The beginning of Advent finds us deep in the time when the Year of Grace and the Year of Faith overlap.
This will be so until Pentecost next year when the Year of Grace will come to an end.
The Year of Faith, however, will continue until the feast of Christ the King in late November next year. This, then, is a time of grace and faith.
In fact, grace and faith always overlap. Grace is God’s free gift to us – supremely in Jesus – and faith is the human being’s response to the gift.
God offers us the gift and then awaits our response.
The gift is not forced upon us: if it were, it would not be a gift.
God is a great respecter of human freedom and prefers to leave us free either to accept or reject the gift.
The act of faith is our free decision to accept God’s gift.
In the Bible, Abraham embodies the essence of religious faith, which is why he’s known to Jews, Christians and Muslims as “our father in faith”.
Abraham was a successful businessman who traded along what’s called the Fertile Crescent, running in a great loop from Southern Iraq (where Abraham’s hometown of Ur was located), up north through Syria and then down south along the coast of Lebanon and Israel, following what was called “the way of the sea”.
Abraham was a man who had almost everything, lacking only the two things he needed most – land and children of his own.
In his world, these were crucial because it was believed that people lived on beyond death in their patrimonial land and in their offspring.
Without land and offspring of his own, Abraham appears in the Bible as a human being in whose life death will have the last word.
He may be a man who has almost everything, but in the end he’s a man who has nothing.
But then, completely out of the blue, God erupts into Abraham’s life.
In Abraham’s world, there were many gods; but this God doesn’t introduce himself or give his name.
He says simply and imperiously, “Go!” (Genesis 12:1).
God asks Abraham to leave everything that’s familiar to him and set out on a different journey, in the course of which – according to this out-of-the-blue God – he’ll be given the two things he lacks, a land of his own and a son of his own.
Now Abraham was a hard-nosed businessman, used to considering his options and weighing up the pros and cons.
He wasn’t about to write a blank cheque for this God or rush too quickly into a deal which seemed impossible.
The problem with the promise of land was that all the land in the area was already taken; and the problem with a son was that his wife, Sarah, was barren.
God promises what seems impossible.
If Abraham is to say yes to what’s on offer, he’ll have to expand his sense of what is possible.
He’ll need a much larger horizon.
Another problem for Abraham is that God speaks of “the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1); but he doesn’t provide a road-map, however much Abraham as a practical man might have wanted one.
Abraham can’t know where exactly God is leading him.
Therefore, he’ll have to keep his eye and ear on God, since only God knows where the journey is leading; and that won’t be easy for a man used to being in control.
Abraham eventually agrees to this strange deal with God. He agrees to go.
But he doesn’t travel quite as light as God had asked.
He doesn’t leave everything; he’s too canny for that.
He’s told to leave his extended family, but that doesn’t happen: his nephew Lot travels with him from Haran.
Abraham travels heavy: he takes “all the possessions which they had gathered and the persons they had acquired in Haran” (Genesis 12:5).
Abraham has his wife, his employees and all his possessions, as well as his nephew Lot and his family.
He’s not prepared to put all his eggs in one basket.
He needs a safety net in an often dangerous world. So Abraham decides to travel heavy in hope of the impossible.
He heads south into the land of Canaan. But then he strikes a snag.
There’s famine in the land, nothing to eat.
Abraham starts to think that this out-of-the-blue God has led him into a trap. So, like any good businessman, he decides to take charge.
He decides to go down to Egypt, where you could always find a job and a feed. He’s worried about his wife Sarah who may be barren but is also beautiful.
He fears the Egyptians will kill him and take Sarah because she is so comely.
So Abraham urges her to say that she’s his sister, so that the Egyptians, whatever they may do to Sarah, will treat Abraham well because of her.
He decides to use Sarah for his own advantage; he’s more worried about himself than about her.
For a while, the plan works brilliantly.
Pharaoh, who has taken Sarah into his harem, plies Abraham with gifts because of her. But then, after a dose of divine punishment, Pharaoh discovers the awful truth.
He angrily sends Sarah back to Abraham and sends him packing from Egypt – back on to the strange path traced by God rather than by Abraham himself. Even the supposedly divine Pharaoh can serve God’s plan.
Abraham also finds God unacceptably slow in providing the promised son. So again he decides to take control.
He decides to have a child by the unquestionably fertile slave Hagar.
Again the tactic seems to work brilliantly.
Right on cue, Hagar has a son, Ishmael, and Abraham seems finally to have his heir. But things again turn sour.
Strife erupts between Hagar and Sarah – to the point where Sarah insists that Hagar and her son be expelled from their midst.
Reluctantly, Abraham agrees. Off into the wilderness go Hagar and her son.
Quite apart from her sterility, Sarah has had other problems.
When she overhears the promise of the angel to Abraham that she will have a son within a year, she thinks it’s a great joke and laughs audibly from behind the flap of the tent where she’d been listening.
When challenged by the angel, Sarah denies that she laughed; but the angel remains unconvinced and tells her so.
Sarah finds the whole thing as hard to believe as did her husband.
Yet a year later the promised son is in her arms, and Sarah names him Isaac, a name which means “laughter”.
The laughter of cynicism turns to the laughter of joy as God honours his promise against all the odds.
This brief rehearsal of the biblical story tells us more of what we mean by grace and faith.
The gift of God always comes out of the blue, as it did to the man who would eventually be known as “the friend of God”.
The promise it contains always seems impossible. It always asks that we let go and lose control, because when we take control, things go wrong.
The promise is the gift of a God who never leaves us where and as we are, a dislocating God who asks us always to move from one location to another, not so much physically as spiritually.
The real God is also tenacious, leading us back to his strange path at times when we take control because we’ve lost our nerve.
God’s promise always leaves us free to say yes or no.
It’s also the promise of a patient God who gives us time to move step by step, with all our frailty, to the point of finally letting go, as God’s promise requires and as faith presumes.
God is also the one who always promises a life that is bigger than death.
For Abraham, that fullness of life was symbolised by a land and a son.
For us, the promise is fulfilled only when Jesus becomes the firstborn from the dead.
The figure of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, looms over these Advent days.
Like Abraham, she receives a promise which seems impossible.
She too has to leap into the unknown in a way that claims her body, heart, mind and soul as true faith always does.
Hers is a total response to a total love – a love that claims all and requires a response that claims no less.
She says yes to the divine invitation conveyed by Gabriel.
Yet as the story then unfolds Mary faces many moments in which God’s promise seems either not to be fulfilled or to be impenetrably strange in its fulfilment.
Mary has to keep saying yes, “fiat”, even when she stands beneath the cross in the darkness of Calvary.
That’s why, as first among the children of Abraham, she can join her son finally in the joy of Easter.
Through these Advent days, we journey like Abraham, our father in faith, and Mary, our mother in faith, saying as we go, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!”
We look to the Lord’s birth; we look to his death, to his resurrection, and to his return in glory when, beyond all the tears of this world, the children of Abraham will finally join Sarah and Abraham, Mary and all the friends of God, in the wise and joyful laughter of the Risen Lord in whom all God’s promises are fulfilled.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge
December 2, 2012