Fourth Sunday of Advent – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

God sent the angel Gabriel to a town in Galilee named Nazareth. The angel had a message for a girl promised in marriage to a man named Joseph, who was a descendant of King David. The girl’s name was MaryLuke 1: 26-38

Mary remembered all these things and thought deeply about them.  Luke 2: 15-20

Several of the daily mass readings in this week leading up to Christmas have stressed the point that God’s ways are different from ours, so different that they are quite unexpected and certainly not in line with prevailing, cultural expectations.

In the second reading for this Fourth Sunday of Advent from the Letter to the Romans, Paul refers to proclaiming the good news of Jesus to the non-believers of this world, in order to “bring them to the obedience of faith”. In this context it’s important to remind ourselves that the root meaning of obedience is “to listen” (from Latin ob audire – to listen). People who listen openly and attentively to God’s Spirit present and active in the world discover that they are often being called to change direction in their lives. Growth, by definition, involves change. Moreover, the gospel-reading of today from Luke describes how God, speaking through the Angel Gabriel, called Mary to listen to something totally unexpected. Her assent to the angel’s God-sent invitation changed her life in ways that she could not have imagined. When we accept invitations from God, what follows is likely to take us in directions we had not anticipated.
The daily readings of this week leading up to the celebration of Christmas, the Birth of Jesus underline both the extraordinary ways in which God works and the processes which those who accept God’s invitations are required to follow in order to grow into the obedience of faith highlighted by Paul in Romans.

In the readings of this week leading up to Christmas, we hear of incredible pregnancies (for the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth), children born to elderly couples (Samuel born to Elkana & Hanna, Samson born to Manoah & “his barren wife’, John born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, and visitations from angels and holy strangers. Moreover, the people who were at the focus of the visitations were all people who prayed, listened, pondered/reflected and believed the messages they received verbally or in dreams. Even though Zechariah was pressured into taking time to reflect on Gabriel’s message, he uttered no word of resistance and did his pondering over the remainder of his wife’s pregnancy (Remember, Zechariah was a priest away in Jerusalem doing a scheduled tour of duty in the Temple).

After listening to all these readings, the only conclusion we can reach is that God’s ways really are very different from ours. That God chose a young, single woman with no social status, from an obscure little town in Galilee to be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah was so incredible that the Jewish people through more than twenty centuries have continued to wait for the Messiah.

The twin annunciation stories of the Angel Gabriel engaging with Zechariah and Mary highlight the reality that God can and does come into our lives at any time and place, and in any circumstance. Many of us seem to think that we have more of a chance of encountering God in “holy places” like cathedrals or churches, on pilgrimages, in shrines like those in Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe and Padua, than anywhere else. Yet Gabriel delivered God’s message to Mary in the very ordinary domestic circumstances of a humble village dwelling. That highlights the reality that we can experience God in the mundane circumstances of our daily lives. – at work, in the supermarket in the backyard garden or sweeping up fallen leaves, on the bus going to the office. That does not deny that we can also encounter God in shrines and on pilgrimages.

Come Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we are all invited to ponder the mystery and the enormity of God’s taking and embracing our humanity in the person of Jesus, God among us, and brother to every single one of us. Jesus experienced life and death, support and rejection, resistance and encouragement as we have or will. He experienced the whole range of emotions, desires and temptations as we do. However, he held firm to his integrity and, unlike us, did not sin.

Strangely, we seem to have little difficulty in accepting that this Jesus, our brother, was truly divine. We struggle with accepting that he was fully human. Little attention has seemingly been given to reflecting on his childhood and adolescence. The Gospel writers, understandably, wrote about and reflected on the years during which he was in the public eye. I wonder what Mary said to him when, as a toddler, he asked: “Mummy, where did I come from?” Did she, by any chance, say as my mother did to me: “The stork brought you and left you on the doorstep!” While perhaps telling him that he was special, it was clear that she did not let him grow up with a sense of superiority. And what, in his childhood and adolescence led him to develop an affinity with social outcasts?

I wonder, too, if any of the neighbourhood kids taunted him with throw-away comments like; “We know that your daddy is not your real daddy!” How might Mary and Joseph have helped him over obstacles like that?

We have in English the somewhat dated expression: “Keeping Christmas”. Though rarely heard these days, it refers to taking time to reflect on the meaning and significance of the one whose birthday we celebrate on the 25th of December. Christmas day is more than the celebration of an annual one-day, historical event. Once we understand the significance of the birth of Jesus among us, we will appreciate that it is a reality that has changed our lives and will continue to involve us in working to change the direction of our world.

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Best wishes to all the regular and not so regular readers of the weekly reflection for a blessed and peace-filled Christmas and a graced and rewarding year ahead.                                  Julian McDonald