Fourth Sunday of Advent
(The Fourth Sunday of Advent also is Christmas Eve. Sister Mary McGlone offers a reflection on the Nativity of the Lord. The readings below are for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.)
Reflection: The obedience of faith
By SISTER MARY McGLONE
In this last part week of Advent and Christmas, we are reminded that God’s time is different from ours — and that God’s thoughts are bigger than our imagination.
In the first reading, David wishes to formalize worship, to build a place of encounter with God. God replies that it is not a house, but a kingdom, a people united, that will show forth God’s glory. Yes, Solomon will build a temple — but it is one that is destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed. What God was really building up in this people was a way to dwell among them, to bring them into what Jesus would describe as the kingdom of God.
The closing words of Pauls’ letter to the Romans explain that the mystery of Christ has been revealed to bring the entire world to the obedience of faith. Obedience is a word for listening- so carefully, so attentively, so openly- that the listeners are prepared to be changed by what they hear. Getting people to listen is ultimately the only way to bring about change. Paul believed that the mystery of Christ was so exciting and life-giving that it would bring people to obedience — if only they would listen to it with their heart.
Only God would dream up a plan to save the world by starting with young Mary of Nazareth. Only God would keep turning to us, hoping for obedience.
The angel said to Mary, “The Lord is with you.” The angel also said, “Do not be afraid.” The message that God is with us can be very troubling. If we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to God’s presence, everything can change and that’s not always comforting.
The message we are invited to ponder today during these few final few days of Advent, is that the Creator of the universe wants to be with us. When we are invited to ponder all that could be, the angel reminds us “nothing will be impossible for God.” The mystery of Christmas that we celebrate with lights and crèche scenes, gifts and shared food, is not just a historical commemoration. Luke wants us to listen for Gabriel’s wings approaching our town. The angels will tell us, “Do not be afraid.” Heaven is hoping we will respond with the obedience of faith.
Seeing Santas at every corner and checkout counter, Christmas trees adorning every public place, lights blinking and “Joy to the World” blaring from all directions, we tend to forget the historical contexts of the Scriptures that situate the prophecies and birth stories of the Savior.
Isaiah aptly portrayed his own and Jesus’ times by describing people walking in darkness and dwelling in a land of gloom, people who suffered under the rod of an overseer: treated like yoked oxen, valued for their labor and taxes, people whose personhood had ceased to matter. There was little of prosperity or joy stirring while Mary and Joseph trudged along for the 90 miles that separated Nazareth from Bethlehem.
The census that put them on the road, whether historically verifiable or not, symbolized the people’s subjugation to a pagan empire. (Israel had been taught that a census of her own was sacrilegious because it demonstrated that the king would rely on his brute power — armies and taxes — rather than God’s providence.)
In Luke’s infancy narrative, which includes the Annunciation and Visitation, the journey to Bethlehem and lack of room at the inn are the story version of the poetic prologue of John’s Gospel, which speaks of the eternal Word becoming flesh and being rejected by his own.
It seems that every epoch, every century of human history, must lament its share of what Isaiah described as boots that trample in battle and cloaks soaked with blood. But those are not nice to think about.
At this time of year, we would prefer that TV show us less of the wars and more of Macy’s Parade. Nevertheless, we’ll miss the evangelical message of Christmas if we allow ourselves to sleep in heavenly peace, satiated by Hallmark.
Jesus was born in desperate circumstances. His parents, like the 100 million people forced to be on the move today, had no insurance policies, no AAA roadside help and no credit cards to buy their way in somewhere. With no insulation from ever-present difficulties and danger, they were dependent, hopeful for the kindness of strangers.
In this, Mary and Joseph were icons of God and the child they were about to receive into the world. The Creator did not exercise power and might but set the universe on a course of evolution in which divine love would one day take on flesh and need to rely on the goodwill of people with generous, open hearts.
We must remember that God did not do this to shame the comfortable, but to bring joy to the needy. In Luke’s version of the story, neither religious leaders nor the wealthy represented by the Magi noticed the signs of their times.
Who did notice?
The shepherds, people of shady reputation, unwashed and unable to observe religious laws — they took the angels’ message to heart. These were the ones who, in spite of their fear, left their 99 (more or less) and hastened to Bethlehem to see “what the Lord has made known to us.” Then the shepherds became the first evangelists, “glorifying God and making known the message.”
For Christians, the Incarnation is the high point of creation. All of the universe exists from God; God is present somehow in everything as a result of divine love. Now we can understand the Incarnation as the essence, the most concrete expression of the revelation of divine love and our clearest image of what God is like. And with this, the story gets more challenging.
When angels appeared to shepherds they said, “You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes.”
This very ordinary scene turns out to be a scandalous theophany; God’s greatest self-revelation is of divinity in diapers. Traditional Byzantine icons of the Nativity depict this by showing the swaddled infant in a manger that could also represent a coffin, his wrapping cloths like those used in burial.
In theologian St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s words, the Incarnation “enacts the kind of divine love that … enters empathetically into [human] experience, self-identifying with the glory and agony of human life from within, befriending even the godless and the godforsaken.”
The evangelical message of Christmas is just that. God longs to be with us, God loves us profoundly and respectfully enough to share our mortal life. From such love, God has become vulnerable to us, never imposing but inviting us into a union possible only when God enters into human life.
The babe wrapped in swaddling clothes is a sign that God exercises power as faithful, loving committed accompaniment in vulnerability. And all of this, to invite us to become like the God who dwells among us, seeking to find a home in us.
(2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16)
When King David was settled in his palace,
and the LORD had given him rest from his enemies on every side,
he said to Nathan the prophet,
“Here I am living in a house of cedar,
while the ark of God dwells in a tent!”
Nathan answered the king,
“Go, do whatever you have in mind,
for the LORD is with you.”
But that night the LORD spoke to Nathan and said:
“Go, tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD:
Should you build me a house to dwell in?’
“It was I who took you from the pasture
and from the care of the flock
to be commander of my people Israel.
I have been with you wherever you went,
and I have destroyed all your enemies before you.
And I will make you famous like the great ones of the earth.
I will fix a place for my people Israel;
I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place
without further disturbance.
Neither shall the wicked continue to afflict them as they did of old,
since the time I first appointed judges over my people Israel.
I will give you rest from all your enemies.
The LORD also reveals to you
that he will establish a house for you.
And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors,
I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins,
and I will make his kingdom firm.
I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever.”
(Psalms 89:2-3, 4-5, 27, 29)
Brothers and sisters:
To him who can strengthen you,
according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ,
according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages
but now manifested through the prophetic writings and,
according to the command of the eternal God,
made known to all nations to bring about the obedience of faith,
to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ
be glory forever and ever. Amen.
The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.