Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Fourth Sunday of Advent: Preparation and thanksgiving.

Though I rarely post the text of homilies I've given, since I haven't posted anything this month I decided to share the homily I delivered this morning at my home parish in Massachusetts during a brief visit to my family. The readings are those appointed for the fourth Sunday of Advent: Micah 5:1-4a, Hebrews 10:5-10, and Luke 1:39-45. I make no claims to particular eloquence or originality here; what I offer are a few simple and straightforward reflections rooted in my experience and that of other people I know.


Today we celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Advent. We're now reaching the end of our annual season of spiritual preparation for Christmas, a time when we are invited to reflect on who we are before God, and to ask ourselves what we need to do to welcome Christ into our lives and into our hearts on the feast of his Nativity. As the German Jesuit Alfred Delp once put it, the Season of Advent is "a time for rousing," a time when we are meant to be "shaken to the very depths" so as to once again "kindle the inner light which confirms the blessing and the promise of the Lord." The Church gives us this time as a way to prepare for Christmas, through prayer and penance and acts of charity. Christmas is now barely five days away, so this Sunday seems like a good time to ask ourselves: are we really ready for Christmas?

If we are honest with ourselves, we may have to admit that we are not ready for Christmas. Practically speaking, Christmas can catch us by surprise. In the last few weeks, I've heard a number of people express their amazement at how quickly the year has gone by – they can't believe that Christmas is almost here, because it’s a reminder that the year is almost over. Some have even said that it doesn't feel like Christmas to them – perhaps it's because the weather has been unseasonably mild, or maybe it's because the distraction of events around the world makes it more difficult to focus on what this season is really about. With the threat of terrorism and renewed conflict in the Middle East, economic insecurity at home, and a looming presidential election year, we may find our preparation for Christmas tinged with unease and uncertainty about the future.

The task of preparing our hearts for Christmas can easily get lost in the shuffle, not just because of events in the world but also because of the busyness we face at this time of year. For many of us, the weeks leading up to Christmas are a time when we find ourselves hurrying to get things done, or perhaps getting anxious about the things we have yet to do. Have I sent out my Christmas cards? Have I done my Christmas shopping? Have I decorated the house and put up the tree? How many people am I expecting for Christmas dinner, and what am I going to feed them? What sorts of things do I need to get done before Christmas arrives – projects at work or at school, perhaps, or other deadlines that I just have to meet before the holiday? The day is getting closer and closer, so what do I need to do next to prepare?

In the midst of all of the noise and the distractions that surround us at this time of year, I think we can take heart from the readings and prayers appointed for today's Mass. The first reading from the Prophet Micah reminds us of the wonders accomplished by God. Bethlehem was a small place – as Micah tells us, it was "too small to be among the clans of Judah," and yet "from [there] shall come forth . . . one who is to be ruler in Israel" (Mi 5:2). In spite of his humble origins, the one born in Bethlehem "shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the Lord . . . [and] his greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth" (Mi 5:4). The second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that the same child whose birth we are to celebrate this week was the Christ who came to do the will of the Father – and who also opened to us the way to salvation, for, as the author of Hebrews tells us, "we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Heb 10:10).

The first and second readings remind us of the joy that we are preparing to celebrate: at Christmas, we celebrate the great mystery of the Incarnation; we celebrate the fact that God chose to become one of us by becoming a human being and being born in humble circumstances, taking on the joys and the sufferings of the human condition, and then sacrificing himself for us as only God could do, lifting us up so that we can share in the divine life of him who came to share in our human life.

Today's Gospel points in a particular way to the joy of the Incarnation which we celebrate at Christmas. Luke tells us the story of Mary’s arrival at the home of her cousin Elizabeth, and we hear how the child in Elizabeth's womb leapt for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice, knowing that the Christ, the Savior soon to be born, was also drawing near. Elizabeth says to Mary, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb... For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled" (Lk 1:42, 44-45).

Elizabeth’s words can be instructive for us: Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled. How often do we give thanks to God for the fulfillment of his word to us? In other words, how often do we give thanks for the gifts that we have been given? In the midst of the busyness of these last days leading up to Christmas, can we take the time to thank God for all that we have been given, and for all that God continues to give us?

In the collect, the opening prayer of today's Mass, we asked that "we, to whom the Incarnation of the Lord was made known by the message of an Angel, may by his Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of the Resurrection." Can we give thanks for the gift of faith, for the gift of believing that God would come to us in the humblest way possible, as a little child, and that the same God would save us and open to us the way to eternal life?

In the closing prayer at the end of this Mass, we will ask God that, "as the feast day of our salvation draws ever nearer . . . we may press forward all the more eagerly to the worthy celebration of the mystery of your Son’s Nativity." What would it take for each of us to press forward more eagerly to celebrate Christmas? I think the first thing that each of us can do is to take some time, no matter how busy we are, to simply give thanks to God for the gifts that he has given us, and for the gift that we shall receive again this Christmas. An Orthodox theologian of the last century named Alexander Schmemann once said that "anyone who is capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy." May our thanksgiving help us to move closer to the goal we seek, the goal of eternal life with the one whom we await with joyful hope in these last days of Advent.


Peace and good wishes to all who read these lines. AMDG.


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