There are times when the church year and the secular calendar run smack into each other, and this is one of them. Who really thinks of today as the “Fourth Sunday of Advent?” It is, for most of us, really the fifth shopping day before Christmas, and one could argue that it is some compulsive weirdness that draws us out of comfortable beds to engage in the rather churchy fiction that we are celebrating the culmination of Advent. I say “perhaps” because even I, at my ironic best, do not quite believe that. I began my ministry as an “Advent fundamentalist”—no Christmas carols or presents or tree before December 25, thank you—and it is only after years of being worn down by our culture that I have finally ceased responding to premature cries of “Merry Christmas!” with the rather churlish and grumpy response, “Happy Advent.”

So I live squarely in the middle of the Advent-Christmas tension which this morning’s celebration represents. It isn’t Christmas yet, but it is. Nevertheless, we are poised at the end of a four-Sunday period of waiting for Christmas, and even now—when we all have very important things we should otherwise be doing—we have paused to see the Advent pilgrimage to its completion. What, if anything, can we learn this morning that will help us welcome the infant Jesus on Thursday night?

I think there is something we can learn, and I want to get at it by meditating with you on a phrase from today’s collect which leapt out at me when I began to think about preaching this morning. Our collect asks that God “purify our conscience” by God’s “daily visitation,” that God’s Son “Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.” “A mansion prepared”: Advent is a time of waiting, but also a time of building, of making something that is ready for some One to enter. What is a mansion, and what does it mean to be a mansion prepared? Those are the questions on my mind on this Fourth Sunday of Advent, and I invite you to join me for the next few minutes as I explore them.

The word “mansion” is a confusing one in this instance. When I hear “mansion” I think of a big, rather gaudy house-a residence for someone like Scarlet O’Hara, say, or U2’s The Edge. We think of a “mansion” as a large and stately residence, but its meaning in Early Modern English—the English of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and the Prayer Book—is more textured. Originally mansion meant any place where one stays or dwells-that could be a literal dwelling place—a house or a lodging or an apartment—or it could be a figurative dwelling place. Milton talked of the “mansions of Hell,” and William Tyndale translated Jesus’s description of the dwelling-places of heaven in the famous phrase, “In my father’s house are many mansions.” So a mansion is a place where one lives both literally and figuratively.

But it is more than that. The Oxford English Dictionary contains a long list of references to mansion used figuratively of the body enclosing the soul. “Our earthy mansion wherein we now dwell” is Tyndale’s apt phrase translating Paul’s Greek in 2 Corinthians. Our language embodies a long tradition of comparing the human person to a house. Our bodies are something we inhabit, and our identities are something we construct. So for our collect today to focus on “a mansion prepared” is to suggest, somehow, that we are all in the process of building a self, and that ourselves are only finished when they are, in some way, completed by the reception of the Christ child. This is all very figurative language, but I think it points us in the direction of the Advent journey, which is, simply, making ourselves ready to welcome Jesus. On the one hand, we are participants with God in making our identities; on the other hand, we are not finally who we are until God blesses and completes what we build in Christ. Jesus is therefore both our partner in the constructing and the image toward which we build. Jesus is both the One we welcome and the One we look forward to become. His birth is at once a past event, a present encounter, and a future hope. We aspire not only to recreate his historical incarnation but also to realize him as our truest and deepest selves. That is what being a “mansion prepared” is all about. But how on earth does one begin to prepare that mansion?

In order to think together about being the builders and preparers of our “earthy mansions” for Christ’s entry, we need to recall the words of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth in this morning’s Gospel [Luke 1:39-45]: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Mary was asked to undertake a difficult task: to give birth to a child out of wedlock, to nurture a baby who would grow to be not only a prophet but a savior. If we are to believe Matthew’s account of the same story, even Mary’s husband Joseph disbelieved her. One of the great features of the Christmas story is the way it shows both Mary and Joseph choosing to be heroic. Mary chooses to do something sacrificially difficult. Joseph chooses trust over fear. Before it is anything else at all, Christmas is a story about human solidarity. Mary and Joseph choose to stand with and for each other and their coming child. How many of us would do the same?

We often talk loosely about “the Christmas spirit,” but what we really mean by the spirit of Christmas is a spirit that puts the human community ahead of self—a spirit in which my selfhood is perfectly realized only as the good of the larger community is realized, too. A “Merry Christmas” is not something I celebrate in my gated house behind locked doors with my private family hunkered down around the Christmas tree. A “Merry Christmas” is a celebration of God’s inclusive and inviting love made known and real in the world. We build toward a “mansion prepared” when we realize that the house we are building of and for ourselves is an open house, a house without borders, an edifice which achieves its fullness only in relationship with others.

As we move ever steadily toward Christmas, the logic of Advent as it nears its completion asks that we be open and compassionate in the way Jesus’s parents were. You and I are often so worried about not looking stupid, about not being taken advantage of, about not letting anyone put something over on us. Neither I nor the Bible are arguing that anyone should be a credulous sap. The Bible is not a fairy tale, and we are not children. But the Bible is a book about the trustworthiness, the credibility, the reliability of God and God’s promises. That God and that God’s promises don’t always make sense to a world obsessed with looking smart is part of the point. But they do make sense in here because you and I are part of a community which has learned—through relationship, through ministry, through communion—that those trustworthy promises are the truest things there are. Like Mary and Joseph, you and I are called to step into a place where we choose to believe and act on the best we know and can hope for about ourselves, each other, and the world. Doing that—choosing to do that and letting others help us do it—is precisely what having the “Christmas spirit” is all about.

So here we are, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, hurtling toward Christmas. As we make our way through this Communion meal into the days of preparation ahead of us, let us pause and reflect on those mansions we are preparing for our meeting with both the baby Jesus and the risen Christ. You and I, with God, are building those dwellings in all the actions we do and choices we make. In those actions and choices, may we share in the spirit of Mary and her husband Joseph, who learned each in their own way to approach the world in a posture of openness, acceptance, and trust. We can neither prepare nor build our mansions on our own. But our openness and our willingness to trust God as the fulfiller of all our best hopes and dreams will allow us to let God come in and help us get ready for and celebrate God’s perpetual Christmas of love, joy, peace, and blessing. Amen.

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