4th. Sunday of Advent (C)
(Micah 5:1-4; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-44)
The time is at hand: soon Christmas will be here. In today's readings we are given some background to Israel's expectation of, and joy in, the promised Messiah; and through that may we perhaps glimpse something of the fullness of Christian joy that should be ours as we look forward expectantly towards the Christmas coming among and within us of our loving Saviour and, with humility and hope, towards the same Lord Jesus’ final coming in heavenly glory as the Judge of all creation and ultimate Vindicator of the sublime majesty and holiness of God His Father.
The prophet Micah (4:14 NABRE) foretold that, before the coming of the Messiah, there would be a time of sorrow:
Now grieve, O grieving daughter! They have laid siege against us! With the rod they strike on the cheek the ruler of Israel!
The horrors for a city under siege in those days could indeed be catastrophic: supplies of food and water being cut off first of all; then stores laid by running out; finally, rain and wells being insufficient to provide enough water for all those crowded into a city filled to overflowing with battle-weary troops and terrified country people from the surrounding villages who had all poured in for shelter from the invading host. So terrible could such a siege be that it might even result in the strong eating the weak, and mothers their infants!
Eventually, Micah foretold, Zion would be seized and their ultimate affliction would be the nations’ final disgrace, when, robbed of all its dignity and respect:
With the rod they strike on the cheek the ruler of Israel!
Israel's state of subjection and dependency would last long, because the Messiah was to come out of Bethlehem, not Jerusalem the city of Israel's great king, David. David had been taken from shepherding his father's flocks by Samuel in the name of God and anointed as king to shepherd God's chosen people. So too, as you heard, Micah foretold of the coming Messiah that:
He shall take His place as shepherd by the strength of the Lord;
but, he would not arise out of Jerusalem, Zion, the city of David, because Israel's ruler will have been humiliated -- "struck on the cheek with the rod" -- for so long that survivors of the house of David will no longer be found anywhere in the capital city, only a remnant remaining in the abject surroundings of Bethlehem:
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, least among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for Me One Who is to be Ruler in Israel.
Those long years after the terror of siege and conquest, those long, long, years of humiliation, were acknowledged to be the result of Israel's sin, and God's consequent hiding of His face from her had been foretold:
The Lord will give them up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne.
When, however, the expected Messiah came, He would indeed be a wonderful figure like David:
He shall take His place as shepherd by the strength of the Lord, by the majestic name of the Lord His God; and they shall dwell securely.
Indeed, He would be even greater than David, the prophet foretold:
For now His greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth: He shall be peace.
David's kingdom had been quite small; he had brought some worldly glory to his country, indeed, but he had not brought peace, for war had never been far from Israel's borders in David's days. Above all, however, the Messiah would be no mere human being; He would be far more than even a great and successful hero, because He would be, the prophet proclaimed:
One Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times.
In other words, Micah confirms what Isaiah also had foretold, the Messiah would be divine. Then indeed, in His days, Israel's humiliation would come to an end and her glory be revealed to all mankind.
Surely, therefore, you can imagine something of the joy, expectation, pride, and hope which the Messiah's birth held out to pious Israelites; and it is there you can find some idea of the true nature of the Christian longing as we draw close to Christmas, the birth of Jesus Our Lord!
However, to have a closer idea of the nature of our Christian expectancy this Advent season, we have to bear in mind what our Christian evangelists and prophets tell us about the Messiah in addition to what the Old Testament prophets had foreseen and foretold, and therefore we now turn our attention to today's second reading:
Therefore, when Christ came into the world, He said: "Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You prepared for Me. Holocausts and sin offerings You took no delight in.”
Jesus, our Saviour, was not, is not, coming to do everything the Jewish Messiah might have been expected to do, for most Jews would have envisaged the Messiah offering sacrifices in the Temple, and they certainly would have wanted and expected Him to lead their army to victory over their oppressors and enemies: ultimately, indeed, they longed for a return of the ‘glory days’ associated with King David. Jesus, however, was not coming with the express purpose of radically improving Israel’s political relationship with the nations, He was coming to renew Israel’s unique relationship with God: He was coming with that one purpose in mind, and with His own body to replace the traditional sacrifices and offerings.
Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You prepared for Me. Holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight in.”
