My last homily for Advent and it is a day late. This week I had a hard time making myself sit down and read the readings, let alone reflect on them. And I have only been doing this for two months. My respect for pastors who have done this for years, and give thoughtful sermons every week, grows each time I do this. Trying to make the Letter to the Hebrews fit with the other readings finally led me to the Eucharist and this week’s homily As always, I hope you find something in it and I welcome your feedback. Peace and all good and a blessed Christmas to all our readers.
Today, the fourth Sunday of Advent, the readings make a significant shift from the previous three weeks. The previous weeks’ readings focused on Advent as a time to remember the coming of Jesus in the Incarnation, a historical event, and also as a time to prepare for the the future coming of Jesus in glory at the end of time, when God’s creation is brought to fulfillment. But this week, with Christmas only a few days away, the readings shift their focus squarely onto the birth of Jesus and his mission in the world.
The first reading from the Prophet Micah shows us Jesus as the fulfillment of the hopes of God’s people Israel. Micah had foretold the destruction of the northern kingdom of Samaria, and he blamed it on their failure to keep the covenant: he railed against their rulers who “detest justice” and “build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with iniquity;” and in his eyes their priests and prophets are no better. But though the nation would be punished with conquest and exile, Micah promised them that a new king would arise and Israel would be restored. Though the people had turned from God, God, in his mercy, would not abandon them forever. And, unlike the faithless rulers of the past, the new king would “stand firm and shepherd his flock” in God’s ways. And unlike the old kingdom, the new kingdom would be for all people: it will “reach to the ends of the earth” and there will be peace. Not simply the absence of war, but true peace, embodied in the king.
Jesus, born in Bethlehem, is the fulfillment of this prophecy. The Gospel reading today sets the stage for his birth. In Luke’s gospel, Mary has just heard the promise of the angel Gabriel: “you will conceive and bear a son…the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David…and his reign will have no end.” This incredible promise is secured by a sign: her cousin Elizabeth, long thought barren, was six months pregnant. In response, Mary went “in haste” to visit Elizabeth. Why did she go? The simplest answer is that she wanted to confirm this incredible news for herself. She has accepted in her heart God’s will for her: she told the angel, “let it be done to me according to you your word.” But to allay her doubts, to really believe, she needed to see Elizabeth pregnant, touch her swollen belly. These simple physical signs would be concrete evidence for her of the greater mystery of God’s plan.
As we contemplate this visit between Mary and Elizabeth, I want to focus on the words of Elizabeth: “how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Prompted by the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth knows that this is not simply a visit by her young cousin. Rather, she is in the presence of royalty: the messianic king, promised to her people long before, has come into her home. But this is not a moment for fear but for joy. God has revealed his saving power, brought to her not in splendor and majesty, but hidden in the womb of a young girl. In this moment Mary has become Theotokos, the God bearer, bringing the promised king first to Elizabeth, and then into the world on Christmas day. Elizabeth is in wonder at this miracle, because she has done nothing to earn this gift: God in his mercy and love has freely given it to her.
In Luke’s gospel, Mary responds to Elizabeth’s greeting with the Magnificat, a hymn of joy that foretells the mission of her divine Son on the world: he will, in the end, raise up the lowly and cast down the proud. But he will not do this as an earthly king would, with force and violence. Rather, as the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, Jesus has come into the world to do the will of the Father: to offer himself for the salvation of all people. The joy of Christmas points forward to Easter, to the mystery of the Passion and to the greater glory of the Resurrection.
In these final days of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas and as we continue to prepare for the coming of the King in glory, may we find in this Eucharist the grace and the mercy to praise the Lord in all things. As we approach the altar at communion, let our prayer be taken from the words of Elizabeth: how does this happen to me, that the Lord himself some come to me? We are not worthy, but he comes to us. Like Jesus, hidden in the womb of Mary, the Lord now presents him to us, hidden in the signs of bread and wine. In this simple gift, may we find confirmation of the greater mystery of God’s love for us all.