Sunday, December 20, 2009

4th Sunday of Advent

4th Sunday of Advent
C cycle

Reading 1. Micah 5: 1-4a
Reading II. Hebrews 10: 5-10
Gospel. Luke 1: 39-45 (Mary set out…).

Today is the last Sunday in Advent. Christmas is just around the corner. We can sense it in today’s first reading from the prophet Micah that sets the stage, so to speak, for the drama or play to come. The setting is Bethlehem, the little town outside of Jerusalem. We all know the lovely carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Here are Micah’s words:

You, Bethlehem—Ephrathah
Too small to be among the clans of Judah,
From you shall come forth for me
One who is to be ruler in Israel…

So, Bethlehem, the insignificant little town, will be the stage on which the drama is played.

Today’s gospel account of the Virgin Mary’s visit to her elder kinswoman, Elizabeth, does remind biblical commentators of a dramatic presentation, a sacred musical. One scholar calls the infancy account “a play consisting of two main parts…the annunciation scenes and the birth scenes.” The plural “scenes” is used because St. Luke’s account contrasts the story of the birth of John the Baptist with that of Jesus.

The first chapter of St. Luke’s gospel begins with the annunciation of John the Baptist, which by no coincidence was actually yesterday’s gospel account. It begins with the introduction of the first set of players. Elizabeth and her husband, the priest Zachary, are introduced and we are told that their marriage has not been blessed with children. After this introduction an angel appears to Zachary while he is offering sacrifice in the Temple. Zachary expresses anxiety and is told not to be afraid. The angel announces that his wife, Elizabeth, will indeed bear a son but Zachary responds with a doubtful question. “How shall I know this?” Seeing Zachary’s doubt, the angel then introduces himself as Gabriel and reprimands him. “Behold thou shalt be dumb.” From that point Zachary cannot speak and departs from the Temple sanctuary. Elizabeth does become pregnant and six months later the same angel appears to Mary, a Virgin.

The annunciation to Mary follows a similar pattern. This time the stage is Nazareth, a town of Galilee, where the players are Joseph and his fiancée, Mary. We are introduced to them and given a little background. Then, the angel appears to Mary and she too expresses anxiety. Gabriel tells her also not to fear and this time sees acceptance of God’s will and not doubt. It is true that Mary also asks a question, “How shall this happen, since I do not know man?” Gabriel explains that the Spirit of God will come upon her and tells her about Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Rather than being struck speechless, Mary responds with those famous words, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word.”

Then the angel leaves her and St. Luke tells us that the next thing Mary does is to go immediately to visit Elizabeth who is already six months pregnant. This famous meeting, which we call the Visitation, is described in today’s gospel.

What can we say about this scene, one of the most beautiful in the sacred drama? Once again St. Luke introduces the characters. Even though, like Bethlehem, they might be considered small and insignificant, the Spirit of God is upon them. Even their names are significant. Mary or Miriam means “the exalted one,” and Elizabeth means, “God swears or promises.” The greeting by Elizabeth is the basis of the “hail, Mary.”

Blessed art thou among women,
And Blessed is the fruit of thy womb!

Then, St. Luke brings John the Baptist onto the scene, still in his mother’s womb. Elizabeth notes that her unborn child “leapt for joy” at the approach of Mary and her Son.
It is interesting that whenever great painters portray John the Baptist, he is usually shown pointing to Jesus. Even when John is an infant he is directing the viewer’s attention to Jesus, reminding us to “Behold the Lamb of God.”

In a few days we will witness the climax of this sacred drama, the birth of our Lord. What is the moral of the story? What lesson can we learn? It is usually the second reading each Sunday that gives us such instruction. When we read the Letter to the Hebrews, we should recognize that it is not just directed to the Hebrews but to all of us. What do the following words mean?

When Christ came into the world, he said:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
in holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight.

The Letter is not just talking about ancient sacrificial practices. Maybe we should consider the gifts we give and receive each Christmas as modern day sacrifices and offerings. Don’t misunderstand. Who doesn’t love the giving and receiving of gifts at Christmas? But we should realize that even the smallest most insignificant gift is priceless if it expresses our love. Maybe little Charley Brown had it right:

Christmas time is here.
happiness and cheer,
fun for all that children
call their favorite time of year.

Snowflakes in the air,
carols everywhere,
olden times and ancient rhymes
and love and dreams to share.

Sleigh bells in the air,
beauty everywhere,
yuletide by the fireside
and joyful memories there.

Christmas time is here;
we'll be drawing near;
oh that we could always see
such spirit through the year,
such spirit through the year.

Merry Christmas.

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