God reveals himself in the small and weak
(Readings: Micah 5:1-4; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-44)
Introduction to Mass
Today is the fourth and last Sunday in Advent. The readings for today's Mass show how God always chooses to work through people who are poor and insignificant in worldly terms to reveal himself and his will. He kept to this principle regarding the birth of his own Son, who came into the world in circumstances of poverty and need and through the cooperation of simple, humble people, especially Mary and Joseph.
As we prepare to celebrate the mystery of God's love let us acknowledge our own failures and weaknesses and ask God for his pardon and strength.
Today, the last Sunday in Advent, the spotlight moves away from John the Baptist and onto Our Lady. In the gospel we hear first of all about Mary's cousin, Elizabeth, who seems to have been unable to have children and had become resigned to the fact that she would never have any.
Among the Jews at that time this was a matter of great regret and even some shame. Whatever the real cause was it was always considered to be the woman's fault. So in her own community Elizabeth's status was inferior and unworthy, and it would have been a source of pain and embarrassment to Zechariah, her husband, as well.
But if they had paid more attention to their own traditions about what God was like they would have known that God thinks differently, and that when he had something to communicate he usually picked people who fell outside the ranks of the normal and conventional - often people who were flawed or lacking in some way.
So for him, in this instance, Elizabeth was the person he wanted for a special task: to give life to John the Baptist, the herald who would announce the coming of the Messiah.
If we go back to the first reading, from the prophet Micah, we see how again God prefers to work through the small and un-prestigious - and chooses Bethlehem, "the least of the clans of Judah" as Micah puts it. It was typical of God to turn to such a community as the place from which the Saviour would emerge.
This was a habit of God's, his constant practice - choosing the weak, as St Paul says, and making them strong for carrying out his purposes. Moses tried to hide from his mission because he didn't feel capable of carrying it out. Jeremiah cursed and swore at God, demanding to know why someone as inadequate as himself had to deliver such unpopular messages to a hostile people.
When we turn to Mary we find someone who didn't have any reluctance in responding to God's call, but she was a young peasant girl from a drab town, Nazareth.
Like the other people God preferred to choose she didn't have any great status. But she was someone who was filled with the uncomplicated faith and devotion of ordinary religious people of the time, and the hope that Micah articulates - that one day the Messiah will appear to reconcile his people with God.
Today our commercialised culture, the culture of consumer capitalism, makes life complicated for people, who are indoctrinated into conventional attitudes and habits as they grow up.
All kinds of choices or "options" are spread out in front of us. If people aren't happy with their physical appearance, they can change it - by exercise, or diet, or surgery. Some people go to extraordinary lengths to try to get the appearance they want.
If we're not happy with our personalities, we can read some self-help book, or go on some course to learn a new set of skills that will transform our personality and our relationships. Or so we're told: the culture of market choice seems to generate a lot of frustrated expectation and unhappiness rather than emotional balance and contentment.
Mary's attitude to life was much simpler than that. She had no large, complicated desires for herself, no great well of dissatisfaction to fall into. She was completely disposed to hearing the word of God and carrying out his will.
But in spite of that the gospels never give the impression that Mary's holiness was distant and aloof. What they put across is her simplicity. Her life was free from the kind of self-centred plans and projections that hinder our relationship with God. She wasn't embittered by all kinds of disappointed expectations and ambitions as so many people are today.
Mary concentrated even more single-mindedly on finding God's will than the great figures of the Old Testament, who often had a hard struggle against their own selfish and sinful tendencies before they learned wholehearted dedication to God.
So maybe the readings this Sunday, and especially the gospel figures of Elizabeth and Mary, teach us something central to God's way of working.
God always prefers to make himself present and work through people who lack importance or status according to worldly standards. In fact, we have to divest ourselves of any desire to be superior or to look down on other people if we want to be sensitive to God's presence and open to his purposes.
God always chooses people who have qualities of simplicity and a positive lack of worldly sophistication, a lack of grandiosity, to reveal himself to us. The attitude of all the main actors in the drama of God's coming to earth illustrate the fact that if we don't learn that kind of simplicity we'll miss the vital message that God is always trying to communicate to us.