For those without faith, the rich scriptural traditions that surround Advent and Christmas look like simply time-worn stories. For the unbelieving, Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem may be no more than an ancient story with little consequence. Bethlehem was a little village about nine miles from Jerusalem where pilgrims bought animals to offer as sacrifices in the temple. Apart from that, Jesus’ hometown had little else to earn it a place on the map. For those in doubt, Elizabeth was no more than an older lady whose expectancy surprised and shocked her relatives. Mary’s visit to Elizabeth was simply a matter of a younger woman reaching out to care for an older relative. Yet the world that took notice of him has systematically transformed for the better.
First reading: Micah 5:1-4
Micah knew that peace, like a fine work of art must be imagined and then depicted in hope. This was the quality of peace associated with the Messiah. To instill hope in his contemporaries for the coming of that reign, Micah offered visions on a new king yet to be born who would be unique by the way he cared for the flock and in the manner he exercised his authority. Unlike Isaiah whose Emmanuel prophecy foresaw the birth of a future king in Jerusalem cf. Isaiah 7:14, Micah focused on Bethlehem thereby evoking the promises God made concerning one to be born of David’s lineage cf. 2Samuel 7:14. Ephrathah, birthplace of Jesse, the father of David was the name of a small clan of the tribe of Judah that had settled in Bethlehem after the infiltrating Canaan cf. 1Samuel 17:12. From that insignificant people, in that small and unimportant village, would be born the future leader and savior of Judah.
Like David in 1Samuel 16 and like their Lord and God in Psalm 23, Micah’s promised one would shepherd the people who had long been neglected and abused by their leaders. Those who had been scattered and ravaged by the wolves of war and oppression would be gathered to safety so they might enjoy the peace and security of their Good Shepherd and Messiah ruler. This rule would embrace all and “reach the ends of the earth” Micah 5:4. From the beginning, the community of believers in Jesus recognized and acclaimed his birth to be in Bethlehem, from Davidic lineage with a shepherding mission of peace being a fulfillment of Micah’s oracle of salvation.
Second reading: Hebrews 10:5-10
Three times in this reading, the will of God is affirmed as the reason for the coming of Christ into the world. Also attributed to the will of God is the conviction that the sacrifices, offerings and holocausts have been rendered unnecessary by the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus. In the offering of his body, Jesus effectively put an end to the seemingly infinite cycle of sacrifices with which the faithful had formerly approached God. Quoting from Psalm 40:6-8, Hebrews affirm that it was in acquiescence to God’s will that Jesus placed his own life on the altar of the cross, and it is by that same will that sinners have been saved and sanctified. We no longer need adhere to a law-based relationship with God that calls for frequent sacrificial offerings because Jesus has opened the way for a covenantal relationship rooted in love.
The old law-based pattern of religion, whether it occurred in Jerusalem ancient temple or in the Church next to our residence n would make people worship again and again with a guilty conscience; reason being that without obeying God’s will, nothing is ever enough or adequate. But now because of Jesus, this pattern has been broken. By surrendering his will and his very self to God, Jesus has set an example to follow. For that reason, the sacrifices we offer to God in union with the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus does not become a mere guilt offerings but an expression of love.
The letter to the Hebrews’ loving obedience to God’s will repeats other truths that “to obey is better than sacrifice” Psalm 50:14. That what “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Hosea 6:6. This conviction is also echoed by Isaiah in 1:11-20. But nowhere is the call to offer God the sacrifice of an obedient heart more eloquently expressed than in Micah “You know what is good and what the Lord requires of you: Do justice, love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:6-8. This is our call today and we have to respond it.
Gospel: Luke 1:39-45
There is so much more unfolding in today’s Gospel than the simple meeting of two pregnant women. Mary’s visit to Elizabeth comprised almost entirely of inspired statements and highly theological declarations and forms a bridge between two longer narratives, the first of which announces the births of John and Jesus and the second of which narrates events surrounding their births. Both accounts of the annunciations and births underscore the importance of John and Jesus while clarifying the fact that, for believers, Jesus is the greater of the two.
In this part of the narrative, Luke offers the inspiration filled with the Holy Spirit witness of Elizabeth, who identified the child of Mary as ‘Lord’ and affirms the special and unique role of Mary as ‘blessed among women’. Further affirmed is the connection between Mary’s special role and her faith: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Luke 1:45. Mary’s faith, which is prominently featured in the Luke’s Gospel, is held out as an example to be emulated. First among the disciples of Jesus, she believed even when she didn’t fully comprehend and she entrusted herself to God’s ways and God’s will despite the fact that it seemed illogical and even dangerous to do so.
John’s leaping in his mother’s womb is a confirmation of his faith. Earlier in this narrative, Luke told his audience that the promised child of Elizabeth and Zachariah would be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. John’s action not only prophesies about the One who will be born of Mary; his leaping also recalls the leaping and dancing of David before the Ark of the Covenant as it was being moved from Baala to Jerusalem cf. 2 Samuel 6:13-17. Just as David leapt for joy in the presence of God, who was represented by the Ark, so did John leap in happy recognition of the presence of Jesus in Mary, the living Ark of the New Covenant. In their simple greetings, both women celebrate God who can bring about a reversal of fortunes for those poor ones who entrust themselves to the divine will. These greeting serves as a theological introduction to the good work of salvation that has begun in Mary and Elizabeth through John and Jesus.
Mary’s lyric announcement not only anticipated the ministry of Jesus to the poor and lowly; it also set forth the agenda for what was to become the proper work of Jesus’ disciples: filling human hungers with good things rather than catering solely to the rich because they are rich; and lifting up the lowly, remembering that the mercies of God are to dictate our every action, every word, every project and every decision, whether of an economic, social or political nature. With the blessed gift of faith to enlighten us, we look also to today’s Gospel, where the meeting of the mother of John and Jesus represents the coalescence of the two testaments. All that has been promised finds its fulfillment in the Good News of Jesus. Leaping in his mother’s womb, John expressed the joy of all who await the Christ and the redemption he will accomplish. In these two women, faith reaches out to faith, and the blessedness of their believing stirs and strengthens the faith of those who continue to await Jesus’ return. Blessed are they, blessed are we, in our believing. Blessed are those who believe and, in their believing, continue the good works of Jesus until he comes again. This has to be our commitment yesterday, today and forever.
We who believe have to look at prophets like Micah and see how we live our lives today as leaders and those who are being led. With a spirit of optimism we have to make sure we are compatible because we care for one another. Listen with eagerness the now-familiar story of God’s love for humankind we have always to remember the will of God and to abide by it; heaven and good life is all about doing the will of God. Being a people in expectation, we have to make sure that all our encounters are meetings of grace. For those who have faith there is nothing that can be considered to be so little not to receive Grace because Grace comes from God. What is expected of us is to believe and to be humble.