FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT – YEAR C
Joseph Campbell, a man who devoted his life to the study of myths and hero stories, once remarked that every great story begins when the hero leaves home. Today we watch Mary leave her home in Nazareth to be with her elderly, likewise pregnant kinswoman, Elizabeth. But the entire liturgy of Advent has been an invitation to all of us to leave home and do some traveling. The Scriptures have been our travel planner, and it has looked for a long time as though we were bound for Jerusalem. We have heard the prophets picturing Jerusalem standing atop Mount Zion beckoning us forward across a desert that is transformed into a garden by our passage. We have stood at the very gates of the Holy City listening to Zephaniah proclaiming God’s undying love for her people and inviting us to join in a song of rejoicing.
Today, on the final Advent Sunday, as we are just about to step through the gates of Jerusalem we discover with surprise that this splendid city is not the goal of our pilgrimage ,after all. Like the Magi we hear Micah directing us to the little suburban village of Bethlehem. In that hamlet, too small even to be numbered among the clans of Judah, we will find the Savior whom we have gone off to seek.
The God who has called us out on pilgrimage is an unpredictable God, a God of surprises. The prophets had written that in the latter days the nations would stream to Jerusalem. They would be drawn there by the presence of the God of heaven and earth; and they would find him in its Temple. But today we learn that God is no longer to be found in that magnificent structure over which Jesus was moved to tears. Instead the Almighty One is enclosed in the womb of a young woman as she makes her way through the hill country of Judea. Elizabeth instinctively reacts to the divine presence as she and Mary embrace and kiss. “The moment your greeting sounded in my ears, the baby stirred in my womb for joy.”
But let’s look back for a moment to Jerusalem and its Temple. The Letter to the Hebrews teaches us that the boy child who caused such joy even before his birth is the great high priest of God’s people. But Jesus will not set about purifying the Temple liturgy. Instead, he will see beyond the sacrifices offered there daily to their deepest meaning, the promise hidden within them. “I have come to do your will, O God.” Obedience to the Father would be the mark of this priest. First he takes upon himself a human nature in obedience to the Father’s will and then he offers his own body upon the cross – and that outside the walls of Jerusalem.
The God whom we have come out to seek is a God who comes to meet us. But he is a God who accompanies us through lives that are chock full of surprises, detours, sudden shifts and turns of the road of life. How often we start out for Jerusalem and wind up in Bethlehem. We search for a mighty savior and discover a helpless infant. We dream of temples but see only human beings like ourselves, human beings who are often needy or troublesome; but who can also show sudden, unexpected tokens of heroism. Life rarely goes according to plan.
Today on the Fourth Sunday of Advent we receive a gentle invitation from Mary, the sweet maiden of Nazareth, the mother-to-be. She bids us follow her. Her journey will take her from the house of Elizabeth and Zachariah to Bethlehem, to exile in Egypt, to a wedding in Cana, to a Cross high atop Calvary, and finally to the Upper Room where the Spirit of her Risen Son causes the very house to shake with excitement and promise. If we accompany her, it will be an adventure more dramatic and challenging than anything Joseph Campbell found outside the Bible. But it brings us at last to a thrilling moment of realization of how blessed we are because we have believed that the Lord’s words to us have been fulfilled.