4th Sunday of Advent
St. Mark Parish, Fallston
Dec. 16, 2016
By Archbishop William E. Lori
Many years ago, when I was a newly ordained and inexperienced priest, I visited a parishioner in the hospital. She was suffering terribly, and to tell you the truth, I was lost for words. I think I stammered something about trying to find God in the midst of her suffering as I fumbled around for the Oil of the Sick and the ritual so that I could anoint her.
Sensing my discomfort, this wonderful woman of faith smiled at me, took my hand, and she said to me, “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. A thought I’ve returned to hundreds of times over the years in my prayer: Yes, we search for God but not half as much as God searches for us.
Advent, in the first place, is all about God’s search for us, his relentless pursuit of us.
God created us for friendship with himself and did not give up on us when we sinned. On the contrary, God ardently sought us out to heal our relationship with him and to restore his presence and friendship among us.
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 bring them deliverance.
In tonight’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah, King Ahaz, a successor to 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 true reverence but because of the weakness of his faith.
The Lord overrules Ahaz and through Isaiah offers the House of David this sign: “…the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emanuel”… a word that means ‘God is with us’.
This prophecy was not fulfilled during the lifetime of Ahaz but that does not mean that God abandoned his people or forgot his promise. Rather, God remained with his people, walking with them through thick and thin, right up to the scene in tonight’s God from Matthew… wherein Joseph learns in a dream that the prophecy made to Ahaz centuries earlier is about to 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, which had put Joseph in a terrible quandary, was in fact, the fulfillment of God’s promise to draw near to his people in a new and definitive way.
No longer is God merely speaking through prophets or through signs and wonders. Rather, he is coming in person, so to speak.
The child in Mary’s womb is to be called Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. The child in Mary’s womb will be called Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us!”
Thankfully, at her annunciation, Mary consented to God’s plan, saying to the angel, “Let it be done to me according to thy Word.” Thankfully, after his annunciation, Joseph awoke and did as the angel commanded. Both Mary and Joseph exemplify how to respond to the astonishing truth that God would go to such lengths to be with us and to save us from our sins.
St. Paul pegs their response in tonight’s second reading as “the obedience of faith.” Unlike Ahaz, whose faith was weak, who dithered in the presence of the divine, the faith of Mary and Joseph was strong, so strong in fact, that they took God at his word and cooperated fully with his plan of salvation.
They surrendered their own expectations and plans because they believed God would do great things through child about to be born.
And we may say that, yes indeed, God seeks out special souls like Joseph and Mary or like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Mother Teresa … but is he actively seeking me? After all, don’t we sometimes feel as though God were distant or even absent from us not only in our personal trials and sorrows but also in a world that seems very broken?
Can it be that God really is in pursuit of us, that he remains determined to be with us, and that the power of his presence has not diminished with the passage of time?
The Lord Jesus continues to be Emmanuel “God with us” in our lives and this final week of Advent, busy as it is, is the right time to take stock of all the ways in which the Lord is present among us, actively pursuing us, if only we would pause long enough to open our hearts to him.
Christ is present to us in his Word for when Scripture is proclaimed it is the Lord himself who speaks to us.
The Lord is present to us in the Sacraments, especially the Sacrament of Penance in which Jesus saves us from our sins.
The Lord is among us when we pray with others for ‘when two or three are gathered in his name’, he is with us.
The Lord is present to us in the persons of the poor – Jesus in his distressing disguises, as St. Teresa of Calcutta used to say – and to the extent we minister to them, to that extent we minister to Jesus.
And above all, the Lord Jesus is present to us in the Eucharist which is not merely a symbol of his presence but his true presence – his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – the same promised to Ahaz, born of Mary, guided by Joseph, the same Lord who laid down his life for us and for our salvation.
So, it is not as if the Lord is no longer seeking us. Usually, it is we who are hiding from the Lord – hiding behind our busyness and the defenses we’ve built to justify our sins.
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, a faith so strong that we are willing to surrender to him not only our sins but even our plans and expectations – the Lord will be very present to us, and not only that, he will use us, as he used Joseph and Mary, to do his saving work here and now…in our families, in our parish, in the wider community where we work and socialize.
In a word he will make of us “missionary disciples.”
As Christmas approaches, my prayer is that each of us will experience the powerful and merciful presence of Jesus, our Savior, the fulfillment of God’s promise, the fulfillment of our deepest desire — and respond to the presence of Jesus, Emmanuel, with the obedience of faith.
May God bless us and keep us always in his love!
Read more from Archbishop Lori here.