Sunday, December 20, 2015

Year C Fourth Sunday of Advent

Readings: Micah 5:1-4a; Ps 80:2-3.15-16.18-19; Heb 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45

The prophecy contained in our first reading from the book of the prophet Micah is startling for its specificity. Micah not only foretold God installing a leader over Israel from the tribe of Judah, but he accurately prophesied where that leader would be born: in the historical territory of the tribe of Judah, in “the city of David that is called Bethlehem” (Luke 2:4).

Living in the late eighth and early seventh centuries before Christ, Micah likely experienced the Assyrian invasion of the Northern kingdom in BC 721 and the renewed threat Assyria posed to Judah, the Southern kingdom, twenty years later. In other words, Micah lived and prophesied in what were very dark times for the people of Israel. Nonetheless, even though it took nearly 700 years for the Ruler to be appear, Micah’s prophecy is one of hope, a prophesy about light overcoming the darkness, good conquering evil. Even now, we still await God’s ultimate triumph, when Christ the King will return to establish God’s everlasting reign.

From our Christian standpoint, it’s fair to say that the vast majority of history takes the form of an Advent. In other words, most of history is spent waiting for God to put the world to rights, to restore the order of grace, which restoration is communion. But as followers of Christ we are not called to simply wait for it – though there is an element of that too – the Lord calls on us to be actively engaged in establishing God’s kingdom.

God’s plan unfolds in and through history. The divine plan happens in space and time. The circumstances of our lives provide us opportunities each day to establish God’s kingdom. We often describe this tension between working and waiting as “living between the already and the not-yet.” Living between the already and the not-yet means recognizing that the reign of God has begun but is not yet complete. It’s a work in progress.

"the kingdom of God is among you"

Later in St Luke’s Gospel, when asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus “said in reply, The coming of the kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, “Look, here it is,” or, “There it is.” For behold, the kingdom of God is among you’” (Luke 17:20-21). What does this mean? Is it some esoteric teaching? By no means! Just a few days ago the Holy See announced that during this Jubilee of Mercy Mother Teresa will be canonized, that is, the Church will proclaim her a saint. It is the saints who show us the kingdom of God. This is why, in the words of Léon Bloy, “There is only one sorrow: not to be a saint.”

In addition to being the ruler foretold by Micah, Jesus, as we hear in our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, is not only a priest, but the great High Priest, who offered the one acceptable sacrifice to the Father: Himself on the Cross. Martin Luther observed, “There is not a word in the Bible which is extra cruem.” In other words, every word in the Bible points to the Cross. Applying this interpretive strategy to our Lord’s nativity, we can see that the wood of the manger would one day give way to the wood of the cross.

That the temple sacrifices were, indeed, a pale imitation of Christ’s sacrifice is noted by the author of Hebrews when he cited Psalm 40 to the effect, “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; holocausts and sin offering you took no delight in” (Heb 10:8; Ps 40:7-9). In order to have a body to sacrifice, our Lord had to become incarnate, which He did in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Because of this we can rejoice because “we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb 10:10). We are consecrated anew each time we participate in the Eucharist, which is what makes our participation not only important, but vital.

Our Gospel for today tells of the Blessed Virgin’s visit to her kinswoman Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. As Our Lady approached Elizabeth bearing her divine Son, in utero, the Baptist, himself not yet born, leapt in Elizabeth’s womb at His approach. Then, filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth proclaimed words very familiar words: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42). The fruit of the Virgin’s womb is Jesus.

Le Christ dans la nuit, Marc Chagall, 1948

In the last phrase of our first reading, the prophet Micah proclaimed that the ruler from Judah “shall be peace” (Micah 5:4). Christ is our peace. Through His Cross Christ reconciled us to God, to each other, and to the rest of creation, thus restoring us to communion. As those who have been consecrated through the Lord’s offering of Himself to the Father, we must be agents of reconciliation, that is, agents of mercy. This is what the Jubilee of Mercy is all about.

To extend mercy to others, we must first receive it. To give us His mercy, Christ established the Sacrament of Mercy. We don’t go to confession to find out whether or not God will forgive us. We’re always already forgiven in Christ. We go to confession to experience mercy for ourselves, firsthand. Extending mercy to others means forgiving; even forgiving those things we might think unforgiveable.

Only through mercy, the concrete manifestation of which is forgiveness, is peace made real, as opposed to remaining an abstract ideal. It is only through peace that God’s reign will be established. Peace is not achieved without a struggle. When I am wronged, it is difficult for me not react with hatred and condemnation. It is hard not to vindicate or justify myself by giving the person who wronged me what I deem s/he deserves. It is not only a challenge, but a provocation, to grasp the deep love Christ has for even the person who has harmed me most egregiously. As St Paul noted, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

Above all, what we need to grasp, my friends, especially this time of year, when our faith tends to become very sentimental, that what enables us move beyond our condemnatory and self-absorbed attitudes is not our own righteousness, but that helpless Baby who was born to save us.

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