As we approach Great Advent, which begins this Saturday, here is a word from Kathleen Norris excerpted from “God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas”, which helps to explain this important week leading up to our celebration of the Nativity of Christ.
Fourth Sunday of Advent
For the prayers of this fourth week of the Advent season, I have employed the traditional “O Antiphons.” These brief but potent prayers, which so beautifully weave together all the many themes of Advent, have been used at Vespers at least since the seventh century. Monasteries are among the few remaining communities still singing these antiphons to mark the week beginning December 17 as a special time in the Advent season. Some Benedictine hospitals keep this tradition as well; only in the pediatric ward will you see a Christmas tree before the 17th of December.
Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 23; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24
As we begin this week, let us keep before us the prayer that begins the O Antiphons:
O Wisdom, O holy word of God,
you govern all creation
with your strong yet tender care:
Come and show your people the way to salvation.
Already sick of Christmas by the time we come to this week, we sometimes feel as if we’re in the home stretch of an exhausting race we have no hope of winning. Carols have assaulted us in malls, elevators, and supermarkets for well over a month, and the full-force frenzy of last-minute shopping, cooking, and family gatherings has yet to begin. In the fourth century, however, Christians were asked to mark December 17 as the beginning of a twenty-one day period, ending at the Epiphany, in which they focused on the great mystery unfolding in the life of the church, the mystery of God incarnate in human flesh. They were asked to turn away from distraction, from either staying at home and losing themselves in domestic chores, or traveling and being continually stimulated by a change of scenery. Christians were to seek out the church as a place where they could gather as a community not merely to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but to allow the power of the Incarnation to penetrate their lives. How can we even imagine such a thing? How can we make this season holy, when the world tells us that Christmas is over in just a day, and then we rush toward New Year’s Eve, and merchants, begin putting out goods for Valentine’s Day? We might start, presently and simply, by picturing in our mind’s eye the great sign prophesied by Isaiah: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
This is the genesis of the Christian story, which is also our story. In the iconostasis of some Orthodox churches, the prophet Isaiah is represented by an icon based on this passage, “Our Lady of the Sign.” Mary stands, with her arms upraised, palms up, in a gesture of peace. Her womb is depicted as a circle enclosing the Savior, who replicates the gesture. This mother and child embody for us the Wisdom that was with God at the beginning of the world, the Wisdom that moved Moses and the prophets, the Wisdom that is the Word. This is the new genesis, and the new creation, the promise that inspired Paul to say, joyfully, to the Romans that they were called to belong to Jesus Christ, called to be saints.
On this day, we are all inspired to say that God is not distant or inaccessible, but chooses to come into our midst.
O sacred Lord of ancient Israel,
who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush,
who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain:
Come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.
©2007 “God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas,” Edited by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe. Published by Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA. To purchase, visit http://www.paracletepress.com/Products/7077/god-with-us.aspx