FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT – DECEMBER 22, 1991 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
The Advent liturgy follows a different rhythm than the one that is forced upon us by the way our culture celebrates Christmas, or “the Holidays”. Today, it seems, Christmas is celebrated in the weeks before the feastday. The decorations go up right after Thanksgiving, if not before; the carols are played over and over in the stores and on the radio; the preparation is essentially a matter of buying the gifts that will be opened on the day. And, of course, once the feastday is over, the carols stop, the decorations come down, and we look forward to New Year’s Day and St. Valentine’s. The twelve days of Christmas–twelve days of the season between Christmas and Epiphany–have disappeared.
The Church’s liturgy follows an older rhythm. It looks forward to Christmas, urges a preparation for it through prayer and penance. It does not anticipate the day, celebrate it beforehand. Advent is the great time of hope and expectation.
That spirit is present in today’s readings: the expectation is heightened as the days become fewer between hope and fulfilment. In the first reading, we hear again the prophecy of a messianic king to be born in Bethlehem-Ephrathah. In the Gospel, the account of the visitation describes the first greeting of the yet unborn Messiah, when John leaps with joy in the womb of Elizabeth. All still is expectation: imagine that you were hearing this account for the first time: what anticipation there would be at what would happen when the birth of the Messiah takes place!
The second reading is a safeguard against sentimentalizing any of this. It occurs in a section of the Epistle to the Hebrews where the author is discussing the sacrifice by which Christ inaugurated the new covenant. The Incarnation is here presented in the light of the Cross, Bethlehem is illuminated by Calvary. The one whose birth we are about to celebrate is the one whose death has earned us life.
The choice of this reading is not, of course, designed to introduce a note of gloom into our Advent expectation. For the Christian, Calvary is not recalled with grief and sorrow, but with gratitude, as the realization of the full depths of the love with which God has loved us in not sparing us his own Son but sending him that we might have life and have it more abundantly. And precisely because Calvary is that revelation of how much God has loved us, we are cautioned, even in our celebration of Christmas, not to reduce the coming great feast to a banal and sentimental moment, but to recognize it for what it is: God’s great gift to us.
The feast, in other words, is a religious feast, or else it has lost its meaning. What kind of God we worship; what kind of world we inhabit; what kind of selves we can be, singly and together–this is what is at stake in what we celebrate on Christmas. It is good to be reminded of this now, just days before the day, so that we can prepare ourselves for it, make sure that gratitude for this gift to us is not overshadowed by the gifts we shall exchange, that we take some moment to let this truth–and the God, the world, the self Christmas reveals and enables–be received and appropriated in thankful awe into our minds and hearts. In these last days let us pray that we may be appropriately conscious of and grateful for this gift, to try between now and then and after to make ourselves less unworthy of the gift.