He was coming, then, with a love for His Father, Israel’s God, that was divine, but in a body that was truly and fully human and, therefore, subject to the frailty and vulnerability of human nature:
Behold, I come – in the body You have prepared for Me -- to do Your will, O God.
And that vision of God’s will most certainly did not satisfy the popular hopes and aspirations of most Jews! How could a suffering, sacrificial, Messiah give them that hoped-for military triumph over, and revenge on, the Romans, which would lead to political sovereignty and independence, together with fondly-imagined prestige and prosperity?
Popular desires and expectations have never determined God’s providential counsels and plans; and certainly, the prophets and those who were most pious among the sons and daughters of Israel, such as Simeon, Anna, Elizabeth, and above all, Mary, desired simply and solely that the sin of Israel -- her disobedience and hardness of heart before God -- should be redeemed. It was that ever-growing corporate sinfulness which had brought on Israel all the suffering and shame she had had to endure for centuries; she had not lived worthily as God's Chosen People, she had been unfaithful to the covenant made with Yahweh in the desert; and that, dear Christian People of God, is a warning for us Catholics today. Far too many have long given but lip-service to the Faith they ostensibly professed.
In the Gospel we are told (Luke 7: 22-23) that Jesus, enumerating the blessings of His public ministry, said to John’s disciples:
The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at Me.
Great blessings indeed, some miracles, but what purpose did they serve in Jesus plan? Those latter words tell us, and at the same time they condemn too much of modern worship and service of God:
The poor have the good news proclaimed to them; and blessed is the one who takes no offense at Me.
Do our poor (in money/in devotion) have the Good News proclaimed to them, or are they only given what they want or like to hear? How many stand up for Jesus and His Church when He, His Gospel truth, and/or His holy ones, are not popular?
Of old, the faithful remnant of Israel looked for the coming Messiah to redeem Israel from the disgrace and poison of her own sinfulness, and today we need a similar attitude but with a yet purer scale of values to proclaim, aim for, defend, and achieve.
To that end, let us just listen to some of the most sublime expressions of faithful Israel’s joy at the prospect of the coming and longed-for Messiah, those which provide us with the truest and most authentic model for our Christian, Christmas, joy and hope:
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
That was the joy of John the Baptist; joy that One had come Who would indeed purge Israel of her sin, just as He had filled his own mother with the Holy Spirit; One Whose way he, John, would prepare by preaching repentance of sin:
He went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3)
Such too was the joy of Simeon who received the Infant in his arms from Mary:
Now, Master, You may let Your servant go in peace, according to Your word. For my eyes have seen Your salvation which You prepared in the sight of all peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for Your people Israel. (2:29-32)
And Simeon -- who knew the people he had long lived among -- recognized that the glory rejoicing his own heart would not prove to be a cause for popular joy in Jerusalem; indeed, worldly Israelites would reject it:
Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, "Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted.” (2:34)
This spiritual glory, this cleansing from sin, is what Mary celebrated when she proclaimed the holiness of God:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. For He has looked upon His handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is His name. (Luke 1:46-49)
Therefore, dear People of God, you who have been chosen in Christ, let us all look forward with joyful anticipation to Christmas, but let us look forward to what God offers for the world’s needs, not what human desires suggest nor what human fears might impose. Let us, indeed, rejoice when Christmas is come, but with a joy that delights in God-made-Man not in men-rejecting-God, in worshipful thanksgiving not in the baubles of this world. Moreover, let us not try to make our Christmas joy popular by stage-managing the presentation and modifying the content of God’s word to please modern expectations and prejudices, for that would be a betrayal of trust given us, a betrayal that constitutes one of the most insidiously powerful threats to our Church today, a betrayal that most resembles Judas Iscariot, who betrayed our Lord with a kiss.
In this holy season, therefore, our joy should -- first and foremost -- be simple and sincere; a joy which enables us to open our minds and hearts, to offer our very lives, to the One Who comes to do His Father's will; a joy that compels us to ask Him to teach us His ways and bless us with the power of His Spirit so that we too -- as His disciples -- may seek and delight to do the Father's will in all things. In that way may His Kingdom be more surely established in the world by being brought closer to our brothers and sisters around us in our own very modern Babylon or Bethlehem.