4th Sunday of Advent
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
December 18, 2022
A Eureka Moment
As a newly ordained and inexperienced priest, I visited a parishioner in the hospital. She was suffering terribly, and I was lost for words. As I fumbled for the Oil of the Sick and the Ritual, I stammered something about trying to find God in the midst of suffering.
This wonderful woman of faith sensed my discomfort. She smiled at me, took me by the hand, and said, “Oh, Father, don’t you worry about me. I’m not trying to find God in this hospital bed; he’s trying to find me. And you know what? I think he’s finally got me!” It was a “eureka moment” in my life as a Christian and as a priest, an encounter I have reflected on many times through the years. Yes, we search for God, but not half as much as God searches for us.
Advent Message: God’s Search for Us
Before all else, Advent is about God’s search for us, his relentless pursuit of us. God created us for friendship with himself and didn’t give up when we rejected it. No, God sought us out to heal us of sin and the alienation sin produces in us. He intervened in human history repair our wounded dignity and sense of purpose, both individually and collectively, by raising up a Holy People. That is why he appeared to Moses, guided his people through the desert, revealed himself to them on Mount Sinai and raised up David as king. The Lord stood by his people in their trials and sufferings, all the while promising them a Messiah who would deliver them from fear, from alienation, from sin, and ultimately, from death.
In our reading from the prophet Isaiah, we see God yet again pursuing his people. King Ahaz, a successor to King David, is on the ropes. His kingdom is faltering. His enemies are about to invade the land. The Lord invites Ahaz to ask for a sign but he refuses to do so – not because of reverence but because his faith was weak. So, the Lord overrules Ahaz, and through Isaiah promises the House of David this sign: “…a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emanuel” – a name which means ‘God is with us.’
That prophecy was not fulfilled during the lifetime of Ahaz. But that does not mean that God abandoned his people or forgot his promise. No, God remained with his people, walking with them through thick and thin, … right up to the scene in today’s Gospel where Joseph learns in a dream that the prophecy made to Ahaz, centuries earlier, would be fulfilled through him: “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary, your wife, into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.”
Mary’s pregnancy put Joseph in a terrible quandary, but that’s the way God chose to fulfill the promise he made long ago to draw near to his people in a new and definitive way. No longer would he speak through prophets. No, he would come “in person”, so to speak. The Child in Mary’s virginal womb would be none other than God’s eternal Son. The Virgin Mary’s Child would be called Emanuel, for in him ‘God is indeed with us.’
Advent Response: The Obedience of Faith
Thankfully, Mary consented to God’s plan: “Let it be done to me as you say,” she said. Thankfully, when Joseph awoke, he did as the angel had commanded him. Both Mary and Joseph teach us how to respond to the astonishing truth that God would go to such lengths to befriend us, to save us, to draw us to himself. In our second reading, St. Paul pegs their response as “the obedience of faith”. Unlike Ahaz whose faith was weak, the faith of Mary and Joseph was strong, so strong that they took God at his word and cooperated fully with his plan of salvation. Not only did they surrender their plans so as to cooperate with God’s plan; they continued to obey even when things were unclear, and they were perplexed. They trusted that God would do great things through the child about to be born.
Continuing to Live the Message of Advent
And we may say, “Yes, God seeks out special souls like Joseph and Mary, but is God actively pursuing me? Is God actively seeking me?” Don’t we sometimes feel as though God were distant, even absent from our lives – whether in our personal trials and sorrows or in a world that seems so broken? Can it be that God really wants to seek and find us and to stay with us? Or that his power and presence are as real today as they were in biblical times?
Advent beckons us to believe that God is Emanuel, God is with us, here and now, and this final week of Advent, busy as it is, is the right time to take stock of the many ways the Lord is reaching out to us, if only we would pause long enough to open our hearts to him: …Christ reaches out to us in his Word, for when we listen to Scripture or read it prayerfully, Christ speaks to our hearts. …The Lord is with us when we shut the door to our inner-room and pray alone but also when we pray together with others, for ‘where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there in their midst.’ …The Lord pursues us through the poor and to the extent that we minister to them, to that extent do we encounter the Lord Jesus ‘in his distressing disguises’. …The Lord extends himself to us in the Sacraments, especially the Sacrament of Penance, where he offers us forgiveness, mercy, and peace. …Above all, the Lord pours out his very life for us in the Eucharist – his true Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – the very One promised to Ahaz, the very One born of the Virgin Mary, the same Lord who laid down his life for us in love.
So, indeed, the Lord still pursues us, even when we hide from him – often hiding behind our busy-ness or defenses we’ve built to keep him at bay. With only a little coaxing, with only a little openness on our part, the Lord will come and flood our souls with light, love, grace, and joy. And if we welcome him with the obedience of faith – like Mary and Joseph – embracing the Lord’s will even in our confusion, uncertainty, unworthiness and pain, the Lord will use us, as he used Joseph and Mary, to do his saving work here and now – to spread the Good News of his love in our families and parishes, but also, in the wider communities where we work and socialize. In a word, he will love us, draw us to himself, and make of us “missionary disciples”.
As Christmas draws near, my prayer is that each of us will experience the powerful and merciful presence of Jesus our Savior, the fulfillment of God’s promises and the fulfillment of our deepest desires – and respond to the presence of Jesus, Emanuel, with the obedience of faith. And may God bless us and keep us always in his love.