Mansions for Emmanuel

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

Romans 16:25-27

Luke 1:26-38

The Collect: 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.

This sermon was preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley CA on December 18, 2011. (Watch a vlog of this sermon here)

May the words of my mouth and the mansions of our hearts be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.

One of the first things I picked up from the Episcopal Church was saying “The Lord be with you,” a call-and-response practice mostly unknown to the evangelical communities within which I grew up. I love this salutation and have come to appreciate all of its variations. Although most Episcopalians respond to the “Lord be with you” by saying “And also with you,” here, of course, we respond by saying “And with thy spirit,” which is also what most Roman Catholics are saying now with their new Roman Missal. At the church where I was confirmed in Pasadena (All Saints Pasadena), we would say “God dwells within you” and then respond “and also within you,” as a kind of Episcopal “Namaste” (which in Sanskrit means “the divinity within me bows to the divinity within you.”). And I have heard that you can identify a Jedi as Episcopalian if they respond to the phrase “May the Force be with You” by saying “And also with you.”

This ancient greeting is known as “Dominus Vobiscum” which is Latin for “The Lord be with you.”  It became an official church salutation in the sixth century, when the Council of Braga decreed that bishops and priests should salute the people with “Dominus Vobiscum” and the people respond, “Et cum spiritu tuo,” as was the custom in the East.[1] Although its ecclesiastical use probably dates back to apostolic times, we will see that its use as a greeting is older still.

Today’s Gospel describes the Annunciation of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the Blessed Virgin Mary, an event portrayed by countless artists, including Leonardo Da Vinci[2], Raphael, El Greco as well as the stained glass artist who made the Annunciation Window here at St. Clement’s.

This event is so significant to the Church that it actually has its own feast day, called “Lady Day” by the Church of England, and is appropriately celebrated nine months before Christmas Day, on March 25th. This important event begins when the Angel Gabriel shows up[3] and says to Mary, “The Lord be with you.” Mary’s response to this greeting is fascinating: “She was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (Luke 1:29). Now if Mary had grown up in the Episcopal Church, she would have been less bewildered by this greeting and would have responded, “And also with you” or “And with thy spirit.” Instead, she pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Now we use this greeting often, in our Eucharist, at the beginning of Vestry meetings, at the beginning of prayers and whenever we need to quiet a room full of Episcopalians. But I wonder how much of us actually consider the meaning of this greeting that we so often use and which has almost come to define us as Episcopalians and Anglicans. So this morning, I invite us to ponder more deeply, along with Mary, what sort of greeting this might be, especially in light of the Annunciation.

Gabriel’s greeting in Greek is ὁ κύριος μετὰ σοῦ (ha kyrios meta soo), which translated literally is “The Lord with you,” The Lord “meta” you. Prepositions in Greek are packed with multiple meanings. “Meta” can mean “beside, with, along with, after, among, or behind.” It would not be too much of a stretch to translate the phrase as “The Lord is within you,” which would be especially appropriate for Mary since tradition understands the time of the Annunciation as the time of conception, which is why Annunciation Day is celebrated nine months before Christmas Day. So we can understand this greeting (The Lord be with you) as a profound proclamation of the Incarnation.

Gabriel continues, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bring forth a son, and will call his name ‘Jesus.’ He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. There will be no end to his kingdom.”

Now it is a challenge for us to make sense of the virgin birth in our post-Enlightenment age, but it helps to remember that the authors here are communicating a theological truth more than any scientific fact.

Karen Armstrong calls theology a “species of poetry.”[4] When the Gospel authors wrote about the virgin birth, they were using this “species of poetry” to proclaim the power of the Incarnation, which held a particular message for Mary and also holds a message for us. That message is that “God is with you. Furthermore, God is within you. And God is doing something inside of you right now. You might not feel it right now. In fact, you might feel empty and confused right now (as Mary most likely did), but I want you to know that God is at work within you. And you will give birth to something beautiful, something that will change the world eternally for the better.”

That message of the Incarnation is inherently proclaimed in the Dominum Vobiscum, in “The Lord be with you.” Every time we say this to one another we are making a bold assertion of the Presence of God here and now, among us and even within us. We are proclaiming the Incarnation in each of us, in the mansions of our hearts.

If you look at the Annunciation window here at St. Clements, you will notice a feature that is included in almost all portrayals of the Annunciation: that is, the Annunciation Lily or the Madonna Lily. Gabriel holds one in his hand while two other Annunciation Lilies decorate the upper frame. The lily symbolizes the purity of the Virgin, especially as the lily among the thorns. And this lily among the thorns also holds a message of the Incarnation for us: Among all of the apparent thorns in our lives, in our families, in the church, in the Anglican communion, and in the world, God is present and God is growing something beautiful. Mary, of course, must have felt surrounded by thorns in a world that would quickly anathematize her for her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Mary had to trust Gabriel’s proclamation that God was present and at work within her in the midst of her fear and confusion.

There is also a message for us within Mary’s perplexity for this promise of God’s Presence. The Greek word for perplexed is related to the word that is translated elsewhere as “terrified”, which is used to describe Zechariah’s response to his angelic visitation, a few verses earlier. The promise of the Incarnation, when taken seriously, can easily arouse fear and certainly awe.

The words of the Advent hymn capture well the fear and awe aroused by the incarnate Presence: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand. Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand…At his feet the six-winged seraph; cherubim with sleepless eye, veil their faces to the Presence, as with ceaseless voice they cry, ‘Alleluia, Alleluia! Alleluia, Lord Most High!'”

The divine presence that we recognize and honor in each other whenever we say “The Lord be with you” is the same Presence that makes angels cover their faces, that calls all mortal flesh to silence and that demands our full homage. So it is no surprise that this greeting and promise of God’s Presence aroused fear in Mary. In the same way, it may arouse great awe in us, if we take it seriously.

The 16th century Christian Mystic Teresa of Avila who was from a family of Jewish converts to Christianity and is one of the three female “Doctors” of the Church (a title given to individuals who have contributed to Church doctrine), wrote a Treatise called The Interior Mansion. In it, Teresa maps out the mansion of the heart, where, she says, God dwells. As we move deeper into the center room of God’s presence within us, we grow in awe and wonder and humility and we also learn how to see that same divine presence in others, especially those who persecute us and make life difficult for us. She says those characteristics are signs of the divine presence within.[5]

By taking the promise of God’s incarnate Presence within us seriously, we allow God to grow something beautiful in us. And in doing so, we echo Mary’s words: “Let it be to me according to your Word.” In this way, we come to see our hearts as homes for the divine. Or as the Mystics claim and as today’s Collect declared, we come to see our hearts as mansions for the One called Emmanuel, who is “God with us”. Amen.


[1] Catholic Encyclopedia http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02729a.htm, December 18, 2011.

[2] For a reflection on Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting at the Uffizi art gallery in Florence, see https://deforestlondon.wordpress.com/2009/03/

[3] The text says, “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God…” (Luke 1:26). This refers to the sixth month after John’s conception, as in 1:36.

[4] Karen Armstrong, Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (NY: Random House, 2004), 248.

[5] For more on Teresa of Avila, see Teresa of Avila: The Interior Castle, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh OCD and Otilio Rodriguez OCD from The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 1979).

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One thought on “Mansions for Emmanuel

  1. After hearing my sermon, a St. Clement’s parishioner shared this quote from William James with me (which she memorized): “We and God have business with one another, and in opening our selves to his influence, our deepest destiny is fulfilled, and the universe, or that portion of it that our personal being constitutes, takes a genuine turn for the worse or the better depending on whether we evade or fulfill God’s demands.” Thanks for sharing, Jane!

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