Homilies can very easily turn out to be not homilies at all. Often enough they are sermons instead: lectures on abortion or birth control or patriotism or war and peace, world hunger or countless other topics. There’s a place for such presentations, of course, but they are not homilies and they don’t belong as such in the Sunday Eucharist. For 2000 years the church has given a special and honored place to the Sacred Scriptures, both Jewish and Christian, and the job of homilists is to make them relevant to the people of their time and place. Often a difficult task, I assure you.
The homily can also degenerate into an academic exercise in which the scripture lessons are treated as they might be in a seminary or university theology class. That can be very interesting, at least for some folks, but again it’s not really a homily because its purpose is not primarily to link the congregation with the original spiritual message of the passage. Instead, the lecture attempts to explain it as a piece of historical literature.
Now, before I fall into the very trap I’m talking about, I’d better get to the point of what I hope will be a true homily!
I begin with the observation that, as we Christians look back over the scriptures from before the time of Jesus, we are inclined to make assumptions that really are not factually true. We glibly speak of all the prophecies that foretold the future coming of Jesus and naively assume that they were divinely inspired predictions of his birth and life and death, when actually they are not. It hardly occurs to us that Jews to this very day read the same scriptures and they don’t find Jesus in them. But because we have experienced Jesus, we look back at the ancient scriptures and conclude that they match the Jesus of our faith. If we put our faith aside for a moment, we readily see that the passage in question need not have anything at all to do with Jesus.
So, in today’s scripture selections we heard, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.”
We know now that that line, which dates back 700 years before Jesus’ birth, does not refer to Jesus. It is spoken to a king, assuring him that the future of his kingdom was secure because his wife was going to bear him a son. The word translated as “virgin” in the original means only a woman who has not as yet given birth and refers, obviously, to the king’s wife. But Christians have read into it the story of Jesus of Nazareth and his mother Mary as a way of emphasizing that his birth was no ordinary happening, but rather an event in which God played a dominant role, even in ancient times long before his birth.
What are we being alerted to in the sequence of today’s readings? If Isaiah’s words about a virgin birth are not a direct reference to Jesus and Mary, what are we left with?
We are left with all that really matters, namely, our present faith, our personal experience of “God with us,” which is the meaning of the name “Immanuel.” No matter what connections we can find with times long past, verifiable or not; no matter how we package our faith in order to pass it on to others; no matter how we express our faith in symbol and poetic license; it is our present union with Jesus through prayer and sacrament, in the ordinary happenings of our everyday lives and in the person of each other that constitutes our real faith.
The coming of Jesus, which we anticipate through these weeks of Advent, has far more to do with our becoming more aware of his presence in our lives now than with his birth so long ago.
So let us celebrate with both eagerness and gratitude!