Sunday, December 23, 2018

A Place for the Power-Hungry

4th Sunday of Advent (C)
Picture: cc Terry Johnston

My dear friends, do you know what it feels like to be hungry for power? Have you ever seen a power-hungry person before? Do you know where such people can be found? It may surprise you to hear this, but perhaps the one place where I most often encounter power-hungry people is at a cafe. Especially one that is frequented by students studying for their exams.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever had the same experience, but on more occasions than I care to count, when I have visited such a cafe, I have seen students prowling around the premises with what I have come to recognise as a hungry look on their faces. They are quite obviously searching for something. Sometimes with some degree of desperation. Do you know what they are looking for? I’m sure at least some of you can guess. What they are seeking is a socket at which to charge their computers. They are hungry for electrical power. And it’s helpful to notice how this hunger of theirs is satisfied. As I said, they do it by finding a particular place. By locating a specific spot in the cafe. A privileged source from which power flows freely for them.

Of course, electrical power is not the only kind we need. We can think also, for example, of political and economic power. Or the power of knowledge and of persuasion. And it’s possible too, isn’t it, for someone to be extremely rich in one form of power, and yet be very poor in another? I may, for example, find myself at the pinnacle of power at work, and still find myself powerless to heal the broken relationships within my own family.

I mention all this because, as you may already have noticed, the need and the gift of power is also what we find in our prayers and readings for this 4th Sunday in Advent. Consider, for example, that opening prayer that we offered earlier… Pour forth, O Lord, we beseech you, your grace into our hearts… What is this, sisters and brothers, if not a prayer to experience the mighty presence of God? An expression of our need for spiritual power.

And isn’t the first reading an answer to prayers such as this? Prayers offered by a desperately power-hungry people. Who have been scattered far and wide. Some living for long years in foreign exile. Others remaining, abandoned and alone, in a conquered and broken land. A people who, whether living far or near, have been cruelly separated from their God by their own sinfulness. So that the power that they need, the power for which they yearn, is really that of return and reunion. The power of reconciliation, with one another and with God.

It is this same power that is promised to them in the reading. The promise of a coming king who will wield the awesome power of the Lord. The power not so much to conquer mighty armies, as to melt hardened hearts. The power to heal broken relationships, and to unite sinners with their God. The power to transform conflict into peace. For he himself will be peace.

This moving promise in the first reading finds its fulfilment in the gospel. For although the scene is set in a remote village, far from the centres of political power, what is experienced here are the effects of the One whose mighty coming was promised earlier. Here we find the subtle yet powerful workings of the Holy Spirit. Causing an unborn child to suddenly leap for joy. And bestowing on his elderly but saintly mother, the grace to recognise the presence of God. Even when this presence arrives in the shocking and potentially scandalising form of a young female relative, pregnant before she ought to be. Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…

The divine power to transform brokenness and conflict into reconciliation and peace, ignorance and sorrow into recognition and joy. This is the precious gift that is offered to us in our readings today. This is what we have been diligently preparing ourselves to receive over these past weeks of Advent. By each trying to identify for ourselves, in our own hearts, our God-given hunger for power. As well as our sinful tendencies to rely on sources of power other than God. Isn’t this why we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation? So that we might turn from false promises of power, in order to rely on power’s only true Source. So that like that empty manger in our Christmas crib, we too may reserve a vacant space in our hearts and our lives to receive the coming king.

But if, my dear friends, like those students studying in a cafe, we too are looking for a socket from which to draw the power that we need, then where is this divine power source more likely to be found? Our readings provide us with three characteristics that help us identify this place.

The first characteristic is found in the first sentence of the first reading. But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, the least of the clans of Judah out of you will be born for me the one who is to rule over Israel. According to the prophet Micah, the most powerful king will come from the smallest tribe. And that’s not all. For we also believe that the one who conceives and gives him birth will be a virgin. For nothing will be impossible with God (Lk 1:37). So that the first characteristic of the place where God’s power is dispensed is the condition of our own human weakness and powerlessness. It is at those places where we may find ourselves at our wits end, with no one to turn to but God alone, that God’s power is more likely to be felt. Do you know any places like that in your own life?

The second characteristic is the attitude described in the second reading. The attitude that God prefers over the offering of ritual sacrifice. The attitude expressed in the words, Here I am! I am coming to obey your will… The attitude of total availability for whatever God wishes me to do. An attitude that Mary herself demonstrates at her Annunciation, when she says to angel, let it be with me according to your word… An attitude that then leads Mary to do what we see her doing in the gospel. She rushes to assist Elizabeth in her time of need. She engages in the practice of selfless service.

The condition of human powerlessness, the attitude of total availability to God, and the practice of selfless service of our neighbour. These are the three characteristics by which we can identify that privileged location where God’s power flows most freely for the benefit of God’s people. This is how we find the place where Christ is waiting to be born.

My dear sisters and brothers, power-hungry students are really quite skilful in finding electricity when they need to. As we continue to prepare for the Lord’s coming at Christmas, what must we do to better locate the sources of God’s power in our own lives today?

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