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|Fourth Sunday of Advent||December 21, 2003|
At first, one might think that Mary is given prominence in Advent -- and also, of course, at Christmas -- because, more than anything else, she is the Mother of God. That is an honor, obviously, without measure. Yet, that is not what the scriptures call to our attention in speaking about Mary. That is not why she earns such prominence in these gospel lessons, not why she is honored within the whole of the Christian community and has been for two millennia.
The Second Vatican Council (1963-1965) brought us back to a clearer understanding of Mary's importance. It is not because she is the Mother of God. None of us could aspire to that! But Mary is the model disciple -- the one who understands what following Jesus really means. The Vatican Council didn't just pull this understanding out of the air somehow. We find this understanding in our scriptures.
In Luke's Gospel, during the public life of Jesus, it is very clear that this model of discipleship is what Jesus wants us to understand. Remember the time when Jesus had been speaking, preaching and healing, and people were following him in great numbers. Luke says: "As Jesus was speaking, a woman spoke from the crowd and said to him: 'Blessed is the one that bore you and nursed you.'" Jesus replies: "No. But surely blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it as well." The truly blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.
Jesus was not putting his mother down when that woman tried to praise her, but he was reminding those people and all of us that Mary is the one, more than any other, who heard the word of God, kept it, observed it and followed it.
You find that in today's gospel account of the Annunciation. Remember Mary's answer when the angel asked her to be God's mother. She was doubtful at first, worried and concerned. But then, when the angel reassured her that this is what God wants, she said: "Be it done to me according to thy word." God's word was primary in her life. Whatever was God's word, that was what she would do.
In today's gospel, Elizabeth praises Mary, not because she is carrying Jesus in her womb, but because Mary trusted, believed and acted on the word of God. That is why Elizabeth called Mary blessed. It was the word of God that became important in the life of Mary. She listened to and followed God, thus she became the model disciple. As disciples of Jesus, the most important thing we can do and must do is listen deeply to God's word. And not just listen, but as Jesus said: hear the word of God, observe it and carry it out. Live it.
Our second lesson today makes clear how important that is. Animal sacrifices and burnt offerings were prominent in the Jewish religion of that era. But the author of this letter tells us that Jesus did not come to offer one more sacrifice; the sacrifice Jesus offered was his life. This is why on entering the world Jesus said: "You did not desire sacrifice and offerings. You were not pleased with burnt offerings and sin offerings." (Jesus was speaking to God and the author quoted from Psalm 40) "But ears open to obedience you gave me. Then I said: 'Here I am. It was written of me in the scroll, I will do your will, O God.'"
For Jesus, then, the most important thing is to be obedient to God's word, and obedience means listening deeply to that word and observing it. That is what God wants more than anything else. Even coming here to celebrate this Eucharist, if we are not listening to God's word and following it, our coming here means nothing. That's a very important message for us to hear.
Why do we come here every week? To celebrate the Eucharist and to receive Jesus in communion, yes. But also, and just as important, to hear God's word and to open our hearts to that word. To let that word enter deeply into us and to change us, transform us.
"Here I am, O God. I have come to hear your word and to do it!" Perhaps we need to ask ourselves how seriously we take this part of our discipleship. Do we spend a little time reading the lessons before we come, so we are ready to truly hear them in the midst of this celebration? Do we continue to reflect on them during the week so that the word of God continues to form us, shape us, transform us and guide us? A true disciple of Jesus is one who says as Jesus said: "My ears are open to obedience. Here I am to do your will, O God."
Perhaps we should take a moment or two to reflect on what is happening in our world during this Advent and Christmas season and ask ourselves how much the word of God influences how we react and what we do.
The word of God in many ways is so clear. We know it well; we have heard it so many times, but, well, think about all that is going on in the world around us at this time. Think about the constant drive to make Christmas more commercial, a time to accumulate more and more goods, and compare that with the word of God, Jesus saying, "Blessed are the poor." The blessed are not those who have gathered the most material things. Blessed are the poor. While the drive within our culture, within our economic system, is to get more and more, do we hear the word of God instead and try to live simply? Do we try to live simply with what we need and not in excess?
The word of God also clearly demands justice. When Jesus began his public life he said: "The Spirit of God is upon me. God sent me to proclaim Good News to the poor, to go to the poor, first of all, to break the yoke of injustice and to set the downtrodden free." This is why Jesus came. To bring justice.
Many of us, all of us who are here, I am sure, are very generous. We give of what we have. This week we have been giving gifts to literally hundreds of families, because so many people have contributed in this effort. We serve a meal here every day. Yesterday, we probably had more than 300 people. We had a party for hundreds of children whose parents are in prison. We are reaching out to the poor in many ways.
But we have harder questions to answer. Do we ever ask ourselves: Why are people poor? What are the injustices within our society? What can you and I do about the injustices? I don't know if we ask these questions. Yes, we are willing to share from our excess, but do we ever try to do something that will make justice happen? That is very important. That is part of the word of God.
This morning in the paper I read about the Detroit Medical Center and an effort by the governor of Michigan, the mayor of Detroit and the Wayne County executive to save it. They signed an agreement, but do you know what is excluded from that agreement? The clinics within the city that serve the poor are excluded. Unless the agreement is modified, and there is some effort to modify it, the poor in this city will be almost completely left without access to health care.
The word of God tells us we must work for justice. Surely, the poor have as much a right as anyone to medical care. Yet, it is very possible that the poor -- and there are so many in this city -- will be deprived of that right. The word of God compels us toward justice and to struggle until justice happens.
One final example, one that may be the hardest for us to accept. I don't think any of us cannot be aware that Saddam Hussein was captured a few days ago. Amid all the public reactions to the capture, one was decidedly unique. Archbishop Renato Martino, who is the head of the Vatican's Council for Justice and Peace, expressed compassion for Saddam Hussein on Tuesday, and he reproached the United States for releasing video images showing the former dictator being handled -- in his words -- like an animal as an Army doctor checked his teeth. "I felt pity to see this man destroyed," Archbishop Martino said. "Seeing him like this, a man in his tragedy despite all the heavy blame he bears, I had a sense of compassion for him."
That isn't the attitude that exists within our nation right now. Perhaps it is not the attitude in my heart or your heart. And yet, didn't Jesus say: "Don't just love those who love you. Love your enemy." We should have compassion for enemies. That is a very hard thing to do and yet, if we hear the word of God and observe it, that's what we must do.
Maybe before we stretch ourselves to love Saddam Hussein, we can start by reaching out to people in our families or our neighborhoods with whom we have not developed good, warm relationships. Perhaps we can start with those people. Either way, somehow this word of God -- having compassion for other people, for all people -- has to enter our hearts, and we have to observe it.
If we can hear the word of God and keep it, as Mary the model disciple did, we perhaps will experience something marvelous within our own hearts.
Notice that the first reading has a very beautiful conclusion. Micah is talking about a shepherd who will come from the tiny city of Bethlehem. The shepherd, of course, is Jesus, the word of God. Micah concludes this passage by saying: "He is peace." The word of God is peace.
If we can be open to the word of God, observe it and keep it, that word will transform us and we will know peace deep within our hearts. I can think of no other gift we could receive at Christmas that would be more important than to have the word of God, who is peace, come fully into our hearts.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
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