Fourth Sunday in Advent

Micah 5:1-4a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45

An editorial in a recent edition of the Chicago Tribune was entitled: “A Coronary for Christmas?”  It cited a study in Sweden that showed that heart attacks on Christmas Eve and Christmas day occurred at rates much higher than average.  Contributing factors included excessive eating and drinking and the excitement of being surrounded by family members and friends.

But there was more.  The researchers observed that while Christmas is a time of joy, it is also a time of stress.  People are anxious about many things, from the expectations of gift recipients to the credit card bills that will come due in January.  While the presence of some relatives can be a cause for joy, the presence or absence of others can be a cause for sadness.  Conversations about politics, religion or even sports can lead to conflict. 

The Tribune editorial concluded with these not very hopeful words: “The vast majority of us, though, will survive the experience. And here’s some solace if you have to trek to the mall to stand in line to exchange an ugly sweater after the festivities are done:  Not everyone lives so long.”

We see excitement as well as joy in today’s gospel reading.  Elizabeth is (literally) moved by her son John to acclaim to her kinswoman Mary: “Blessed are you among woman, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

But joy is also different and deeper than merely feeling good or happy.  It is an abiding sense of well-being about ourselves and our world.  As we come to the end of another Advent season and prepare for the beginning of our Christmas celebrations tomorrow evening, the word of God invites us to experience the joy of being in the presence of God. 

We rejoice in God’s fidelity to us even when we, like our ancestors in the faith, turn away from God and sin. We rejoice in the humility of God, who out of love for us became one of us, standing firm with us and shepherding us.  We rejoice in the new covenant that Jesus sealed with his own self-sacrifice and obedience to his Father’s will.  We rejoice in the abiding presence of God in our lives and in the Church through the gift of the Holy Spirit. We rejoice that we have the chance to share these things with other believers. 

When they encountered each other, Mary and Elizabeth were both experiencing unexpected and complicated pregnancies.  Elizabeth was about to give birth to a child that she thought she could never have.  Mary had said yes to God’s call for her to be the mother of Jesus, his Son.  In the midst of their stress and uncertainty, they both could see the hand of God at work. 

I hope that, in our many activities and travel in the coming days, we will also experience joy and see the hand of God at work in our lives, in our families and in our world—perhaps even in ugly sweaters, but especially in the face of a baby born in a manger in a little town called Bethlehem.  +