4th Sunday of Advent (C)
Picture: cc Epic Fireworks
Sisters and brothers, do you know what it feels like to be both empty and full at the same time? What do I mean? Well, imagine for a moment that you’re driving a car on the road. And you suddenly realise that the fuel tank is almost empty. The indicator light is flashing. You need to stop and fill up… Thankfully, you spot a petrol station along the way. But, unfortunately, when you drive into it, you find that it’s closed. No petrol to be bought here.
Which is bad enough. But then something even worse happens. You meet a few friends of yours, who beg you to give them a ride. And, before you can protest, they all pile into your car. So now your vehicle is both full and empty. Full of passengers. But empty of the fuel it needs to transport them. What are you to do?
I may be wrong, sisters and brothers, but isn’t this a good image of what daily life feels like for many of us? On the one hand, our lives are really very full. Full of work to do. Responsibilities to bear. Promises to keep. People to please. Goals to accomplish. Dreams to fulfil. At home. At work. In school. Even in church. And isn’t this true even of those of us who have already retired? Although we have plenty of time on our hands. Much more than before. Doesn’t all this free time feel strangely oppressive? Doesn’t it fill my life like a heavy burden. How to occupy my time? How to make myself useful? What am I to do?
And yet, full though our lives may be, when we stop to think about it, don’t many of us also often feel terribly empty? Empty of the energy and motivation, the courage and inspiration, that we need to bear the burden of life? Don’t we often feel tired and stressed? Frustrated and anxious? Short in temper and patience, but long on anger and resentment? And aren’t these feelings very much like that flashing indicator light on the car’s dashboard? Signalling frantically to us. Warning us that, even though the passenger compartment may be filled to overflowing, the gas tank is all but empty. The vehicle is at risk of stalling. What are we to do?
Sisters and brothers, if, like me, you’ve ever found yourself in a situation like this. If you ever feel as though your life is, at once, full of burdens to bear, and empty of the energy required to bear them. Then you need to pay close attention to our Mass readings for this 4th and final Sunday of Advent. For they show us a way out. God’s way out.
The first reading is addressed precisely to those whose lives are simultaneously full and empty. For some time now, for their own selfish reasons, the people of God have turned to the worship of foreign gods. Deities that they thought would enrich their lives. But these gods have proven to be nothing more than idols. False gods. Not only do they take up precious time and space in the people’s lives. But they also leave them painfully empty of spiritual nourishment. They make the people feel as though the Lord, the one true God, has abandoned them. Allowing them to be conquered by their enemies. Their sons and daughters carried off into exile in far distant lands.
But God has not forgotten his people. God promises to visit them again. To send them a new leader. A good shepherd. Someone who will stand and feed his flock with the power of the Lord, and the majesty of the name of his God. Someone who will finally fill the people in the way they need to be filled. The way they long to be filled. With true spiritual energy and inspiration. Enabling them to enjoy lasting security and peace in the land. Teaching them to be empty and full in a whole new way. Empty of oppressive idols. And full of the power of God. How will this leader do this? We find the answer in the other readings.
The second reading speaks to us of two contrasting ways of relating to God. Two different spiritualities, if you like. Each of them is, again, both full and empty. But in very different ways. The first is focused only on external observances. It is full of apparently pious religious practices. But these are actually empty and idolatrous. For they are centred not on God, but on those who perform them. They are full of self. And empty of God. Which is why God takes no pleasure in them.
In place of these external practices, Christ models for us a different form of worship. One that is also at once empty and full. But in the opposite way. Not full of self, and empty of God. But empty of self, and full of God. A worship that consists not in self-gratifying, ego-inflating external performance. But in a deep interior offering of self to God. Here I am! I am coming to obey your will. An interior offering that is then lived out in meaningful external actions in the world. Actions that draw strength from the selfless sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Through which God makes everyone and everything holy.
But what does it look like when people actually allow themselves to worship God in this new Christ-like way? Which is at once empty of self and full of God? This is the question that the gospel helps us to answer. In the meeting between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, we find a powerful picture of what the other readings describe only in theory. For although Mary is as young as Elizabeth is old. They both share something in common. Something very important. They are both empty of self, and full of God.
Isn’t this why they are both able to experience impossible pregnancies? One is still a virgin. And the other already beyond the age of childbearing. Yet they are both with child. One carries the Saviour-of-the-World. The other, his herald. Both women are generously and courageously participating in God’s plan to save the whole of creation. How does this come about? Through the power of the Spirit who fills them. And through their willingness to allow themselves to be emptied. Emptied of all traces of selfishness. And filled with the love of God. I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.
So that Mary and Elizabeth are related not just by blood. But also, and more importantly, in the Spirit. It is the Spirit that brings them together. And notice what happens when they meet. Although they are both probably physically exhausted. One has travelled a long way through hill country. The other is old and already in the sixth month of her pregnancy. There is neither a sense of burden nor oppression. Neither anxiety nor complaint. Neither impatience nor irritation. The whole scene is saturated instead with joy. A joy so strong that it’s felt even by the unborn.
And isn’t this the same joy that God offers us at Christmastime? Isn’t this the joy that we have spent all these weeks of Advent preparing to receive? Isn’t this what we have been asking God to do for us? We who are often so full only of ourselves, and so empty of God? In these days of Advent, we have been doing whatever we can to beg and to allow God to reverse our painful condition. So that, like Mary and Elizabeth, and the babies in their wombs, we too can allow ourselves to be emptied and filled. Emptied of self. And filled with God.
My dear sisters and brothers, Christmas is just a few short days away. What must we do to continue allowing God to empty and to fill us today?