FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Mic 5:1-4, Heb 10:5-10, Lk 1:39-44… Preparing for the Blessed Event: Obedience. Opening Our Lives for the Coming; Carolling; Opening the Way to God; Obedience and Surprise.
Mary’s beautiful charity is the antithesis of a story from the brothers Grimm. It tells us of a feeble old woman whose husband died and left her all alone. She went to live with her son and his wife and their little daughter. Every day the old woman’s sight dimmed and her hearing grew worse, and sometimes at dinner her hands trembled so badly the peas rolled off her spoon or the soup ran from her cup. The son and his wife were annoyed and one day, after she knocked over a glass of milk, they told each other enough was enough.
They set up a small table for her in the corner next to the broom closet and made the old woman eat her meals there. She sat all alone, looking with tear-ﬁlled eyes across the room at the others. Sometimes they spoke to her while they ate, but usually it was to scold her for dropping a bowl or a fork.
One evening just before dinner, their little daughter was busy playing on the ﬂoor with her building blocks, and her father asked her what She was making. “I’m building a little table for you and mother,” she smiled innocently, “so you can eat by yourselves in the corner someday when I get big.” Her parents sat staring at her for some time and they suddenly both began to cry. That night they led the old woman back to her place at the big table. From then on she ate with the rest of the family.
From Nazareth in Galilee, where Mary lived, to Ain Karem, about ﬁve miles west of Jerusalem, where Elizabeth lived, was about ninety miles, more than a tough four-day journey on foot. The roads and paths were full of landslides, rocks, cloudbursts, brooks without bridges, holes, snakes, scorpions, and robbers — and, of course, there were no hotels. Mary showed her unselﬁshness not only by quickly facing that trip with eagerness to be of help. She was also willing to stay in the background, loyal to God’s wishes, obediently accepting all the uncertainties without asking why.
When these two mothers—to—be visited (v. 40), two worlds met not worlds of space, but of time. Elizabeth, advanced in years, symbolized the approaching end of the Age of the Law and Prophets. Her son John the Baptist would herald the new age of salvation which Israel had long awaited and which Mary now represented. Their sons’ careers would be as collaborators, not competitors. In the Visitation, Promise greeted Fulfillment, and both Mary and Elizabeth responded to the Holy Spirit.
Though it was Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah’s house where they met, and Mary’s dignity was the greater, it was Mary who greeted Elizabeth. Her greeting was with all the warmth of a kinswoman’s affection as well as a deference to the aged that is so becoming for a young lady. When the angel Gabriel had come from God to Zechariah with the news of Elizabeth’s impending pregnancy, Zechariah had doubted, giving reasons why it would all be impossible. As a result, the angel had given Zechariah a sign — He would be mute untilgthe’eyents would take place. In contrast, at the same angel‘s Annunciation to Mary that she was to become the mother of Jesus, Mary had simply questioned “how” the birth of her child would take place. At the time, she wasn’t married. The “divine moment” happened at the instant when Mary proclaimed “1 am the maidservant of the Lord.”
‘Mary had uttered her consent, and arrived to visit the aged Elizabeth a picture of radiant joy. Under the special inspiration of God, the Holy Spirit spoke through Elizabeth, and she gave high praise to Mary. Her praises showed an easy familiarity with the Jewish sacred writings and echoed the praises given to Israel’s heroines of old.
Then Elizabeth gave voice to her awareness that the infant in her womb leaped for joy (v. 44). Later, when a woman in a crowd would be so overjoyed by Jesus’ words that she would cry out, “Blessed is the womb that carried you” (Lk 11:27), Jesus would reply, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it” (Lk 11:28). On that future occasion, Jesus was doing essentially what Elizabeth was doing now: praising Mary for her faith obedience. As St Augustine said of Mary, “It’s a greater thing for her that she was Christ’s disciple than that she was his mother.” Mary, the poor girl of little consequence, had in her prayerful heart truly heard God’s word and kept it. She was to be surprised by what God would do with her obedience. Elizabeth couldn’t resist the temptation to contrast this with her husband’s doubt.
A profound vision of Jesus’ destiny as a leader came from the prophet Micah, from whom today’s First Reading comes. He lived at the same time as Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea, and had the usual message of prophets: repent and turn to God from your disobedience.
Micah would have understood the connotations of “little town” in the words of the Christmas carol that sings, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. He came from a village about 25 miles south west of Jerusalem. Coming from “the sticks” to the “big city” of Jerusalem, he spoke out against the evils he saw with all the bluntness we attribute to “country bumpkins”, and he blamed the leaders, because they should have known what God wanted for His people.
In today’s passage, Micah asserts straightforwardly that any hope for the leadership of their people couldn’t come from sophisticated Jerusalem. The people there were too hardened, the kings there had often oppressed the people, and the current kings, Ahaz and Hezekiah, though descendants of King David, weren’t much. Whatever hope there was would have to come from elsewhere. Micah looked to the small town of Bethlehem, about five miles south of Jerusalem. He called it also Ephrathah (v. 1), because when the Jews had come from Egypt and conquered Canaan, Bethlehem had been settled by the Ephrathah clan of the tribe of Judah. The name Bethlehem itself means “house of bread”. Its important origins were from ancient times (v. I) — that is, from the ancient dynasty of Jesse and his son David.
Micah saw a ruler coming from this town who would be worthy of David. Just as David had been a shepherd, so too this coming leader: His leadership would be pastoral. But this man would be as unlike the descendants of David as David was. Unlike the weak, vacillating kings then ruling, this man would be firm; unlike their smallness, he would possess a greatness which the whole world would acknowledge. Again the Christmas carol sums it up:
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight!
In our joy-ﬁlled Advent preparations for Christmas, when we might overlook the why of Jesus’ appearance in human form, today’s passage from the letter to the Hebrews sets us straight. It’s been one of the constant preoccupations of humankind all over the world to take away sin. Under the former covenant — before Jesus — this was done by sacriﬁces: animals slaughtered in a precise ritual. Blood was considered to be the life of the animal, and sacrificing it a sign that the giver was willing to give his or her life to God. ‘
First Testament sacriﬁces were, however, only a pale copy of what true worship ought to be. In itself, sacriﬁce is a noble thing but, human beings being what they are, it’s easy for the practice of sacriﬁce to degenerate. Whereas sacriﬁce ought to be a token of love and a pledge of devotion, it’s understandable that some people think of it as a way of buying God’s forgiveness. Putting into the mouth of Jesus the words of a Psalm (4026—9), the letter to the Hebrews says that God no longer wants animal sacriﬁces. What He really wants is our obedience so that our sins can be forgiven and the way to Him opened up. As we look at Christmas as reﬂected in today’s liturgy, we have a sense of the past as well as the present. Sometimes that sense of the past can be merely nostalgic: over the meadows and through the woods to grandmother’s house, or dreaming of a white Christmas, or fantasizing about Christmas-card illustrations. A realistic sense of the past, though, includes an obedient response to God’s leadership in the present. Opposing obedience with prideful and slothful self-will sets up a barrier to our relationship with God.
The persons in today’s liturgy show that God often surprises the obedient with what He will do. If we follow their example, we can show our worthiness of God’s coming to us in Christ at Christmas by arising from our sloth and becoming, like Micah, Mary, and Elizabeth, each in our different ways as they were different in theirs, God—bearers in our world that needs God so much.