Fourth Sunday of Advent

This is a surprising choice for the Fourth Sunday in Advent.

December 19, 2010

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 1:1-7

This is a surprising choice for the Fourth Sunday in Advent.

Juxtaposed to the readings from Matthew and Isaiah, one may be tempted to simply ignore it and focus on the prophecy of a birth (Isaiah) and its fulfillment (Matthew). This would, however, also focus the attention of the gathered community on what they already expect. Advent is simply about getting ready for Christmas, a Christmas “count down.” And the expected Christmas, of course, is very culturally defined. But what if Advent is really preparing for us for the incarnation, God’s incarnation into human flesh, the infinite into the finite, God fully embodied? Then obviously Christmas is more than just a story about a birth in a manger… though it is also and always that story.

Reading Paul’s introductory words to the church in Rome along with the Matthew and Isaiah reading provides a perspective that changes both our understanding of those two texts and of Paul’s text. These opening verses of Paul’s letter to the Romans establishes the context, we might say, the plot of the whole story. Using what was probably a recognized formula, “traditional” already in his day, Paul greets the community of faith in Rome with a (perhaps liturgical) greeting that summarizes the faith. Christ is identified in these 2 short verses as the one who is both human (descended from David) and divine (declared Son of God). The resurrection is the ultimate declaration or seal. This resurrection is God’s work, “with power according to the spirit of holiness”. The Trinity is present and invoked.

With this greeting, Paul not only establishes his own credentials — that is, he shows himself familiar with the formula, he is an adherent, called and set apart as he describes it himself. But he frames, if you will, the plot of the entire letter. I would also argue that he frames not only the plot of this letter but, in the context of the Fourth Sunday of Advent (and the corollary readings), Paul provides the “scenery,” the space in which we are to understand both the Matthew and the Isaiah texts.

The child named Immanuel announced by Isaiah to Ahaz and the house of David; the child, “God-is-with-us,” foretold to Joseph in a dream is this child who is born in the flesh (real body), dies, and is resurrected from the dead. It is this child who calls Paul, sets him apart for the gospel in view of bringing the obedience of faith to all people. It is this child who also calls the Romans into the same plot: new birth, declared child of God, living in the obedience of faith, dying and rising in Christ. It is this child who calls every community of faith, who calls us today (“including yourselves” verse 6) into this same reality, this baptismal reality. We are all called to belong to Christ, which means not just wearing a nametag and our Sunday best but actually living out the same plot.

Martin Luther explained the same idea in a more vivid way than I have just done: the wood of the manger is also the wood of the cross. That for which we have been preparing ourselves through Advent is, yes, a birth, but a birth that will also be a death, and the transformation, the radical transfiguration of birth and death. We have been preparing ourselves for the cross, for the whole incarnation (and not just one moment), for the surprise of a God made body. Or as the Magi ask in T. S. Eliot’s poem Journey of the Magi, “This set down / This: were we led all that way for / Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, / We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, / But had thought they were different; this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.” (We must remember that historically Paul does not know a celebration of Christmas as we do today, Christmas having entered the Christian calendar only in the 4th century. The incarnation, the revelation of God in the flesh, in Jesus Christ, is the revelation of God to the world, light to all nations, epiphany.)

The birth in a manger, this incarnation of God in the flesh, creates a new time and space. The plot of life has changed. It is strangely not about success or happiness or security but about receiving grace and the obedience of faith, about being called to live this baptismal adventure.

The advent for which we have been preparing, the event of Christ, is not just for us, in the community of faith, but its trajectory is the whole human race. Paul’s apostleship is in view of the obedience of faith among all people. But, this apostleship would seem to belong to all the baptized. God inserts the baptized into a vast plan, God’s plan! The greeting (and our pericope) ends with the inclusion of all the beloved, all those who are called to be saints. This is not a designation we easily claim and yet, through baptism, it is the reality in which God holds us.

Our lives are marked, since baptism, by the Holy Spirit, the sanctifier, who directs us continually to our neighbor, to the other to live in harmony, everyone attentive to the needs of others (as we have witnessed in the three previous pericopes from the epistles). The plot in which we have been immersed and which makes of us “saints” is the obedience of faith, a plot that continually brings us into an encounter with God embodied.