Sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Zachary Guiliano
Nova! Nova! Ave fit ex Eva. These Latin words open a famous 15th-century carol setting of our Gospel reading today. It’s often been set to music in the past 100 years, but it brims and crackles with energy in the wonderful setting by Bob Chilcott. It is one of my favourite contemporary settings of medieval song because it manages to convey something of the excitement, wonder, joy, and energy that fill so many Christian hymns, poems, and sermons for Advent and Christmas. And here we are at the very end of Advent, celebrating the Annunciation to Mary; we are on the edge of Christmas; how could we not be filled with joy?
Nova! Nova! It means “New things! New Things! Ave has come from Eve.” Christians throughout the world with joy may sing, for we know God has done something wonderfully new in the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, in God’s coming-to-be-human for our sake and our sin. Our Gospel reading unveils this newness: a new kind of greeting (Greetings, favoured one! or Hail, full of grace!), heralding a new conception leading to a new birth. After centuries of ruinous wrack and woe inflicted on and worked by humanity, God acted, beginning a redemption that stops all things evil in their place.
New things! New things! In Christ, “the old [order] passes away; and behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17), says St Paul. God is “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
And yet Ave fit ex Eva. The Ave, the salutation to Mary, that perplexing greeting she found herself pondering in silence before the angel – it has come in total continuity with God’s plan and promises since the fall of humanity in our first parents, since evil arrived in the earliest days of human history, the evil with which there has been such struggle down the centuries.
God has worked his purpose out through long ages; “the mystery” of our redemption has not simply sprung from nowhere, but salvation has come to us slowly (but surely, by God’s grace) through the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, through Israel; it has come through the house of David, its secret character has been “made known to … [us] Gentiles through the prophetic writings” (Rom. 16:26); it has come through to Mary and thence to our Lord Jesus Christ.
In other words, what our privileged eyes saw and our ears heard in the Gospel reading of the Annunciation today was a miracle, surpassing human telling. It was not a miracle simply in the sense of being a supernatural event, but a wonder, a mystery, something whose every detail must be pondered and prayed over.
It was new; yet proceeded from the old. It surprised and startled the Virgin Mary; yet the miracle itself was so long expected, foreshadowed darkly in the writings of seers of old. And that wondrous event, that “great and mighty wonder,” worked for our salvation, contained characters caught in what seem like strained contradictions: Elizabeth, an aged barren mother; Mary, a young virgin mother; Gabriel, an exalted angel appearing secretly in a tiny backwater town to announce royal tidings in strangely mannered, prophetic verse to a young girl whom no one knew. The Cambridge poet Richard Crashaw tried to capture such peculiarities in his poem “In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord.” He says, there were
all Wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer in winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
And yet amid these odd, united juxtapositions, the miracle could not be more fitting. It made things fit. It took all of the diverse experiences of the human race, all the different tales and riddles and prophecies of Israel, and it brought them finally together, into the climax of one time and the dawn of another.
For example, let us consider one part of that great inheritance and history now fulfilled. One of the obvious themes in our readings today concerns David, perhaps the greatest of the kings of Israel. In our reading from 2 Samuel 7, we heard of David’s intention to build a house for the Lord. How could he be living in a palace, he reasoned, while the ark of God dwelt in a moveable tent? We can perhaps understand David’s thinking: it seems a little unfitting. Imagine if our Queen lived in her palaces, but worshiped, not in the Chapels Royal, but in a tiny hovel, bolted onto the side of a building, or in a caravan. It doesn’t seem right in our sense of things.
But then we hear God speak.
The word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: “Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’” (2 Sam 7:5-7)
The obvious answer to that divine question is No. God had commanded the construction of the tent David was questioning; but he had never commanded anyone to build him a fixed house or temple, to rival all the temples dedicated to the gods of Ancient Near Eastern or Mediterranean peoples.
God puts a halt to David’s architectural scheming. But then he turned the tables, as we heard in our reading. God promised something even more wonderful than David could either expect or imagine. Rather than David building God a house; the Lord would build David a house — a lineage, that is, and a kingdom which would be “made sure for ever” (2 Sam. 7:16). God promised David an eternal throne, provided his children remained faithful.
In the pages of the Old Testament, we can read about how this promise and the Davidic line’s fidelity (or infidelity) played out over the ages. The descendants of David quickly took th divine promise for granted. They came to see themselves as invincible, uniquely favoured among all the kings of the earth. The books of Kings and Chronicles record their reigns, and give us some hint of the real glory and, at times, the empty arrogance of the house of David. And there are whole psalms written and preserved in our Scriptures that have to do with God’s promises to David. They can read like royal propaganda, rather than prayers.
