Sunday, December 20, 2015

Longing and Obedience

As our Advent draws closer to the actual event of Christmas, our readings draw closer from remote to proximate preparation. The last couple weeks we've been hearing from John the Baptist, that voice crying out in the wilderness, and he's been telling us to get ready. That was remote preparation for the Savior. Today our preparations become much more proximate and much more intimate because rather than hearing about the wild man crying out in the wilderness, the story shifts today to focus on the mutual joy of two pregnant women. But what ties it all together is this longing for redemption

From the Benedictine Monastery, Clyde, MO
So before we get to the gospel, we need to look at our first reading from the book of the prophet Micah, because Jesus can really only be understood in the light of the Old Testament. Micah, like all Old Testament prophets, was sent by God to call Israel to return to the Lord's way. Much of Micah's book contains this same call to return to the Lord that we hear throughout the prophets of the Old Testament, but this particular section that we heard today is different. Here, Micah is prophesying about the future salvation of Israel.

In particular, he's prophesying about the humble origins of this coming Savior. He's not going to come from Jerusalem or one of the major regions of Israel. He's going to come from a little backwoods town called Bethlehem. And in ancient Israel when Micah was preaching, much of Israel's problems were due to weak and immoral leadership, and so Micah predicts a Savior who will be a firm and good ruler. He shall shepherd Israel like a flock, he will be strong, and he will bring peace. To the Jews, this would be a dream come true.

And then in the Gospel, that dream is beginning to come true. To really enter into Advent and Christmas, we want to enter into the longing of ancient Israel for their Savior. If we can feel some of Israel's longing for a Redeemer, then we can start to see that this isn't just the joy of two women unexpectedly blessed with pregnancies, as if that isn't cause enough for joy, but this is also the redemption of a whole people that is happening here. Elizabeth recognizes that redemption is at hand, that's why she addresses Mary as "the mother of my Lord." And she calls Mary blessed a couple times. Why? "Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled." Blessed are you who believed. Blessed are you who trusted.

Mary is called blessed because she believed and trusted, and because she trusted, great things happened through her. Because she trusted, the redemption that Israel longed for was accomplished through the child she gave birth to. Israel had been laboring for its redemption for years but could never accomplish it. That was the point of the ritual animal sacrifice of the temple, it was an attempt to atone for the sins of the people. But our second reading teaches us that that's not quite what God wanted. "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; in holocaust and sin offerings you took no delight. Then I said, 'As is written of me in the scroll, behold, I come to do your will." This is a line from one of the psalms of the Old Testament (Psalm 40), but here the author has put it, so to speak, into the mouth of Jesus the Redeemer to explain his mission. Sacrifices and holocausts don't please God, but obedience to his Will does. Jesus comes to be obedient to the Father.

God the Father delights in obedience to his Will, but we want to make sure we understand that the right ways. God is not a dictator who is just made happy when people appease him and do what he says. God delights in your flourishing, and he's the one that made you. He knows what makes you flourish and he knows what hurts you, and so he commands that which is good for you and forbids that which is bad for you.

From the Missal of Bernhard von Rohr
Archbishop of Salzburg, ca 1481
And so with Mary in our gospel and with Jesus in our second reading, we have these portraits of humble obedience to the will of God. Mary's obedience gave life to Jesus, whose own obedience in turn gave life to the whole world. This is contrasted with Eve's disobedience so long ago, which handed death to Adam, whose subsequent disobedience gave death to the whole world.

So it's a good exercise to examine your attitudes towards the commandments we receive through God and through his Church, because through them we can reveal our attitudes about the whole Christian life. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that Christianity is a set of rules and regulations, and so being a Christian means just following a set of rules. If we see Christianity as just a set of rules, we'll come to resent those rules and the rule-giver. But Christianity is about following the Christ, and not Christ the rule-giver, but Christ the Redeemer. To be a Christian is to live in the fulfillment of the longing of ancient Israel. In these last couple days of Advent, let the longing for the Savior fill your hearts. He came into the world to save us from sin and death, from these things we couldn't save ourselves from, and he wants to come into your heart to do the same thing. Don't let his coming be an indifferent event in your life. Long for him to come into your life the way he came into ancient Israel. Long for him in this lead-up to Christmas, and he will not disappoint.

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