Purify Our Conscience

By The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on the Collect for Advent 4 and Luke 1:39-55.

“Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.”

Not too many years ago, I had to make a difficult decision.

Part of what made that decision difficult was that there was no one clear best option. All the choices open to me carried some risk, some chance of bad consequences – but they also all had some possibility of doing good. It wasn’t like it was a choice between good and bad, but a choice between several so-so’s.

And I thought about it, I tried to analyze it, I tried to weigh all the pros and cons, and do the moral calculus of what would be the greatest good for the greatest number. And I prayed about it, asking God to guide me and enlighten my choice and help me understand what would be the most Christlike thing to do. But I was stuck. I couldn’t figure it out. I was afraid of making the wrong choice. I didn’t know what to do.

Then one day I went out for a bike ride. That’s usually a good stress reliever for me. And this was a particularly good ride: I climbed some hills, and cruised some descents, and got into the zone: you know, that state where the body is doing what it does, and you feel clear and alert and attentive, and your mind isn’t full of chatter, and your heart isn’t full of anxiety, and you are just there. Oh yeah, I was in that zone.

And then suddenly I knew what my decision had to be. I wasn’t thinking about it. I didn’t figure it out. It just suddenly came to me: in a moment of clarity I knew what I had to do. I even knew how I had to do it. All that thinking that had been revolving in my mind, and all that praying that was deep in my soul, just kind of came into focus there in the zone. In a moment when body and mind and spirit all lined up, my insight was cleared, and I knew the truth.

And I think that moment was for me the thing we are praying about in our Collect today. “Purify our conscience,” we ask of God – and I think we are asking for more than we know.

You see, the word “conscience” used to mean more than it does now. Nowadays we use “conscience” to mean a sense of right and wrong, that thing inside us than makes us feel guilty when we know we’ve been bad. But in older times – like the time this collect was first written – the word “conscience” meant more than that.

There is a wonderful medieval treatise on conscience, where the monks translated the Latin word into the Middle English as “inwit” – not “dimwit,” but “inwit.” They thought of conscience or inwit as the kind of knowledge that comes from within. It isn’t knowledge that you arrive at by analysis or calculation or working out abstract external facts; but it is the active knowing that comes from intuition, from intimate experience of being in relationship with what you know. Conscience is deep knowing that comes from connection.

And to “purify” that kind of deep, connected knowing is to cleanse it, to clear away from it the kinds of projections or anxieties or distractions or fears that would prevent you from knowing what is really there. When I was trying to make my decision, anxieties over what could go wrong and fear of making a bad choice really obscured my vision of what to do. But to purify the conscience is to gain a clarity of insight.

And I think that purified conscience, that clarified insight, is exactly what Elizabeth shows in our Gospel this morning, when she hears Mary’s greeting and knows instantly Mary’s truth. Elizabeth is carrying the child that will one day grow up to be John the Baptist, the prophet of the Most High. And Mary is carrying the child that will be Jesus, who will be called the Son of the Most High. They are both carrying the presence of God. But of course neither one knows that about the other. As far as they know, they are just two women helping each other out in their expectancy, two women helping each other out in their fear.

Because both of them are afraid. Elizabeth is pregnant in her old age; and even though she regards this child as a blessing, she also knows how her neighbors will talk, and how the very unusualness of the pregnancy will make her the target of gossip; so she has been living in seclusion for the last six months. And Mary is pregnant before she’s gotten married; and though she knows this child is a blessing, she also knows how her neighbors will gossip, and how gossip might turn to accusation, and how an accusation of adultery could lead to her being stoned. Mary is at risk of her life – so she gets out of town, she goes to stay with Elizabeth, because she is afraid.

But when Elizabeth hears the sound of Mary’s greeting, the child within her leaps for joy – and in a moment when body, mind, and spirit all line up, Elizabeth knows the truth – her insight is cleared, her conscience is purified, and she knows that she and Mary are filled with God and blessed by God and held by God and they do not need to be afraid. “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,” Elizabeth says; and her blessing echoes out of this story to bless all of us who believe, who know from within, that God’s love can be fulfilled in us.

