Homily: 4th Sunday of Advent

4th Sunday in Advent (Year B) (go to readings)
2nd Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16
Psalm 89:2-3, 4-5, 27, 29
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

I saw a quote on social media recently, that I really liked. It said,

It was shared by a group called, “Limping toward Jerusalem,” and that sounded pretty appropriate, too. I went and checked out that group’s page, and the next quote was just as good:

I really thought that these simple quotes summed up well a good message for our last few days of preparation for this year’s Christmas.

This is Christmas in the year 2020, and it’s not going to be a normal celebration for most families. Some families are tighter on money than in previous years, some have their jobs or businesses compromised or at risk, most everyone has family members who are at risk health-wise, and might not be part of the traditional family gatherings, because of distance or quarantine concerns. And it’s likely that the month of December, like much of 2020, stormed through faster than expected, and we might not be feeling that “Christmasy.” That’s okay. We might want to do it up for the kids, who have done a great job being as resilient as could be expected of them… with remote learning and all sorts of new rules. It’s natural to try to protect their innocence from the concerns of the grown-up world. But kids aren’t dumb. Obviously, they know this year is different. And it’s okay that they know. You don’t have to give them the best Christmas ever, and get a ton of presents, especially if it’s an imprudent sacrifice. To quote another phrase I’ve seen online recently,

It’s a stressful year, and especially Christmas season, and that’s okay, too.

Joseph and Mary had travelled far from home, a poor couple alone, far from their families in the little village of Nazareth, lost in the city of Bethlehem, directed toward a stable to stay in, and to have their first child in, this child that so much had been said about. Mary had received the glorious encounter of the Annunciation from the archangel Gabriel (which we just heard, in our gospel reading from Luke). Joseph had received a similar message in a dream (which we heard Friday morning, from the gospel reading from Matthew). And here they were, giving birth to the Son of God, the Son of David, the promised Messiah, in a stinky, strange barn in a strange (rather inhospitable) city, without their families and friends. But the gift they received was everything: Jesus!

In our first reading, we heard the prophet Nathan give to King David the promise that—because David had so faithfully and devoutly served and worshiped the Lord, even through, or maybe because of, his awareness of his sinfulness, and David’s awareness of how inappropriate it was that he as king was living in a palace, but the ark of the covenant as the dwelling place of God Almighty was still kept in a portable tent, that he wanted to build a proper building for God and for the ark of his presence, reflecting the splendor of God—because this was the kind of heart and faith David had, Nathan conveys God’s promise to David: Do you think it is you, who will build a house for me? I took you from tending sheep in the fields, I anointed you, led you in battle, I made you great, I led you to the royal throne, and I planted Israel firmly in its own land and have given you a time of peace. It is not you who will build a house for me! I will build your house: your offspring will sit on the throne forever, I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. That promise was good for many generations(14, to be precise). But then a crisis came, when after the Babylonian exile, the dynasty of David’s descendants ended. His family lived on, of course, but no longer a royal family, no longer a son of David sitting on the throne of Israel. By the first century (another 14 generations later), “King” Herod was on the throne, and he wasn’t even ethnically part of Israel! But the promises of God are always fulfilled, in the divine wisdom of his own time. The promise of the rise of the son of David got enmeshed into the promises of the long-awaited Messiah, and the return of “one who is to come” in the spirit of Moses, and bring a new law, a new passover, a new exodus, a new promised land… a whole new heaven and earth.

And the full-blown fulfillment of that glorious divine promise unfolded in this decrepit little stable, with this poor young couple, in this strange city, alone and far from home.

But you might say, What about the multitude of heavenly hosts of angels gloriously singing the good news, a child is born, who is Christ and Lord, Messiah and king? Yes. That was true. That was the spiritual reality… hidden from sight in this humble scene. And the same is true of your little Christmas, whatever that might look like. What it is… is always more than what it looks like.

Saint Paul mentions in our second reading, “the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages but now manifested…” The “mystery kept secret for long ages” is the hidden spiritual reality of God’s plan, unfolding behind the years of waiting, years of suffering, years of wondering if God is doing anything in all this mess around us. And the fulfillment (the “revelation” and “manifestation”) of the mystery is the birth of Jesus, into this humble little family, from a humble little town… a town that happens to be filled with descendants from David, such is this honorable and virtuous man, Joseph, and his wife, Mary. (A town whose name, “Nazareth,” is related to the word “branch or shoot” in Hebrew; hence, “a shoot from the stump of Jesse”: Jesse was David’s father; and the “stump of Jesse” is the cut-down dynasty of David; so the “shoot” is a new beginning of the dynasty of David… and Nazareth, “shoot-town”, is full of descendants of David, including Joseph and (probably) Mary!)

We might not feel Christmasy right now. But it’s not about the feeling, it’s about the reality. We might feel stressed, I’m sure Joseph and Mary were stressed, too. We might be sad that loved ones are not with us, I’m sure Joseph and Mary missed their families in this moment, too. But your Christmas, however humble and compromised and simple it might seem, is surrounded by the spiritually company of choirs of heavenly hosts (and the communion of saints!) singing to your spirit about the good news being celebrated! So this is your permission to “have yourself a merry little Christmas.”

To reference one last quote,

Don’t confuse a particular celebration of Christmas, which is perhaps a bit less grandiose this year, with the mystery of Christmas, which is infinite in glory and spiritual joy. Keep the focus on the joy of our hope being born into the world, that the humblest little Christmas is a pure and beautiful participation in the full mystery of Christmas, and that even in times of apparent darkness and chaos, God is always at work guiding his beloved children according to his loving plan, and always keeping his promises.