after we have experienced God’s reality in our lives! While that experience does often come to us through prayer, or worship, or even nature, it is far more common for it to come to us through the love, kindness, generosity, and affirmation of others. Anyone who has ever had the experience of feeling loved, of being loved, of receiving love will inevitably be changed, and perhaps even transformed, by that experience. I think that it is for that very reason that Sacred Scripture uses this very language—time and time again. God is love, and all who love, are of God. “That we have passed from death to life we know, because we love others.”
And so, after having encountered God’s love—in some form or fashion—we begin out quest, our journey, to find God. The most important truth is this: It is not that we have first sought God, it is that God sought and encountered us. That is how the spiritual life begins. It is for that very reason that St. Benedict begins the Holy Rule with that word, “Listen.” We are reminded, of course, of that beautiful prayer which is at the center of the Jewish Faith, “Hear Oh, Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is one.” Shema Israel Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad.
The last week of Advent is the week in which this reality is laid out for our contemplation in the most basic and profound way. Because in it, we see reality from God’s perspective, and not from our own. In this final week we move from a contemplation of the theology of the Incarnation to the reality of a Holy Family of Mary and of Joseph, looking for a place to welcome God into their lives and into our world.
One of the greatest gifts of Latino Spirituality is that of the Posadas. It takes a theology which might feel abstract or theoretical and makes it real, present, and effective. It is a liturgical re-enactment—in the very best sense of that term—of the Infancy Narrative of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke. This past Thursday evening, at the Cathedral of the Nativity, the Hispanic/Latin Community celebrated this lovely tradition.
How to briefly summarize what the Posadas are about. Here is a good overview which I found on the web: “There are two parts to the traditional posada song. Those outside the house sing the role of Joseph asking for shelter and the family inside responds, singing the part of the innkeeper saying that there is no room. The song switches back and forth a few times until finally, the innkeeper agrees to let them in. The hosts open the door, and everyone goes inside.”
I love this tradition because it helps us to see the action from two very different perspectives. The Posada song is amazing because it gives all the sensible reasons which the Inn Keeper has for turning away the Holy Family. And, after all, those inside the Inn have no idea who this is asking for shelter. In the end, though, a place of welcome and safety—if ever so humble-is offered, and Mary and Joseph are able to come in out of the elements. Then, there is a party, and everyone celebrates.
These final days of Advent, then, challenge us. Is there a place in our Inn for God? Is there a place in our homes, in our church, in our community, in our nation, and—perhaps most importantly—in our hearts to welcome and receive the God who has come to be with us? While there might be a million sensible reasons to say no, will we find the courage to say yes?
If we struggle to understand just how it is that God comes to us in this holy season, we need only to listen to the revolutionary words of our Blessed Mother in the Magnificat to truly understand who it is that God has visited—and who we are invited to welcome too.
- God comes to lowly servants-to women, to persons who are not valued or prioritized or even acknowledged. In welcoming them, we welcome God
- God comes to those who respect and love and acknowledge God. In welcoming them, we welcome God.
- God comes to the humble, the meek, the mild. In welcoming them, we welcome God.
- God comes to the lowly, the weak, the powerless. In welcoming them, we welcome God.
- God comes to the hungry, the poor, the destitute, the homeless. In welcoming them, we welcome God.
- God comes to families and communities in crisis, to those who long for equality, and justice, dignity and respect. In welcoming them, we welcome God.
Saint Benedict reminds us that it is often in the unexpected visitor who shows up at our door that we discover and welcome the presence of Christ. The challenge, then, is to recognize that is so often in the unwelcome interruption—in that moment in which we are convinced that we are doing God’s work, that we are doing “real ministry”—that we are given an opportunity to truly love, to truly serve, and to truly welcome God. Isn’t that what this holy season is all about? The God who created all that is takes us by surprise—knocking at our door: dirty, homeless, hungry, poor, weak, vulnerable, exploited, marginalized, and excluded. That is what the Incarnation, the Nativity, is all about.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, may we throw open the doors to welcome you, to love you, and to celebrate your presence with us this Advent, this Christmas.
Is that you, Saint Joseph?
And the Virgin, too?
I would have opened sooner
if I’d recognized you.
Enter, holy pilgrims,
Welcome to my humble home.
Though it’s little I can offer,
all I have, please call your own.
Mary, Joseph, and our Savior,
what a joy to have you here!
We are honored to receive you,
May you stay through all the year!”
Want to hear a sung version of the Posada Song?