Almost There

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Fourth Sunday of Advent

It happens every year at about this time, the last weekend before Christmas, when the Church finally gives in to the subtle and steady griping of restless faithful Advent observers who have reluctantly but for the most part successfully avoided getting sucked onto the yuletide vortex of merriment and madness. Giving in finally, the Church grants us token permission to catch up with the frenzied hordes who have been jingling bells, roasting chestnuts, decking the halls, and dreaming of a white Christmas since before Turkey Day in late November. Advent can be for us who strive to faithfully observe the church’s calendar a counter-cultural experience when many around us could care less. Instead we end up observing an entertainment and economic calendar whose focus easily eclipses the moments we hold significant, stealing their thunder, slowly deflating the excitement that naturally builds in anticipation of awe and wonder. That joy, often without religious sentiment, still points to the same central event we observe liturgically. But instead of bringing the resulting tension of joy, hope and expectation to a proper conclusion that spills over into an entire season of heartfelt remembrance and celebration, we end up approaching Christmas with a sense of weariness. Many have already been celebrating for a whole month, and can’t wait to get it all out of their system, adequately explaining the post-Christmas let-down effective by noon on Christmas Day. I find it amusing that those who lament our seeming loss of the true focus of Christmas are not bothered that the celebrating ends so abruptly.

I suppose a major factor contributing to this lack of focus is our failure to connect with the true meaning of Christmas. We may sincerely admit belief in the mystery of the Incarnation. We grasp its meaning, at least intellectually, how the immortal God, in the magnitude of his compassion, chose to set aside the splendor and glory of heaven to take upon himself our imperfect human nature and bring about our redemption from selfishness and sin through the bloody sacrifice of Calvary, freeing us from the bonds of eternal death, transforming us from slaves into adopted sons and daughters, offering us the promised inheritance of eternal life. We understand it in our heads. But how real is this mystery in our lives? How tangible is God’s presence to us? And in the wake of the tragic events of last weekend, the mystery of God-with-us is simply beyond reach for some people. Yet it is precisely in the misery of our human condition that our God chooses to be with us.

When the prophet Micah proclaimed the words we read in the first reading, of the coming of a future king, a descendant of the great King David, who would restore Israel to her place of honor among the nations, and be a worthy shepherd to Abraham’s children corrupted by power and idolatry, he could not have been absolutely certain that his words would be fulfilled in Jesus. He was expounding the tradition of messianic prophecies similar to those pronounced by Isaiah, who was a contemporary, and the prophecies of Samuel and King David from a century earlier. He could not have known an event that was not to take place historically for another six centuries. He spoke of hope in God’s desire to save Israel but had no physical evidence to base his hope on more than his personal conviction that God would not abandon his people.

But in the gospel passage from Luke we encounter two expectant mothers who may or may not have been familiar with the messianic prophecies from six or more centuries before but who had real physical evidence on which to base their hope that God would indeed save Israel and bring it about very soon. The young girl Mary had just encountered an angel in a vision, who announced that she would be the mother of God’s Son. So she leaves home in great haste to assist her cousin Elizabeth also with child, a child like her own, the fulfillment of a nation’s hope. Now both women carried within their bodies real physical evidence of God’s desire to fulfill the greatest hope of Israel. Mary and Elizabeth were immersed in Advent expectation with real hope, joy and anticipation. Joseph and Zechariah, their spouses, would walk alongside them with some understanding of the mystery unfolding in their presence. But their Advent is very much unlike that of the women.

I think it’s cute and romantic how in recent years, expectant couples will announce they are pregnant together. We understand their logic, but we all know it’s not that simple a reality. Expectant fathers have no true understanding what expectant mothers experience. They may experience some measure of discomfort when their wives suffer morning sickness, when they need their feet rubbed, and when they are miserable from considerable weight gain. They can even experience some measure of joy when they see the ultrasound images on the monitor, when they feel the unborn child stirring, and when their wives are having a pleasant day. In the end, the joys and discomforts of the pregnancy are not the same. The man can still walk away. His daily routine can remain essentially unchanged. He can participate in his wife’s pregnancy with as much or as little commitment as he chooses.

While we observe Advent, we have no true knowledge nor experience of the hope, joy and anticipation of God’s salvation as Israel knew and experienced it. We are not ourselves rooted in that ancient land three of the world’s major religions refer to as “holy.” We ourselves had not strayed in disobedience and the worship of alien gods. We had not followed Israel’s generals into battle against heathen kings, nor were we led away into exile after the fall of the monarchy. We have not heard the impassioned preaching of the prophets calling Israel to renounce idolatry and return to the worship of the true God. The most we have known and experienced of Israel’s story we have read in the bible and watched in the movies. Such knowledge and experience may be powerful and moving, but they cannot compare to Israel’s first-hand encounter with the living God. Advent for us is like being the expectant father in a pregnancy. We can still walk away. Our daily routine can remain largely unchanged. We can participate in the salvation story with as much or as little commitment as we choose. And sometimes that is exactly what we do. Were you truly immersed in the Advent experience this year … or were you too busy to even bother? You should be able to tell from the depth of your joy when Christmas arrives. And that’s not something you can fake.

So we have some time, but not very much, to embrace some Advent expectation. The heart of the mystery we are about to celebrate is the tangible presence of God in our own human flesh to make real that salvation the prophets proclaimed through the ages. It is a profound mystery, simple yet beyond true understanding. God is among us, God is one of us, here, now. Are we truly ready to welcome him … in our human flesh … in the depths of our joys and sorrows … that we might be reconciled … that we might be made whole? Is it at all reasonable to expect Christmas to fulfill my Advent expectations … or do we even bother?

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