Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Micah 5:1-4; Heb 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-44 (Year C)

“You, Bethlehem Ephratha, the least of the clans of Judah, out of you will be born for me the one who is to rule over Israel.”

As Christmas approaches, our thoughts turn to Bethlehem and the birth of our saviour. Bethlehem is, in itself, a worthy focus for prayer.

Throughout her long history Christ’s birthplace has lived in the shadow of Jerusalem, her powerful neighbour. She has suffered the bloodshed and disruption that so often attends the innocent bystanders drawn into the conflicts of powerful neighbours.

To this very day she remains isolated and often forgotten.

Let us rejoice that it was in this forgotten town that a diminutive shepherd, David son of Jesse, was anointed as Israel’s king, and that the promises made to him were brought to fulfilment in the birth of Christ.

Let us pray for the Bethlehem of our day, whose population, Christian and Muslim, continues to struggle alone in the shadow of mighty powers. It was into such poverty that the Son of God was born. Let us welcome him into the poverty of our hearts. Let us embrace him as the mercy that promises peace.

St Luke’s description of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth furnishes us with a perfect preparation, both for the Year of Mercy and for the celebration of Christmas. Mary, who had experienced the Father’s overwhelming mercy at the Annunciation in the grace that had chosen her to bear God’s only Son, was moved by that same mercy to reach out to her older cousin.

Their greetings rang out with wonder and joy. Mary exulted in the Lord who had looked upon her in her nothingness. Elizabeth exulted that she had been visited by the mother of her Lord.

A weary world has lost its appetite for joy, its senses dulled by the emptiness of false promises. Lasting joy comes from the mercy that runs to embrace us in our sinfulness, that promises forgiveness and a forgotten peace.

St Luke carefully noted that Elizabeth’s joy was unlocked by the Holy Spirit. “Now as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.”

May that same Holy Spirit awaken our hearts, filling us with the wonder of the Father’s mercy revealed on the face of a newborn child.

May we, with Mary, treasure this mercy in our hearts, and bring its peace to our broken world.