The Uncomfortable Reversal

There are some prophets whose words we only hear on the Sundays in Advent. Those are Malachi, Zephaniah and now Micah. The Lectionary choices of these “smaller/minor” prophets for Advent is really significant. A prophet who raged against social injustice, Micah points to God’s promise of the great reversal – from Bethlehem, one of the littlest clans and the most insignificant villages, will come the great Saviour.  God will be born of a woman, another sign of lowliness and insignificance. This Saviour will be born in poverty instead of pomp and circumstance.

This Saviour, poor, insignificant in the eyes of the world, will feed his flock and be the divine shepherd. Contrary to human default to favour the rich and famous, Micah reminds us that God favours the poor, the weak and the insignificant. This is an essential piece to grasp if we are to appreciate the unique and revolutionary gift of the Incarnation. No other major religion lifts up the poor and the lowly as radically as does Christianity.

The Letter to the Hebrews goes to great length to argue that the old religion is finished; no more sacrifices, not more burnt offerings, no more empty legalism. From now on, what counts is openness of heart and the willingness to do God’s will in action, to make God’s covenant of love with all creation visible and tangible in our very bodies and in a daily lived witness of love and of mercy. Mary’s yes is the first and most significant illustration of this new covenant. The words “See, I have come to do your will,” first find expression in Mary’s fiat, then are completed in Jesus’ life and witness, and ultimately are uttered on the cross: “It is finished.” 

Mary and Elizabeth meet because of Christ. Even though they are cousins and thus blood-relatives, their encounter takes on a much richer dimension because of Jesus. Two poor, insignificant women are God’s collaborators in the great divine plan of redemption in and through Jesus. At major points in biblical history, God has teamed up with women to bring about salvation to God’s holy people: opening barren wombs like Sarah’s, Rebekkah’s and Hannah’s, rescuing the chosen people through Queen Esther, using the prostitute Rahab to secure the capture of Jericho, preparing Jesus’ genealogical lineage through Ruth etc. In Mary’s yes God’s partnership with women for the salvation of the world reaches its peak.

God’s election of Elizabeth and Mary points to several characteristics of the church to become. First, Christ, even before his birth, brought out the deeper, richer, dimension of human encounter (Luke 2:39—45), drawing together people who would not normally seek one another out. Second, what bonds Mary and Elizabeth, and subsequently all followers of Christ, is singing God’s praises in what God is doing in Jesus (Luke 2:46—56). Third, inherent to God’s plan of redemption is the overthrowing of the dominant social order (Luke 2:51—54); this was predicted and is to be welcomed in every historical time and place.

Mary is blessed not only for her status as the mother of the Lord, but also for her trust in God’s promise. Mary is blessed because, despite all cultural and social expectations, she is honoured rather than shamed for bearing this child. But she has also been blessed with divine joy – with beatitude – because she believed that God is able to do more than what she could ask or imagine. By greeting Mary with honour, Elizabeth overturns social expectations.

Elizabeth’s response to her miraculous pregnancy emphasizes that God’s grace has reversed her social status: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people” (Luke 1:25). Elizabeth continues the pattern of God’s great reversal by opening her arms and her home to a relative whom her neighbours would expect her to reject. Instead of shaming Mary, she welcomes, blesses, and celebrates her, treating her as more honourable than herself. Thus the pregnancy that might have brought Mary shame brings joy and honour instead. When Elizabeth welcomes Mary, she practices the same kind of inclusive love that Jesus will show to prostitutes and sinners. She sees beyond the shamefulness of Mary’s situation to the reality of God’s love at work even among those whom society rejects and excludes.

On this eve before Christmas Eve, we stand at the threshold of recalling the divine fulfillment in the Christ-child. On four consecutive Sundays we heard God’s promise and the call to repentance, transformation and great joy. God’s great reversal comes through powerfully in today’s readings: an insignificant clan, an insignificant little place, and two poor, insignificant women – these set the stage and these are the main actors God recruits to bring about the great plan of humanity’s redemption. Contradicting traditional ideas and making obsolete traditional practices, two poor women gave their bodies and blood in the priestly act of preparing the way and giving life to God-in-the-flesh – one to the forerunner and herald John, the other to God’s own Son Jesus. The blood and water from their wombs formed the sanctuary in which God took on human form, eventually leading to the ultimate sacrifice on the cross where blood and water poured forth once again, this time from the Saviour’s side.

Mary and Elizabeth reveal that, as bodily and spiritual vessels of God’s incarnation, women are primary sacramental instruments of God’s grace in Christ. In bearing the child Jesus in her womb, Mary’s body was the first to give Christ’s flesh and blood to the world in the Eucharistic offering of giving birth, an offering completed in Jesus’ gift of body and blood at the Last Supper: This is my body given for you, my blood shed for you, once and for all.

Jesus came to replace comfortable religion with uncomfortable redemption. What he offers is far better than any old system of sacrificial religion. But the change required in our perception and understanding, in our attitudes and motives, and in our living is downright scary. This was true 2,000 years ago and it is still true today. It is so scary that, for most of these 2,000 years, we have caged this uncomfortable news by creating other institutions with sacrificial practices, rules and regulations. But the ones keeping the message of uncomfortable but real redemption in Christ alive are the same as 2,000 years ago: the women, the poor, the weak, the marginalized, little ones without power. Let us remember this uncomfortable dimension of Christmas as we sing our carols, dig into the turkey, and share our gifts of love and friendship and joy.

Homily preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2018
Micah 5:2-5; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-56

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