An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20).
This Advent I have watched the Christ child growing, indeed gestating, in this community as he did within his mother, Mary. He is growing in your faithful prayers and preparations, in your compassion and generosity with eachother, in your endurance at times of great pain, and your faithful trust that God will provide. As Isaiah says, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14), Emmanuel which translates “God is with us.” Indeed God is in our midst.
As we gather here, this last Sunday of Advent, anticipating the celebration of Christmas, I am moved by the love of God and its presence among us. This is the very love that Mary carried in her womb, the love that her husband, Joseph, committed to fathering, the love that is growing in every one of you as faithful people of God.
It is a powerful thing, this love. Originating from God, it has the ability to transform, to heal and to bring meaning where otherwise there is none. It is hopeful, joyful, energizing, and it is frightening, unpredictable and challenging. Indeed, while we don’t always associate love with fear, they are so closely linked in scripture. Whenever God’s love is expressed in scripture, people are afraid. In fact, the story of the Word made flesh, the Incarnation of God, begins in fear. Notice, in the annunciation, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary with astounding news that she is to mother the love of God. He greets her and then, what is the first thing the angel had to say? “Do not be afraid, Mary” (Lk. 1:30). It is the same with Joseph. Joseph has learned that Mary, the woman to whom he is engaged, but not married, is pregnant. An angel comes to him in this morning’s gospel. The angel’s first words? “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid” (Mt. 1:20). And later, when the time for the delivery comes, again the angels appears, this time to shepherds tending their flocks outside Bethlehem. The angel’s first words are the same. “Do not be afraid” (Lk. 2:10) Do no be afraid.
Lately, I have been reading the recently published letters of Mother Theresa. In this rich record of her faith, we find that Theresa was a woman pregnant with the love of God and fearful of what it meant. Moved by Christ’s dying proclamation on the cross, “I thirst,” Theresa’s ministry was meant to satisfy the thirsting Christ. In poverty and illness, she gathered the souls of humanity to satisfy her Lord’s thirst. She writes to her friends “in the work I do there [is] complete surrender of all I am, there will be absolutely nothing left. I am his, only his… Let us remain at Calvary near the crucified Jesus, with our chalice filled with love, held close to his suffering heart.”
A modern saint, for over 80 years Theresa bore the chalice of Christ’s love to the world and the world was transformed by it. She served among the poorest of the poor, loving them in the midst of their suffering while building clinics, schools, orphanages and an entire monastic tradition dedicated to this ministry of love. For her labors, Theresa won countless honors, including the Nobel prize, and brought healing and consolation to the poorest of the world. Given all that you know of Mother Theresa, does it surprise you to know that her letters, though passionate with the love of God, are also filled with dark fear and doubt? Our sister Theresa was afraid. Especially early on, when she walked the streets of Calcutta with no help or support, only her love of Christ, she feared failure and disapproval. She knew how much God desired of her, and she was afraid… afraid she would never satisfy the one whose thirst she most wanted to quench. “Pray for me,” she wrote her spiritual director, “pray for me- for the life within me is hard to live. To be in love and yet not loved, to live by faith and yet not believed, to spend myself in light and yet be in total darkness- pray for me.”
Can you imagine the conflict that must of plagued this saint? Perhaps you can. Perhaps you have known it in yourself, insecurity coupled with faith, doubt partnered with hope. Yet, through the shadow of fear, Theresa pressed forward, and she and our God embarked upon a love affair that lasted for decades, whose fruits were greater than any could have imagined. We, like Theresa are God bearers, people who carry God into the world. The Greek word for this is Theotokis, which is also what we call Mary, the mother of Jesus. “God bearer.”
In the scriptures, God asks Mary to carry him in her womb, and she was afraid, yet she trusted him and gave birth to Jesus. God asked Joseph to raise him as a father would his own son, and though Joseph feared the scorn of his community, he raised the Son of God. And the Lord asked Theresa to serve him in his need and though overwhelmed by poverty, she did so and brought meaning and hope to countless people. This is the true miracle of the word becoming flesh: God is made known to the world through us, his theotokis, “God bearers”. God’s love, the love that was born in the world on a cold Galilee night, was delivered from the womb of Mary into the womb of the human hearts. God’s vulnerable love lives within you and, like a perpetual child, requires your constant tending if you are to enjoy its health and vibrancy, beauty and peace.
There is in each of you, a call not unlike those of Mary, Joseph and Theresa. The terms of the call may be different, but the nature of it is the same: you are called to bear Christ in the world. To be a vessel of God’s love as Mary was in her motherhood, as Joseph was in his fatherhood, as Theresa was in her servanthood. In response to the blessed weight of this message of your purpose, allow me to echo the words of our Lord’s angels when I say, “do not be afraid”. Do not be afraid to take in the full significance of what it means for Christ’s life to depend upon you. He knows your weaknesses, and he also knows your great potential. Do not be afraid that Christ lives in the poor, the thirsty, the hungry, waiting for you to meet him there. Do not be afraid to seek a life that satisfies God’s thirst, for love, for justice, for the faith of everyone you meet.
On Tuesday evening I found myself filled with both loving joy and fear. I was down on my knees, here on these very chancel steps, before our Bishop being pressed upon by dozens of priests in my ordination to the priesthood. It was an extraordinary honor and my heart is full. In my vows I promised before God and this community that as a priest I will be a means for God’s reconciling love to be made known. I vowed to build up the family of God, offering all my labors to God, patterning my life as an example to all people. While that evening’s service, extraordinary and beautiful, was the culmination of years of study, prayer and examination, it was also very frightening. Given the gravity of the priesthood I am surely afraid of failing God and you. While it was love that brought me to my knees, it is fear that brings me to understand the importance of my vows…Indeed, love and fear are not so far apart. And with a healthy dose of fear, I know there is no way I can succeed in maintaining my vows outside of the love which drew me to make them in the first place. The Lord who calls us to bear him in the world is the very Lord who will bless us with the ability to do so.
So, dear brothers and sisters, as you wait in the coming eve of our Lord’s birth, do not be afraid. He is coming so that love will conquer the darkness. And you are the very light by which he will work, transforming what is good into holiness, what is hoped for into blessings and love into eternal life. As our sister Theresa said “May you be the sunshine of his love to all people-and thus make your life something truly beautiful for God” God bless you, his theotokis, bearers of our God.