This is the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Advent is the season we prepare for the birth of our savior Jesus Christ. The first Sunday of Advent we are told to be prepared because we do not know when the end will come and when we will be called “…to stand before the Son of Man.” Next we had the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Mary was chosen by God. She was conceived without sin so that Jesus could be born to her without sin. It was because of her unfailing faith in God that as a young girl she accepted the angel Gabriel’s words at the Annunciation. She said “Let it be done to me according to your words.”
In the readings from the Second Sunday of Advent we hear about John the Baptist receiving the word of God, accepting it and going throughout the region proclaiming “…a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…” John is telling people to prepare the way of the Lord by repenting for their sins and living in accordance with God’s laws so that “…all flesh shall see the salvation of the God.” The words “all flesh” included not just the Israelites and others at the time but all those in the future who repent for the forgiveness of their sins. That repentance is preparation for our future.
And last week we heard Luke tell us how John the Baptist is encouraging people to share what they have, to treat others fairly and with kindness and to not be greedy or envious of others. John is baptizing them with water and his preaching is so profound that many think he is the Christ. He tells them that he is not the Christ. He says “…one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John tells them to prepare themselves because the wheat- people who repent- will be gathered with God and the chaff- people who ignore repentance- “…will burn with unquenchable fire.”
We have spent the season of Advent being told to prepare for Christmas and the coming of Jesus Christ. Now it is close. Just a few days away. I suspect that Santa is making sure the elves production line is running smoothly, the reindeer are fed and the baggage handlers are ready. Here in Memphis I would guess that many of us have decorated our houses, yards Christmas trees and purchased gifts. We are preparing to visit family or friends or getting ready for family or friends to come to us to celebrate. Sarah and I are blessed because our children and grandchildren have all come into town to spend part of the Christmas holiday with us. We are preparing ourselves and our families for the birth of Jesus Christ.
We prepare to celebrate Christmas day and we do so with gifts. The giving of gifts at Christmas is a tradition started 2051 years ago by three wise men in Bethlehem. They rejoiced at the birth of Jesus and they brought Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold is a gift commonly given to royalty. Gold is a very appropriate gift to give and acknowledge baby Jesus as the King of the Jews. Frankincense represents the incense most often used by the high priest in temple worship and sacrifices. This is a very suitable gift for Jesus the Messiah, the Savior, who would be worshipped and sacrificed. . Myrrh is a perfumed oil primarily used in anointing at birth and at death. We do not know if the wise men were Jewish or not but we can surmise from their actions of following the star in the east and the gifts they brought baby Jesus that they had knowledge of Old Testament prophecies proclaiming the coming of the Messiah and His suffering and death. Myrrh would be used at His birth and at His death making the gift of myrrh to the baby Jesus appropriate. This is where the preparation for, and the tradition of, gift giving at the celebration of our saviors birth comes from.
Do we take the same time and efforts to spiritually prepare for ourselves and our family and friends? Are we spiritually ready for Jesus’ birth? Jesus gave us the greatest gift by dying for us. We acknowledge that gift and death at every Mass. During the preparation of the gifts at the altar during Mass the Priest or deacon prays “By the mystery of this water and wine MAY WE COME to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” We want to share in His divinity and, at the end, be gathered with Him, His Father and the Holy Spirit in eternal life. Doesn’t this require as much preparation as everything else? We must spiritually prepare for the coming of Jesus with the same thoughtfulness that we prepare for gift giving to others. I know many get anxious and have a check list of all the things to be done before Christmas day. Do we have a spiritual checklist? I am not suggesting to forego the usual holiday activities and needs. They are necessary. I am just suggesting to give a little more time, thought and action to the true meaning of Christmas. That is also necessary and actually more important. The birth of the baby boy whose birth we celebrate because He was born to die for us and, in doing so, save us. Preparation of our souls does not require money. It requires something more precious- time. Spend some extra time in prayer. If you do not regularly attend Mass start again. If you know who does not regularly attend Mass start again and pray for them and invite them back. Studies have shown that if you invite someone back to church more than 50 pct. will attend. The length of Mass is not much time out of the 168 available hours in a week. Slightly over 5/1000 of a percent. Any preparation-small or large- we do for souls, ours and others, will be noticed by God. He will shed His graces upon us and those graces will strengthen our faith and commitment to Him.
In todays letter from Micah the Lord prepares (that word again!) the Jewish people for the coming of the “ruler of Israel.” This ruler will stand firm, shepherd his flock through the strength, and in the name, of the Lord and “…his greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth…he shall be peace”. The Jewish people interpreted this to mean a worldly king coming to save them from persecution and exile. They expected a king who would return them to their original land where they will live with him in peace. They prepared for worldly salvation. They were so involved with that they did not adequately prepare for their spiritual salvation. We do not want to repeat that mistake.
In the reading from Hebrews, Christ says that he knows God does not take delight in sacrifices and offerings because they are done in accordance with the law. God wants us to take an extra step- to go above and beyond the law- for Him. Christ goes that extra step by telling His father “I have come to do your will.” The tradition of sacrifices and offerings in the temple as a means of repentance for sins is replaced by Christ doing God’s will. Christ was put to death by law because he was accused of being the worldly king of the Jews. In truth Christ accepted death on the cross because it was God’s ‘will’ for Christ to die in order to save us from sin.
Today’s gospel is the story of the visitation from a young virgin girl, named Mary, to a pregnant, formerly barren older woman, named Elizabeth. Both pregnancies are miracles. Mary is pregnant with the Son of God. The angel Gabriel told her not to be afraid, that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, the power of God will overshadow her and the child to be born will be called Holy, the Son of God. Mary, because of her unfailing faith, replied to the angel that she is “a handmaid of the Lord and to let it be done to her according to his words”. The angel also tells Mary that her relative, Elizabeth, is also pregnant after being barren and in advanced age. Mary goes out to visit Elizabeth and when she arrives the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy. That baby is John the Baptist. John’s reaction at the arrival of Mary, pregnant with the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit fill Elizabeth with joy. She recognizes that Mary is pregnant with the Lord exclaiming “…how does this happen that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” She praises Mary for believing the words spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled. We heard those words in today’s Old Testament reading from Micah and also from the angel Gabriel in the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Mary has just journeyed to see her so Elizabeth is not aware of what the angel Gabriel told Mary.
We have also just witnessed the first time that John the Baptist prepares people for the coming of the Lord and that occurs while he is still in his mother’s womb. This was just the beginning of many times over many years that John the Baptist would proclaim, and encourage people to prepare for, the coming of the Lord.
Finally, we have just begun a new church year and are about to celebrate Christmas. Just a few days after that we will celebrate a new calendar year. It is traditional at that time of the new calendar year to make a resolution to do something that would make our lives more fulfilling. I want to suggest that we celebrate the advent season of preparation with a new church year resolution. Let us all strive to be better Catholics, to welcome newcomers here and to embrace the sacraments especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist. The response to the Psalm today is a good place to begin this new church year resolution. . It is
“Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.”
If we do this God has promised that we will be saved.
God Bless you