December 19-23


Friday of the Fourth Week of Advent (December 23, 2011)

(Malachi 3:1-4.23-24; Luke 1:57-66)

Whatever Malachi had in mind when he wrote that God will send Elijah to “turn the hearts of the father to their children,” we should hear him today as addressing the social pathologies of children born outside marriage. Almost forty percent of the births in the United States are made by unwed mothers. As a result the children are more likely to suffer poverty, emotional problems, and learning difficulties. Nevertheless, having children without a vowed partner has become fashionable as high-paid professionals testify to how doable it is.

We understand Malachi as foretelling the coming of the John the Baptist who would castigate sex out of marriage as he did other sins. He would find multiple victims of the abuse. The unintended offspring may be the most aggrieved, but certainly the individuals directly involved are not left unscathed, and society – like a cable under constant stress -- is weakened. God, who loves His people immensely, cannot help but take offense.

God also acts to relieve the situation. He sends John to warn of punishment for sinners and also gives us Jesus who will employ another strategy. Jesus will expose the barrenness of life in pursuit of pleasure, which is a form of self-love. It may gratify some immediate desire but ends in the coldness of the earth. By contrast, emulating Jesus’ love for others -- including our own offspring -- puts us on the path to eternal happiness.

Thursday of the Fourth Week of Advent (December 22, 2011)

(I Samuel 1:24-28; Luke 1:46-56)

The movie It’s a Wonderful Life has more than a Christmas scene to recommend it as an all-time holiday classic. More importantly, the film demonstrates all the hope that the child Jesus brings into the world. The schemes of the villain Potter are vanquished while poor people are enabled to live with dignity. Most of all, God comes to the help of his faithful servant, George Bailey, in his moment of desperation.

What director Frank Capra puts on film, Mary proclaims in the gospel today. She sings of how in sending His son into the world God meets the needs of the poor and sends the rich away empty. Mary makes these claims after pondering all that the angel and Elizabeth tell her. She is showing herself to be a true apostle as she listens to the word of God, turns it over in her heart, and then gives it fresh expression. Now we rejoice with her and proclaim, as she does, the goodness of God to others.

Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Advent (December 21, 2011)

(Song of Songs 2:8-14; Luke 1:39-45)

Caryll Houselander, a twentieth century mystic, wrote that during Advent Christ is to grow within us as he grew in the Virgin’s womb. At this late date he should be almost full-term and making himself felt as Elizabeth’s John in today’s gospel. He would be telling us to look no further for consolation. Gift-giving, tree-trimming, and cookie-cutting have their places in Christmas festivities but the real benefit comes from worshipping the infant king. Once, Honduran peasant children were discussing their Christmas gifts in the village church. No one mentioned a new coat and much less a smart phone. No, to the children of that village Christmas gifts were not what they received from Santa but their offerings of obedience and prayer to the baby Jesus. Would anyone doubt that those children had a richer sense of Christmas than children receiving stacks of gifts taller than themselves?

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Advent (December 20, 2011)

(Isaiah 7:10-14; Luke 1:26-38)

It is said that a military commander may not send troops on a “suicide mission” without their consent. A society can conscript a person into the army as a matter of the common good. The common good may further dictate that the conscripted soldier enter combat with the possibility, but not the surety, that he or, we need to add, she may die in action. If, however, there is near certainty that the soldier will be killed, the military should obtain his/her permission since soldiers are enlisted to give their service, not their lives.

In this gospel of the Annunciation, God gives to the Virgin Mary a similar prerogative to withdraw from his plan of salvation. Although the passage uses the declarative mode “you will...,” the angel waits for her consent. She is free to refuse to cooperate with the heretofore unheard of plan of conceiving by the Holy Spirit to give Israel its long-awaited Messiah. In a famous homily, St. Bernard of Clairveaux pictures the world hanging on Mary’s word. Of course, she expresses her willingness and thus advances the process of the Incarnation.

As God does not force Mary to participate in His plan, He does not force salvation on us. We are free to accept or reject it. Although it is an entirely gratuitous gift, salvation involves some effort on our part. We have to heed the words of Jesus. But his commands are not so much burdensome as they are liberating. We may think of them as directions from a GPS. They provide us the best possible way to get us to where we want to go.

Monday of the Fourth Week of Advent (December 19, 2011)

(Judges 13:2-7.24-25a; Luke 1:5-25)

We feel for couples who want to have children but remain barren. Often they seem to be the best of people – she, gentle and caring and he, responsible and understanding. Raising offspring like themselves would not only fulfill their dreams but would also give hope to their neighbors for a nobler society. Why, we ask, does God not grant the continual prayer of such a pair?

Children, however, are not created to satisfy personal and/or social needs but to serve God’s design for justice. In both readings today God grants the barren couples a son to further His purpose of preparing for the coming of Christ. Manoah and his wife will give birth to Samson who will defeat the enemies of the Israelites among whom Jesus will be born. Zechariah and Elizabeth will give birth to John who will announce that the Lord is at hand.

Is it then that God answers the prayers of some couples but not others? Not really. God answers all our prayers. In paving the way for Jesus, God assures that our deepest desires -- for peace, love, and life – can be satisfied.