Sunday, December 19, 2021

Embracing the Empty

4th Sunday of Advent (C)

Readings: Micah 5:1-4; Psalm 79(80):2-3,15-16,18-19; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45

Picture: cc Fred Jala

My dear friends, do you remember that often-told story about the teacup that’s too full? A learned scholar visits a spiritual guru to learn the secret of enlightenment. The guru greets his guest by quietly pouring him a cup of tea. And he keeps on pouring, even after the cup is full. Seeing the precious tea spill out all over the table, and onto the floor, the guest protests. To which the guru responds by saying that he can’t teach the scholar anything, because his cup is too full.

A cup can be filled only if it is empty or receptive enough. This holds true not just for a guru’s tea, but also the grace of God. Perhaps this is why, in each of our readings today, it is the lowly and humble who are blessed, instead of the high and mighty. In the first reading, God promises to send the people a great king, who will finally bring peace to the land. But this precious gift is to be poured out on the tiny town of Bethlehem, the home of the least of the clans of Judah. Why? Perhaps it’s because only this lowly place is humble or empty enough to receive the grace of God.

In the gospel, God’s power is poured into the wombs of two unlikely women. For one, it’s already too late for childbearing. For the other, it’s just too soon. But it is precisely in their weakness that God’s Spirit finds suitable resting places. Mary conceives the Messiah, and Elizabeth his Herald. And when these two lowly yet blessed women come together, like the clinking of champagne glasses, their encounter becomes an occasion for great rejoicing.

The second reading reminds us of the receptivity of Christ himself. Not only did he accept the bitter tea of his Father’s will, he received also the proper cup with which to carry it out. That same body, which Christ obediently offers on the cruel Wood of the Cross, he first humbly receives in the blessed womb of his mother. You who wanted no sacrifice or oblation, prepared a body for me… All of which makes it abundantly clear that salvation cannot be acquired through any purely human effort, however brave or heroic. It can only be humbly received as a merciful gift from God.

Perhaps this is why, on this final Sunday in Advent, we pray the way we did at the beginning of Mass. Do you remember what we said? Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord, your grace into our hearts… We ask God to pour out the tea of God’s grace into the cups of our hearts. And to benefit from this prayer, we also need hearts that are empty enough to accept all that God wants to pour into them. We need to enter and embrace those areas in our lives, where we feel most vulnerable or lost, even helpless and out-of-control. Those places we prefer to avoid, or to fill up with our daily busyness and boastfulness. For it’s often into these hollowed-out crevices that God’s life-giving Spirit is poured.

Sisters and brothers, much like the scholar’s encounter with the guru, the season of Advent is meant to be for us a pilgrimage into greater receptivity. What must we do to allow the Lord to empty our teacups today?

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