Something incredible is about to happen! On this fourth and final Sunday of Advent, this year just the day before Christmas Eve, we are filled with expectation and longing for the coming of the Messiah. We listen as the prophet Micah foretells that Bethlehem of Judea, the lowliest of towns, will be the place from which will come forth a Savior, and we are reminded of Mary and Joseph’s journey there, about to culminate tomorrow night. We hear of Mary going in haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and of John the Baptist leaping for joy in Elizabeth’s womb at Mary and Jesus’s coming, and we are reminded that from the very first moment of His conception, Christ was truly God and truly man – a sign of the value of human life even before birth.
It would be easy for us to gloss over the second reading from the letter to the Hebrews, seemingly a more theological reflection removed from the joyous events we long to celebrate. But then we would lose sight of why these events are so important in the first place.
In these brief lines, quoting from the 40th Psalm, St. Paul makes it clear that Christ’s coming turns everything on its head. To say to the Jews that God does not take delight in holocausts and sin offerings would be like saying to Catholics that God does not take delight in the Mass. This is a radical challenge to their way of thinking. The entire system of Jewish worship is about to overturned – centuries of sacrifice according to the law of Moses. And what is to replace these centuries of tradition? A singular, “I,” who comes to do the will of God.
But Christ’s coming to do God’s will is not just for Him – it is for us. “By this ‘will,’” Paul tells us, “we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Through Christ’s coming as man, we have been consecrated. These words invite us to make our expectation of Christ’s Nativity not merely sentimental, but sacramental.
What do we mean by an expectation of Christ that goes beyond being sentimental to being sacramental? A sentimental expectation of Christ is one focused on remembering. It tells stories and remembers fondly the great events of the past. Beautiful, yes, but not nearly all that God desires for us. A sacramental expectation of Christ hopes for the joy of His nativity not merely as a past event to be recalled, but as something that is present to us here and now.
This is a sacramental expectation of Christ because this is precisely what the sacraments do – they make Christ present. The Eucharist is not merely a memorial meal in which we remember what Christ did and partake of a symbol of His Body and Blood. No! Christ is actually here present among us, not merely in symbol but in reality. The celebration of the Holy Mass makes His Passion, Death, and Resurrection present in our midst. At the Holy Mass, we stand at the foot of Calvary with Mary and St. John, and outside the empty tomb with Mary Magdalene.
So too does the liturgical year work in this sacramental way. If we are simply going to remember Christ’s birth, then why would we need these four weeks of Advent to prepare? Rather, because celebrating the Lord’s Nativity brings not just us into the past but the past into the present, we have undergone these four weeks of preparation, purgation, and purification in order to be ready to stand at the manger and worship the Infant King.
This is not mere theological speculation. If the liturgical year brings the past into the present not only to be remembered but to be re-lived, then we too have been consecrated by Christ’s coming to do the will of the Father, just as St. Paul tells us. Christ’s coming means that everything is different now, including us.
Christ takes on our human nature at His Nativity so that we might take on His divine nature by entering into the mystery of His conformity to the Father’s will. His coming as man reminds us that the noblest calling of our human nature consists not in glorifying ourselves, but, in imitation of Christ, setting aside our own will to pursue God’s will. The mystery of Christmas reminds us of the way that God bursts into our lives, interrupting our own plans, and re-focusing us on Him.
Who better, then, to model for us what it means to be changed by re-living the Lord’s Incarnation than His Virgin Mother, upon Whom we draw our focus today. She is the One who already bears the Godman within Her womb, who lives this consecration meant for the entire human race. Her cousin Elizabeth praises Her, saying, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Somehow, Elizabeth already knows of what has happened to Mary. Perhaps Gabriel has relayed to her what has happened to Mary just as he relayed to Mary at the Annunciation the miracle of Elizabeth’s conception.
Elizabeth’s greeting reveals the secret to Mary’s greatness: When the angel declares to Her that She will be the Mother of the Messiah, Mary asks for an explanation: “How shall this be, because I know not man?” But as Elizabeth makes clear, unlike her husband Zechariah, who doubted the angel’s words and was stricken mute for all nine months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary responds in faith. She has already been consecrated – She has awaited this day with faith and hope.
Oftentimes when we contemplate setting aside our own plans to give priority to God’s, we can be filled with trepidation. Stepping off our carefully planned paths can be scary and intimidating. But Mary shows us how being Christ’s disciples is meant to be an adventure. Following our own careful plans would be too boring! Rather, trust in God’s plan brings authentic joy to our lives by taking us down paths that we never would have considered, paths that might be difficult and arduous, but that lead us to growth and maturity of faith.
Celebrating Christ’s coming sacramentally rather than sentimentally means going beyond the feelings and warmth inspired by this joyous season to the great calling inherent in the mystery of the Divine Infant: to draw near to God by abandoning our own will for His, just as He abandoned His heavenly throne for the manger. It is by abandoning ourselves to God’s loving yet mysterious will that we will have hearts reading for the coming feast.
Mary is the fulfillment of Christ’s consecration of all men and women by His birth because She is the one who has perfectly sought to do God’s will rather than Her own. Through gentle yet steadfast trust, She said “yes” to God’s plan for Her life. All of us who struggle to imitate Her perfect example are given the hope today of being transformed by Her Son’s grace. He took on a human body like ours and vanquished the ancient enemy, so that we might have the strength to die to ourselves and do God’s will rather than our own.
It is, then, with the faith of the Blessed Virgin that we must await the Lord’s coming, with faith that Christ’s coming will not leave as we currently are, but will change us and make us new followers of God’s will, as we not only remember His coming sentimentally, but re-live it sacramentally. With the faith of Mary, we can make the words of Christ our own: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; … behold, I come to do your will, O God.”
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
IV Sunday of Advent, A.D. MMXVIII