4th Sunday of Advent
Sacred Heart of Mary,
Dec. 22, 2019
On this 4th Sunday of Advent, so close to Christmas, it is a joy to visit Sacred Heart of Mary Parish and to thank the priests of the Institute of the Incarnate Word for their presence in the Archdiocese of Baltimore and for the service of Father Mariano Varela as your pastor. At the same time, I want to thank all of you, the parishioners of Sacred Heart of Mary, Our Lady of Fatima, and St. Rita for welcoming so warmly Father Mariano and Fr. Miguel. It has been a time of transition both for the Institute and for this pastorate. I wanted to come in person to say a profound word of gratitude and to share with you, in advance, the joy of celebrating the Lord’s Birth.
Where Is God?
Dear friends, we are gathered together as a family of faith, as those who believe in God and trust in all that God has promised us. Yet, as we know, there are many who no longer believe in God or who doubt his existence, or who live as if God does not exist. Not too long ago, people used to say that they were “spiritual” but not “religious”, meaning that they felt they had some sort of relationship with God but did not subscribe to any form of organized religion. Today, that picture has changed. Many people, including the young, have been taught and are convinced that science disproves the existence of God and that religion is but myth and a cause of conflict. Accordingly, they regard themselves as neither spiritual nor religious.
To confirm their way of thinking, critics of religious faith and of organized religion will ask, “Where is God?” “Where is God in the face of human suffering?” “Where is God when disaster strikes, whether of natural or human origin?” Not finding empirical, tangible, firsthand proof of God’s existence and presence, some have given up the search for God altogether. “Why search for someone who doesn’t exist?” many seem to say.
To repeat, that is not a typical attitude of anyone who comes to Church regularly. Nonetheless, even for an ardent believer God can seem to be absent, especially when the problems of life threaten to overwhelm us. Sometimes when we pray, it almost seems as though God is hiding from us. Mother Teresa, who prayed more deeply than we can imagine, often experienced what seemed like the absence of God in her prayer – but the more she prayed in darkness,
the more brightly the light of Christ shone through her. And even if we have never had that particular experience, all of us have family members and loved ones who have stopped practicing the faith, some of whom have, for all practical purposes, stopped believing in God. To all appearances, they have ceased searching for God in their lives.
God’s Search for Us
Even as many no longer search for God let it be said loud and clear by us, by this community of faith, that the season of Advent and the celebration of Christmas tell a different story. They tell the story not of our search for God but rather of God’s search for us: the lengths to which God went to reveal himself to us, his longing to be with us, his desire to forgive our sins and to lead us to joy of everlasting life.
Years ago, a noted professor at an Ivy League university challenged his students. He said to them, “I’ll bet that none of you can tell me why you exist.” A young Catholic put up his hand and said, “I can! … “God made me to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world,
and to be happy forever with him in the next.” Those of us who are a little older will recognize those famous words that come from the Baltimore Catechism we studied in elementary school… And while those words are familiar to us, they were big news to the professor who had not expected such a clear, concise, and compelling answer to his question. What’s more, those simple words still bring home a fundamental truth – God created us in love and for love. He made us in his image so that we could know him, love him, and share his friendship forever. And even when we sinned, God did not give up on us. No, he came in search of us.
The Meaning of Advent
Indeed, this is the meaning of this season of Advent: In Advent we relive in a compressed form the history of the Chosen People. We are reminded how God chose a people to be his own, revealed himself to them, and walked with them throughout the winding ways of their history – slavery in Egypt, wandering in the desert, exile from the promised land, domination by foreign powers – just to name a few of the challenges. In the midst of it all, many in Israel turned away from the Lord and instead worshipped idols and profaned the covenant. Nonetheless, the Lord never turned away from them. Instead, God intensified his search, his determination to unite himself to us.
Isn’t this what we see in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah, Isaiah who invited the corrupt and failing king, Ahaz, to ask God for a sign? But because of his weak faith, Ahaz balked at God’s gracious invitation. Nonetheless, Isaiah provided Ahaz with the sign God had sent him to convey: a virgin who would conceive a son who would deliver Israel from its enemies… a prophecy which, in years to come, would fulfilled, beyond even the prophet Isaiah’s dreams.
As the time for the birth of the Savior drew near, God’s outreach intensified. God sent his Angel Gabriel to announce that the birth of the Messiah was imminent—to Zechariah the father of John the Baptist, to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and, in today’s Gospel account, to St. Joseph. We read how the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, instructing him not to hesitate to hesitate to take Mary into his home…for her Child was conceived of the Holy Spirit. And thus was Isaiah’s prophecy fulfilled, “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son…” The Angel tells him that the Son about to be born of Mary is a descendant of David yet also in truth the very Son of God, the longed-for Messiah, Immanuel, God-with-us, God-with-us in person, in our very flesh. For all his astonishment that must have welled up in his mind and heart, Joseph awoke and did just as the Angel had instructed him. He responded to the Angel’s message with “the obedience of faith”.
Our Response to God’s Search for Us
What, then, should our response be to God’s search for us, his outreach to us? What thoughts and sentiments should fill our minds and hearts as Christmas, the feast of God-with-us, dawns upon us? Let me suggest that you and I should respond as did St. Joseph, with an obedient faith, that is to say, a faith that is so attuned to God and to his purposes that we allow Jesus to find us, that we welcome the newborn King with joy, that we rejoice when he draws near to us and submit in faith to whatever asks of us. And what a difference that will make in our outreach to those who do not believe. For, at first, it is not rational arguments that persuade non-believers but rather the joy and peace and goodness of those whom God has found, of those to whom God has drawn close … and God has indeed drawn close to us: by sending his Son into the world, by giving his Son to us on the Cross, by sharing his Risen Life in the power of the Spirit, and by pouring forth all these blessings upon us in and through the Sacraments, most especially the Eucharist, the Lord’s very own Body and Blood.
When our faith, our hope, our love – and our joy – are palpable, visible, real – then the questions from those who doubt or have turned away will come to us, and then we will be able to share the reasons of our hope – the hope that springs up afresh each year, on a cold winter’s night, when the Angels announce the glad tidings of the Lord’s birth – “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will!” May you have a most joyous Christmas and may God bless you and keep you always in his love!