Saint Mary of the Angels homilies and reflections

Homily, December 23, 2012, 4th Sunday of Advent, Fr. Dick Clifford, SJ

ADVENT SUNDAY 4 C 12/20/12

Because the fourth Sunday of Advent occurs so close to Christmas, it’s difficult to for the hope in today’s readings to come to full expression. But at least we can ask: What have we learned as a community during the Advent season, now ending? And because Christmas is so close, we can also ask: What are we looking for in the Christmas season that is about to begin? I will try to give at least a partial answer to these two questions, in the light of Scripture and in the light of recent events in our community’s life.

In this year’s Advent season, the timing of the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday (“rejoice Sunday”) reminded us of the huge gap between our lived reality and the hopes we live by. For on the Friday before Rejoice Sunday there occurred the terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown that has weighed upon ever since. Though we were exhorted to “rejoice. The Lord is near,” we had to stop and make our own the words of the Psalmist in exile, “How could we possibly sing the Lord’s song on foreign soil?”

The psalmist caught the mismatch between real-life events and the “signs” and promises given in Scripture. But while last week’s events was an extreme example, mismatch between divine promise and actual event is not unusual. The “sign” is more often than not hidden and pushed to the side by real-life occurrences.

Take, for example, today’s first reading from the prophet Micah. It speaks of God’s promise of a king, a “son of David,” to save Israel, but the oracle deliberately uses low-key language in the promise. Instead of mentioning the grand city of Jerusalem, the prophet mentions Bethlehem, David’s tiny home town and the prophet goes out of his way to say that the son of David will come from the least of the clans, the clan of Judah.

Despite the all around lowliness, the claim is bold! The “un-king-like” king will save Israel. The prophecy was fulfilled, it seems, within a few years when King Hezekiah became God’s instrument–a king who relied not on armies, but on his patron alone, the Lord. Hezekiah’s trust was effective; Zion was rescued and became a showcase of God’s glory.


Such promises, such signs, however, do not expire. Batteries expire, drugs expire, but not God’s promises. They live on and retain their full power with no expiration date. We see how true this is when we look at the Gospel. With the virgin Mary, the promise of a Davidic king, of humble origin, the sign comes true again. It is reactivated. What a wondrous and strange fulfillment of a sign given to Israel almost a thousand years before! Who could have predicted it? A sign is a modest event that betoken a fuller display of God’s glory in the future. To be sure, there are many contrary signs of other dominating forces–wanton disregard for life--but it is only divinely given signs that live on to generate new life. And that is the birth of Christ.

I will now turn to the second question: What are we in this community looking for in the Christmas season, beginning in a couple of days? I will point out three things that strike me in the Gospel, and hope you will find they strike you also. The first is Mary’s journey to her kinswoman, Elizabeth. Mary is six-months pregnant and she stays with Elizabeth till her own child is due. These two births are world-shaking and life-changing, the Incarnation. But it is important for us to remember the events are about ordinary people like ourselves. Mary and Elizabeth have each received a great though scary gift. These gifts set them on new paths, and they have to learn from and encourage each other. “Christmas” sharing and learning began then and continues to this day.

The second point is that women exercise the leadership here. Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah (thought a good man) was somehow deficient in his response to the angel. No so his wife, Elizabeth. She gets it right about the role of John the Baptist and Jesus. And Mary’s “yes” was decisive for all of us. Women’s leadership at turning points is not so rare in the Bible. In the book of Exodus, when it Israel’s life was being snuffed out, it was the Hebrew midwives, Moses’ mother and sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter who brought about rescue. And later there was the tribal chieftain, Deborah, one of the twelve judges; her general Barack would not go to battle without her. And then there were the women who stayed with Jesus on the cross. And even today, women exercise a pivotal role, especially in times of crisis. (We wish there could be more channels for it and also recognition,)


And the last thing that strikes me is joy. Smile and laughter are all over the page. The Hebrew verb for “rejoice” often means the expression of joy as the feeling. Joy characterizes people when they are open to God and God is acting with them. It characterizes the accounts of Christmas in the Gospels and the ancient predictions that lead up to Christmas.

We therefore leave Advent with expectation, and enter Christmas with joy.

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