All things great and small--and looking ahead.
"But you (Bethlehem) Ephrathah, the least of the clans of Judah, from you will come for me a future ruler of Israel whose origins go back to the distant past, to the days of old....
He will take his stand and he will shepherd them with the power of Yahweh, with the majesty of the name of his God, and they will be secure, for his greatness will extend henceforth to the most distant parts of the country." Micah 5: 1-4.
"He says first You did not want what the Law lays down as the things to be offered, that is: the sacrifices, the cereal offerings, the burnt offerings and the sacrifices for sin, and you took no pleasure in them; and then he says: Here I am! I am coming to do your will. He is abolishing the first sort to establish the second.
And this will was for us to be made holy by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ made once and for all." Hebrews 10: 9-10.
"Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as she could into the hill country to a town in Judah. She went into Zechariah's house and greeted Elizabeth.
Now it happened that as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She gave a loud cry and said, 'Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord? Look, the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.'" Luke 1:39-45.
Week 4 of Advent finds us hearing a theological message of reunion and renewal. Micah's words anticipate a remaking of the terms under which we partner with God, and the passage from Hebrews moves this remaking forward to the Messianic era--our time, the time of the Kingdom now established among us. What does this vision of transformation mean for us?
The temptation is to understand the transition of the Covenants as a point of triangulation in history, clarifying where we are in time and human progress. Yet, we have to be careful lest we make ourselves arrogant about being "over" so many of our more primitive behaviors. The great philosophical debates of modernity are conditioned by the "historical fallacy." Since we are moderns, how could we not be so much better and so much better off than those ancient people?
The truth is, history is only useful if we will learn some lessons. The consequences of sin are ever present, as last week's tragedy in Connecticut shows us. We aren't far removed from the event remembered just three days after Christmas as the massacre of the holy innocents. At Christmas, when we celebrate a rise in our solicitude for one another, it is the most dreadful of ironies to worry that there are those among us whose pathologies render them devoid of empathy and subject not to some new sort of perversity but to powerful, atavistic malice. The wounds of humankind are deep, abiding, transmitted from one generation to the next in a dystopic metaphor of DNA transfer.
But the near approach of the birth of the Messiah, laid out with a serious tone in today's first two readings, challenges us to consider the vision of a new kind of society under a new authority. The nearness of God is for Christians the foundation-stone of all the inner riches of our spirituality. But somehow we must find here the elements of a renewed social edifice as well, beginning with the webs that tie us to family, school and work, and political community. Note how Micah ties the arrival of the "future ruler of Israel" to a time when God's people "will be secure." This is not an isolated or obscure strand of prophetic thought in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The same medieval Jewish mystic and poet, Yehuda Ha-Levi, who could write the fervent, "O Lord, where shall I find Thee?/All-hidden and exalted is Thy place," also authored the formidable treatise called the "Kuzari," which gained an influential role in the great conversation of his day on natural right and just polity. There is a tie between the quality of our personal faith and life and the life of the nation.
The author of Hebrews also binds the great with the humble, the noble with the mean, the universal with the particular: "this [God's] will was for us to be made holy by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ made once and for all." The Creator becomes a singular and exemplary one of us and everything is made new. The invitation is received and accepted, or not, within the intimacy of the personal encounter.
And the family of God, the Son, is suddenly present in that most intimate familial setting, the mother's womb. Depicted by St. Luke, this presence is accompanied by the haste and excitement of a family assembling joyfully--preparing for Christmas! There is the divine calling to the human will, and Elizabeth's child "leapt for joy." A miracle forces us to make a decision about the Nature of things, their sensory and public dimension, and that is what Elizabeth acknowledges, joining the new community consisting of Mary and Joseph and the unborn Savior.
So this Christmas birth points beyond as its power moves within. It is a miracle, by definition. We pray that our hearts will open to receive the newborn King, but the marks of the King's presence within are rightfully accompanied by contagious excitement, communication and the transformation of family and community. Peter Maurin, no friend of the "frozen chosen," calls these energies the "dynamite of the Church" that needs to be detonated. This means something for parents--to think seriously about the community of the family, to consider lovingkindness when patience is in short supply and openness to new circumstances when we discover that our children have minds of their own and aren't following the script we thought we wrote. Truly the script we didn't write invites us to explore God's will and the fuller dimensions of our acceptance and compassion.
For those of us who teach there is also a challenge to move toward the model of Jesus, who did not teach like the others: His lessons were vivid and honest, his manner consistent, his relations with students comfortable and democratic. He was their delight. He let His Truth speak for itself, pleasing some and angering others. Finally, and with significance for us considering the events of these weeks, he was empty of self-will--able to truly give the substance of his life for those in his care. The behavior of the teachers and administrators, those who died and those who lived, in the public school in Connecticut is an example to all.
Finally, let us note that there is very little about the liturgical calendar that is accidental. The Masses of Advent and the Christmas season open a full jar of rich connections. Following Christmas Day, we find the memorial of the Holy Innocents and then the feast of the Holy Family. What greater contrast--from the utter loss of human-family sensibility caused by pathological solipsism, to the Gospel image of its hoped-for perfection of unity and loving-kindness now that the Kingdom is at hand and God is truly with us. The miracle of Christmas, the Incarnation, invites us to make the choice every day in favor of the glorious reality at the true heart of things.
We turn last to Father Gerard Manley Hopkins:
"And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things."
It's Christmas. Eat richly, read richly, contemplate richly. Find the richness of family things, literal and metaphorical, in all your comings and goings this season.