Sunday, December 21, 2008

4th Sunday of Advent (B)
Getting the Right Idea

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Psalm 89:2-3, 4-5, 27, 29; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

Sisters and brothers, I’m reminded today of a person, whom we will call Sam. Sam was browsing in Borders Bookstore one day, when a perfect stranger approached and said, Hi Honey! Now, there was no one else along that particular aisle at the time. What do you think was Sam’s reaction? What do you think went through Sam’s mind? Perhaps Sam remembered having heard or read somewhere that people don’t go to Borders simply to shop for books, but also to hook up with other people. And perhaps Sam was indignant at being accosted in this way. Perhaps Sam was even ready to turn around and give the bold stranger a telling off for being so forward. Thankfully, however, Sam took a moment to first look more closely at the offender. For it was only then that Sam noticed the little gadget sticking out of one of the stranger’s ears. Of course! The person wasn’t being rude. The person wasn’t even speaking to Sam. The person was greeting someone else, on the phone.

Have you ever had a similar experience? Isn’t it amazing how easy it is to get the wrong idea, how easy it is to allow what we see and hear to lead us to make certain wrong assumptions about what’s actually going on?

And isn’t it easy too to get the wrong idea about what Advent and Christmas are all about? Many of us find ourselves much busier than usual during this holiday season. There are gifts to be bought, trees to be trimmed, food to be prepared, decorations to be hung, cookies to be baked, cards to be written and sent… Where I live, for example, there are three Christmas trees – one in the reception area, one in the dining hall, and another in the living room. With all this busyness going on around us, it’s easy to go through the season thinking that Advent and Christmas are all about filling up space – space in our homes and on our streets, on our mantles and in our stockings.

To be fair, of course, not all of these activities are for our own enjoyment. There are those of us who also make a special effort, during this season, to give to charity. But still, don’t even worthy actions such as these often remain just another thing that we do, at Christmas, simply to fill up the spaces in our lives? I’m reminded of hearing, for example, a member of a charitable organization lamenting on National Public Radio the other day, that while there is a typical spike in contributions during the holiday season, in contrast, February and March are particularly difficult months, when the poor seem all but forgotten.

But if Advent and Christmas are not really about us filling up space, then what is it about? And if we are, indeed, so prone to getting the wrong idea, what can we do about it?

Perhaps we need to follow Sam’s example, and take a closer look. In particular, we need to examine carefully what the scriptures are telling us today. For in our first reading, we find someone else who is also prone to getting the wrong idea, someone no less than King David himself. Prior to the events of today’s reading, David has been very busy fighting wars and struggling and scheming for his own political survival. And, finally, we meet him today at the pinnacle of his power. We are told that he has settled into his house. He has subdued all his enemies and his seat on the throne is secure. He now has time on his hands. We might say that, after all the busyness, he suddenly finds an opening in his schedule. And how does he react? Rather quickly, he tries to find something else to do to fill up that empty space. He wants to be a master-builder. He proposes to construct a house for his God.

But God has other ideas. Instead of allowing David simply to continue engaging in yet another activity, even an activity for God’s benefit, God invites David to reflect more deeply on the true significance of all that has happened and is happening to him. God reminds David that it was never really only about him, about what he was doing for God, but it was instead about what God was doing for him, and through him, for the rest of the people. It wasn’t David who was filling up space, as much as it was God who was preparing a place for God’s people. It was God who was the divine Master-Builder.

It was I who took you from the pasture… to be commander of my people Israel…. I will fix a place for my people Israel; I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place without further disturbance…

And if it is God who is the Master-Builder, if it is God who seeks to fix a place for us in God’s kingdom, then what is our proper role? What is our proper response? What is the true significance of Advent and Christmas for us? More than simply a time for us to fill up space, this is primarily a season in which we make space – space in our hearts and in our lives – for God. And if, ultimately, it is God who is the one who builds, then the appropriate response for us is not that of King David in the first reading, but that of Mary in the gospel. Our proper role is not that of master-builder but that of handmaid.

Of course, Mary’s is not an easy role to play. The master-builder calls the shots. The handmaid only listens and obeys. The master-builder may enjoy the limelight and the acclaim. The handmaid is happy simply to remain in the background. As Paul tells the Romans in the second reading, not to us, but to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ be glory forever and ever.

And there is a further difference between the builder and the handmaid that makes the latter role a far more difficult one to play. Like those who contribute to charity only at Christmas, the builders among us can choose to give only particular portions of our time and resources. We can be satisfied with offering only whatever is convenient, whenever it’s convenient. But the handmaid is different. To be a handmaid is to give not just what one has, some of the time, but also all of who one is, all of the time. As we said of the Virgin Mary in the opening prayer, she placed her life at the service of God’s plan.

Isn’t this why we need this season of preparation? Like Mary, who took time to converse with the angel, and like Sam who took time to look closely at the stranger, we too need this season to consider carefully what is expected of us, to surface our doubts and anxieties, and to experience God reassuring and strengthening us. We need to do this so that we may obtain the courage and generosity to dedicate our lives ever more completely to God’s great construction project. We need this time to make space – in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world – so that Christ, the Living Temple of God, may once again be born among us.

Sisters and brothers, it is indeed easy to get the wrong idea. But how is God inviting us to look more carefully, and to make space more generously, for the Christ-child today?

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I have had similar experiences as Sam - meeting people who looked at me and seeming to talk to me. I almost talked back to them! Fortunately, it occurred to me just in time that they could be talking to someone else in another space.

    How is God inviting us to make space more generously for the Christ-child today? I guess I need to look and listen more and to first ask clarifying questions.

    And when we are sure that we are not mistaken, what then? How do we discern whether a "prophet", "angel" or "counter-spirit" is talking to us? If there are two (or more) contradictory ways of doing the same thing, and everyone involved believes that s/he is inspired by the Holy Spirit, who indeed has been truly touched by God?