Commentary on Micah 5:1-4; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-44
THE BIRTH OF JESUS is now imminent. In a few days’ time we will be celebrating the memory of that great event. Today’s Mass prepares us for the Christmas celebration. Each of the three readings takes up a different aspect of this great mystery to help us in our understanding and in our personal preparation.
Promise of things to come
The First Reading, from the prophet Micah, sets out the promise of great things to come. The starting point will be the unexpectedly obscure town of Bethlehem and not some other greater centre of Israel. But the one who will come from there will be “the one who is to rule over Israel” and “his origin goes back to the distant past”.
The one who is to come “will stand and feed his flock with the power of the Lord”. And his new people “will live secure, for from then on he will extend his power to the ends of the land”. And, very significantly, “he himself will be peace, shalom”.
A remote corner of Israel
This promise is magnificent but how is it to come into existence and fulfilment? In the Gospel we come down with a bump into the real world. From the grand prophetic language of Micah we are brought to a small remote corner of Israel. Two unknown women, Mary and Elizabeth, seem to be the principal actors. There is no mention of Zachary, the husband of Elizabeth, though he must have been around. But he had doubted the word of the angel and so he cannot speak until after the birth of his son.
And yet, the really important characters are the unseen children, Jesus and John. It is through their mothers that they are first brought together.
Though both women are with child, it is Mary who takes the initiative to visit Elizabeth. In a sense, that is right and proper because Mary is the younger of the two. On the other hand, we know that the status of Mary is higher because she bears within her the Son of God.
When Mary approaches, the child in Elizabeth’s womb reacts immediately. Already, before his birth, John is touched with the Spirit of Jesus. This, we might say, is his baptism. Although John will appear first on the public stage, Jesus is the real source of John’s role as prophet and of his greatness.
At the sound of Mary’s voice, John experienced the presence of Jesus and is filled with the Spirit. “For the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy,” Elizabeth tells Mary.
But Elizabeth also is affected by the presence of Jesus. She bursts into praise for Jesus and his mother and says prophetically: “Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord?” And, by implication, with a visit from the Lord himself.
Surely it is only through faith and the inspiration of the Spirit that she recognises in her younger cousin the Mother of her Lord.
Spirit of service
Already we can see a major theme of Luke’s gospel being unfolded at this early stage in the coming of Jesus, even before his birth in Bethlehem. For we are presented with the humility of the mother and her Son. It is they who go to visit and not they who are visited. There is no question of status or “face” with these two people. Even before he is born, Jesus already comes to serve and not to be served. It is through service we will recognise him as Lord. Later on he will tell his disciples, “You call me Master and Lord and you are right and yet I am the one who washes your feet. You go and do the same” (John 13:13-15).
It is the beginning of God’s great plan to bring salvation and wholeness to the world. God’s own Son is preparing to come and live among us as a human being. He will be like us in every respect except in his freedom from sinfulness and its source, our fears and insecurity. As we party our way through the Christmas season, let us not forget what it is really about: the coming of God among us to show us the greatest love that can be shown, the laying down of one’s life for one’s friends.
We should not, then, be surprised at the Opening Prayer of today’s Mass. It reminds us to look forward to the life of Jesus, a life lived totally in love that will end in suffering and death as the way to glory and everlasting life. Christmas might seem a strange time to be thinking of the suffering of Jesus. But Jesus’ life is to be seen as a seamless robe: birth in poverty to death on a cross as the essential way to new life and glory. We celebrate his birth because of the triumphant victory of his death. He emptied himself for love of us and the Father has raised him to the highest heavens.
All that happened from the moment of Jesus appearing among us as a human person can only be fully understood in the light of the passage from the Letter to the Hebrews which is our Second Reading for today.
It is by the total submission of the Son to the will of his Father that the fulfilment of the promise becomes possible. The Father, says the Letter, is not really interested in sacrifices and oblations of animals and things. “You took no pleasure in holocausts or sacrifices for sin.” Instead, the Father “prepared a body” for his Son. And, united with that body as a true human being, the Son offered himself unconditionally to his Father.
“Here I am! I am coming to obey your will” and the obeying of that will was effected by the total offering of his human self. This self-offering far transcends any other offering that could be made. No one can offer more than one’s own self.
That offering of himself will be seen in the whole life of Jesus as it unfolds in the Gospel pages, leading finally to the dramatic confrontation between love and greed, hatred, pride. Not without difficulty, Jesus will make the final offering of himself with “the greatest love that a person can show”. The outcome will be the Cross as the gateway to Resurrection.
An invitation to follow
Jesus does not only do all this for us while we sit back and wait to be “saved”. He invites us to say with him to the Father: “Here I am! I am coming to obey your will.”
Mary herself has already followed her Son, though he is not yet born. Asked as an unmarried virgin if she is willing to be the mother of Jesus and assured that, with God, all things are possible, she has already said: “Yes! Let all this happen to me as you have planned it.” At this stage, she has no idea what is in store but she has said her Yes and she will be faithful to it.
There was an advertisement for a brand of cigarettes some years ago which used to ask: “Have you said ‘Yes’ yet?” It is a question that the readings of today’s Mass are asking each one of us. We are about to celebrate Christmas very soon. Probably all our other preparations have been made or we are up to our eyes making them. But have we made the most important preparation of all? Yes to the Father, Yes to Jesus, Yes to all that we will experience in the coming year, Yes to every call that God makes and will make of us?
Part of the meaning of Christmas is that by contemplating the experiences of Jesus and Mary, we learn from them how to say an unqualified and unconditional Yes. Because that is where the real joy and happiness of Christmas lies. All the rest is tinsel.