The readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent centre our reflections on the dispositions of those key figures whose faith prepared the way for Christ’s birth at Bethlehem. We are invited to be with Elizabeth and Mary as they rejoice in the wonder of God’s grace unfolding in their lives. With them, we are encouraged to look beyond ourselves, to believe that the same Lord comes to us with a longing to dwell in our hearts.
The Prophet Micah, exalting the Bethlehem that was to become Christ’s birthplace, gives a subtle indication of the manner of Christ’s coming, thereby indicating the dispositions that would welcome his birth. “You, Bethlehem Ephrata, the least of the clans of Judah, out of you will be born for me the one who is to rule over Israel.”
Bethlehem was, and remains to this day, a town that lives in the shadow of all that the world would consider powerful or prestigious. Long ago, David, an unlikely shepherd boy who would be anointed as King, had been born into the obscurity of this town. Israel’s God, through the promise made to David, had assured his people that he would be with them. That promise, seemingly overwhelmed by the occupation of the land, would find its fulfilment in Bethlehem’s humble endurance. Christ, the descendant of the shepherd King would “stand and feed his flock with the power of the Lord. He himself will be peace.”
God’s promise to David, from the very beginning, had grown from humble origins. If we are
to welcome the fulfilment of that promise in Christ’s continuing presence we can do so only with the humility that rejoices in God’s presence. Such was the humility that permeated the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary at the Visitation. Mary did not hesitate to set out on a journey that would bring her closer to Elizabeth and the wonder of God’s grace. During these last days of Advent we should not hesitate to find the time for the inner journey that brings us closer to the Father and the incarnation of his Son. Elizabeth blessed Mary as the one who had believed that the promise made to her by the Lord would be fulfilled. Let us believe what has been promised to us, that in Christ we are indeed God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved. May the Spirit that rejoiced in Elizabeth at this meeting lead us to the same joy.
As the Gospel narrative unfolds into the celebration of Christmas we shall live, once again, the story of Christ’s birth. These familiar passages are more than a record of the past. Their simplicity, properly understood, challenges the self-importance that so easily overwhelms our lives.
Can we be with Mary and Joseph, for whom no place was found at the inn, without questioning the place that we find for Christ in our lives?
Would we choose to be with forgotten shepherds whose work was taken for granted, and whose worth scarcely merited a second thought? And yet it was to such as these that the glory of Christ’s birth was first revealed.
Above all, can we be with Mary, who kept within her the memory of these things, pondering them in her heart? Her sense of wonder, so open to God’s presence, would find expression in her great hymn of thanksgiving: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit exults in God my saviour, because he has looked upon his lowly handmaid.”
May the Spirit renew in us that same sense of wonder as we celebrate the birth of our Saviour.