Among these psalms, one of the most remarkable is Psalm 89, which begins in praise of God’s mighty power, before shifting to a section in which the Psalmist speaks about the Davidic king in God’s own voice. It says,
I have set the crown on one who is mighty; I have exalted one chosen from the people. I have found my servant David, with my holy oil I have anointed him …
I will set his dominion on the sea, and his right hand on the rivers. He shall cry to me, “you are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.” I will make him my firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth…
Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness, I will not lie to David. His line shall continue for ever, and his throne endure before me like the sun. It shall be established for ever like the moon, an enduring witness in the skies. (Ps 89: 19-20, 25-27, 35-37)
This is exalted language to apply to human beings – almost blasphemous, really, if taken in the wrong sense. The Davidic kings were praised as having a universal dominion as longlasting as the heavens, having authority over nature, having God for their Father.
What these sons of God, sons of David forgot, however, is that the divine promises came with conditions: for example, that they follow the Mosaic law, preserve justice, protect the poor, and seek the good of the people of Israel above their own good. When they abandoned these conditions, the Lord did not abandon his promise to them, but he disciplined them as promised to them. Psalm 89 goes on to say in words weary with sorrow, or almost spitting with rage:
Now you have spurned and rejected David; you are full of wrath against your anointed, you have defiled his crown in the dust …you have taken the sceptre from his hand, and hurled his throne to the ground. …
How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? …
Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David? (vv. 38, 39b, 44, 46, 49)
The exaltation of the Davidic line came to an apparent end in 586 BC, in destruction and ashes, in exile and desolation and the occupation of the land. For nearly six centuries, the people waited for the return of a Davidic king.
This is but one thread in the vast tapestry of Israel’s history, one colour among many. And yet, by following this one thread, this one colour for a few minutes, perhaps we can see God’s work better; we can perceive more clearly what it means that:
In the six month the angel Gabriel was sent to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ (Luke 1:26-27)
That angel would go on to speak of the birth of one who would be great, who would truly be the Son of the Most High, God’s Only-Begotten Son. His divinity would be no fiction, not just propaganda or poetic language applied figuratively to a human line of kings. Christ in his coming would fill up the then empty words of Ps. 89: he would have authority over the rivers and the seas; God was his Father; and he brought in a universal kingdom that has no end, that breaks the tyranny of sin and death that has shadowed us since our first parents fell from glory, hurled by their own actions into dust, ashes, and exile.
Nova! Nova! Ave fit ex Eva. In the coming of Jesus Christ, God began his new creation in the midst of the old one. This birth of the new; and death of the old; this fulfilment of God’s great promises, given to Adam and Eve, to Abraham, to Israel, to David – all began again when a young girl heard an incredible, impossible message, and, despite her confusion and questions, she believed. She believed that God could do it; that no Word, no promise from him could fail. She staked her life on it, not knowing fully what would come. Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.
For all of us, over 2000 years later, this message of the Kingdom, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, can seem so very old, so familiar, and to some, even on Christmas Eve, so irrelevant. Yet its promise is still fresh this winter, dewy with its arrival, more like a damp spring morning promising the coming of summer.
For when we consider the God who would do such new things in the Annunciation to Mary and in the coming of Jesus Christ, we cannot help but wonder and be assured. This is a God who keeps his promises; think of those assurances to David, fulfilled in Jesus, after so many centuries. This is a God who rights all wrongs and heals all wounds, however ancient and settled, however deep the scar goes. This is a God who brings beautiful, marvellous good even out of evil, life out of death. And so this is a God we can trust, in whose word we can hope, whose Son Jesus we can even dare to love.
Whatever the personal difficulty we have faced, whatever evil we have borne or suffered, whatever exile, ruin or desolation, we know that God is faithful, that his promise stands strong, that he will act in the right time and in the right way. That is good news this morning and every morning. What God asks of us when we are faced with this good news, on Christmas Eve or any other day of any other month of any other year, is no more than he asked of Mary. He asks us for commitment, and faith, even when we are uncertain, when we have questions, when our vision of the future is cloudy.
How can this be? the Virgin said.
With God, all things are possible, the angel replied
And, in all her fear, confusion, and uncertainty, Mary responded: Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to your word.
And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.