Elizabeth is a kind of example for us of how body, mind, and spirit can all line up to give us insight, to purify our conscience, so that we can know the presence of Christ with us, and we can be freed from fear.

And I think we need that prayer to purify our conscience now more than we have in a long, long time. Because I think there is a lot of fear going around today. Whether it’s travellers afraid of terrorist attacks over the holidays, or local citizens afraid of “lone-wolf” acts of terror at random times and places, or parents afraid of calligraphy and indoctrination at school – there seems to be a lot of fear going around. And I think we need to purify our conscience and clarify our insight so we can not be afraid.

And I’ve been thinking lately how much fear is a product of the mind. Fear grows when we think of all the ways things could go wrong, when we imagine all the ways we could be hurt. And one of the best ways to calm the fearful mind is to center it in the body. When my children were small, and they were afraid from a nightmare or a bully or an accident, one of the best ways I could help them not be afraid was to hold them, just give them a hug, let them feel something solid and real that would break the mind-loop and let them focus on what was real. And that’s not just for children: when I was afraid of making a bad decision, the bodily experience of my bicycle ride helped clear my insight. In church we have sacraments, bodily expressions of our prayers, so we can center and focus and clarify our insight. Fear is broken when we have moments when body, mind, and spirit all line up together, and we purify our conscience, and we know the truth of Christ.

What ways do you have to bring your body, mind, and spirit into line, to help purify your conscience, to know the truth, to be set free from fear? You may not have a child leap in your womb; you may not see things clearly from the saddle of a bicycle; but you have your ways of centering your mind in your body and opening your spirit to know the presence of Christ. You may not know you have them, but you do. And finding your way to center yourself and purify your conscience is a central part of your prayer and your mission in Christ.

In a few days we will celebrate Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity, our remembrance how the Word of God lined up body, mind, and spirit in Jesus to be God-With-Us, Emmanuel. We will celebrate how God’s presence with us in Jesus opens the way for us to be present to God in all the things we do, all the places we go, all the ways we can be freed from fear. Let it be our prayer today, as we prepare for Christmas, that God will purify our conscience, clarify our insight, and let us know the truth of Christ. Amen.

Comments

  1. Jewels Wold says:

    Thank you so much for a wonderful sermon. I enjoyed reading it. It will serve as food for thought as I prepare for Christmas.

  2. Kelley Collis says:

    This sermon has been a true comfort and blessing to me, as I have read it several times. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for your insight on how to tie in the reality that our fears are products of the mind and how we must clarify ( or purify) any decisions or learn how to center ourselves to have one’s mind, body and spirit are lined up together. The thought that conscience is where we make decisions that works from inside out/ from the inner belief (spirit) that something is right in how we evaluate whether it is to think about it before or think about it after knowing what the consequences will be, can be and accept the reality of them….not a fear that is imagined and may not be a true. to purify your conscience is not to make a decision based on a negative experience that happened years ago . A young child almost drown rescued from the water suffocating and coughing and vowed to thereafter never go in the waters again. Much like the proverb about the cat that sits on a hot stove will never sit on it again cold or hot. Either way we worry about the rights and wrongs. We know that God through his son Jesus can help us to clean up, by purifying all falsehoods, by removing negative experiences that cause us to think wrongly, misjudging how things will turn out better or worse than we plan by ignoring the truths of a situation, blaming people of wrong when they have done nothing wrong.
    Too much distraction in allowed to creep in our conscience – such as being distracted by the talks of others on the way things can go wrong rather that the ways can go right. Repeating how a similar problem or even an opportunity turned out even though in a few ways that are different or in many ways they are the same.

    We must have an antidote for every poision. A proverb for every decision. A prayer for every blessing. One of the best ways to purify our conscience is to look at how we treat people or judge things is a narrow way. We should remember what Jesus said on his sermon on the mountain about letting a particle of dust become like a log in one’s eye blocking out how one see themselves or others.