Fourth Sunday of Advent

During the Christmas holidays, I'm forgetting the many challenges we will reportedly face in 2019. After all, our ancestors faced similar challenges and survived. Cicero, a Roman statesman, wrote in 55 BC: “The…budget must be balanced.” Modern-day national debt and market volatility would shock him. Socrates, a fifth century BC philosopher, attacked earlier generations for destroying forests and landscape. He would probably join the global warming movement.
Livy, a historian in the first century AD, objected to the moral rot and slipping standards in society. Yes, maybe it’s true there's nothing new under the sun.  Only the caste of characters change.

The Christmas season is a time for family, worship, friendship and celebration. Above all, it’s a time for gratitude to God for  his many blessings upon us.

The word of God takes us back to the eighth century before Jesus, to a prophet named Micah. Here Micah proclaims that God’s promised Messiah will be born in Bethlehem (where King David was born), and that this Messiah will guide his people securely and “he shall be peace.”
Micah invites us to remember that God always keeps his promises, and so too should we. My favorite quote from Micah is: “Do what is right and love goodness and walk humbly with your God.”

The letter to the Hebrews compares the Jerusalem Temple sacrifices to the death of Jesus on the cross. The author indicates Jesus’s sacrifice is far superior. Yes, Jesus, through his fidelity to his heavenly Father and through his self-giving, re-opened to us eternal life. The word invites us to be faithful to our baptismal promises and to live a God-centered, other-centered life in service to others.

Some of you may recognize the name Albert Schweitzer. As a theologian and musician, he made extraordinary contributions. Then he decided to become a medical doctor to serve in remote West Africa. Schweitzer established a hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon in 1913. He was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work .

Asked for his motto, Schweitzer’s answer to students was, “Service. Let this word accompany each of you throughout your life. Let it be before you as you seek your way and your duty in the world. May it be recalled to your minds if ever you are tempted to forget it or set it aside. [Service] will not always be a comfortable companion but it will always be a faithful one. And it will lead you to happiness, no matter what the experiences of your lives.”

Albert Schweitzer indeed lived a life of service, a God-centered, other-centered life; his philosophy of “reverence for life” extended to fellow human beings and to all beings. What's our motto.

In the Gospel according to Luke, we have Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. Both were pregnant—Mary with Jesus, Elizabeth with John. Elizabeth cried out, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” This became part of our Hail Mary prayer. The story emphasizes that Elizabeth – and her unborn child – recognized the presence of God in Mary, the living Ark of the Covenant.

Now three biblical personalities have dominated the Advent season: Isaiah foretells a messiah; John the Baptist prepares the way for the messiah; and Mary gives birth to the messiah, Christ.

Today I would like to reflect on the Virgin Mary.  The Christmas story really began with the annunciation. The power of God broke into the life of Mary at Nazareth, asking Mary to believe that she would bear in herself a special child. Mary was so attuned to the presence of God, such a woman of faith, she said simply: let it be done to me according to your word.

These words are easy to say when everything is going our way; but they are not so easy when what is happening to us is the opposite of what we want to happen. Perhaps something we wanted but now won’t have: a particular promotion. Perhaps a broken relationship, an unexpected life-threatening or chronic illness. Such turns in life can test our trust in God.

Mary’s “Yes” gave us the Christmas story: the world’s greatest love story. That story, as it has come down to us, tells of a baby in a trough. It tells of a mother holding her child in her arms as her husband Joseph stays near. It tells of angels singing in the sky; shepherds running over the hillside to tell the child how much they loved him. Yes, it tells of a star guiding magi over the wilderness and onto their knees to worship the child.

John the Evangelist summed up this greatest love story in a single line: “the Word became flesh.” Yes, John wrote: In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. Through him all things came to be and apart from him nothing came to be. He was the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. And “the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

Christmas means not simply God in Bethlehem centuries ago, but God within us. We bear within ourselves Emmanuel, God with us, by virtue of the waters of baptism.  Paul summed up this truth magnificently centuries ago: we are by grace what Jesus Christ is by nature: sons and daughters of God. That is God’s gift to us. Hence, we are called to live a life worthy of that status.

I close with a thought from a favorite little story by O’Henry: “The Gift of the Magi.” It’s about a young married couple, almost penniless. For Christmas, Della sells her hair to buy Jim a chain for his grandfather's watch. Jim sells his watch to buy Della a set of expensive combs for her hair. When they realize what they did, they laugh lovingly with one another.

O. Henry concludes with this quote: “…two foolish  people who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures they had: Della's hair and Jim's watch. But of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.”

May we this Christmas season, like the Magi, bring to the Christ-child our greatest gift: ourselves and our commitment to a life of deeper discipleship with Jesus who is our way, our truth and our life.

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