Referring to her first year as a volunteer in a home for unwed mothers, a young woman said to me, “I was depressed. What kind of God would let young women and innocent children suffer so much? Finally it got through to me…God is not going to come down and show us his love like he did two thousand years ago. We have to let God’s love work through us. We have to continue to say YES to what God wants us to do much like Mary did.”
On the last Sunday in the season of advent, the Church invites us through the readings to move away from testimony to fact. We read the story of how God intervened in human history through the faith and courage of one woman. Confronted by the message of the Angel Gabriel that she would be the mother of the Messiah, Mary could only wonder aloud: “But how can this come about?” Humanly speaking, it was impossible for her to bear a child, since she was a virgin. But the Angel responded: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow.” A seemingly impossible situation is about to be made possible by the intervention of God. But for this to happen, the Almighty God had to count on the cooperation of a humble woman named Mary.
Furthermore, God did not choose people renowned for their constancy in virtue. Instead Jesus was born of a family in which some people frequently misused their positions of power and authority, others gained their rights by means of deception, still others seemed oblivious of the working of God in their lives. God chose a family not unlike our own families. In other words, the Incarnation occurred within the real world, a broken world, a world that was very much in need of healing.
God chooses people who seldom fit the criteria that we might employ. Even Mary, a simple woman from Nazareth in Galilee, was an unlikely choice. The mystery, of which Paul speaks in the second reading of today, is not only the fact of the Incarnation, but also the means whereby it came to be. God chooses the weak of the world to confound the strong. He chooses those of low degree to bring down the mighty from their thrones. As the promise made to David was handed down through the ages, that family came to be seen as an avenue of God’s goodness to others. Born of this family, Jesus became the ultimate agent of God’s blessing for all. This is the mystery now revealed, a mystery compounded by mystery. This messy world of ours, the real world of human history, is now “charged with the grandeur of God.”
The first reading of today is a text just after David has defeated the Philistines and united the tribes of Israel. Flush with enthusiasm he proposes to build a house for the Ark of the Covenant which was a kind of throne for God, also containing the tablets with God's commandments from Sinai. God reverses this proposal questioning how a humble human can build a shelter for God. After all it is God who has sheltered David throughout his perilous career as shepherd, military commander, and leader of an entire nation. Instead God proposes to dwell among David and his ancestors: "I shall appoint your heir, your own son to succeed you . . . and I shall make his royal throne secure forever. I shall be a father to him and he a son to me . . . Your dynasty your sovereignty will stand firm before me and your throne be forever secure."
This announcement from God to David says that the Creator of the Universe, the Loving and Just God resides not in a special place but in people who believe. The presence of the Living God among people from Moses, to David, and now to us is described by Paul as a "mystery revealed". This is the central meaning of Christmas for us. Of course God is always with us. But the birth of Jesus represents a unique moment when this awesome gift becomes especially apparent. Our Gospel passage today reminds us of how the presence of God is frightening and disturbing. It 'breaks the chains that bind us', lifts up the poor, and makes us wonder, Could the world be about to turn? Is our world being turned upside down?
Through the annunciation made to Mary we are reminded that Christ is not born amid pomp or fanfare, celebration, riches, or glory. Christ was born in a dark moment of history when people had every reason to be afraid. And still it is the places in our lives where oppression, illness, and injury reside that we are told to look for God.
As strange as that sounds it is perfectly in keeping with the Christmas spirit. It is in our woundedness, our fear, our shame, our callousness towards the poor that God visits us and turns the world around, yes turns the world upside down.
This is why we are told, "Do not be afraid". People of humility and faith, who live simple lives of justice and love like Mary, can trust in God's justice and love. Those who live in this way are favored by God, sheltered by the Holy Spirit, and fruitful. They will live forever. This is the promise that was made to David, to Mary, and now to us.