The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

Hopelessly insignificant.  That’s what they are.  Bethlehem-Ephratha; the tiniest region of a tiny nation – almost too small to be among the clans of Judah.  An old, childless woman, whose hope of progeny has all but dried up, and whose aged husband left her for days at a time to minister as priest in the temple.  A young virgin who has not yet known relationship with a man.  Hopelessly insignificant.  And yet, all of these play a major part in today’s Liturgy of the Word.

We are in the closing days of the year.  For so many, this has been a horrible year.  Horrible is almost too tame a word for it.  The economic downturn has led to so much sadness and disappointment that many have questioned whether they are worthy of God’s attention.  For others, the typical disappointments may have added to the problem:  relationships that have soured or are ending, sin that has gone unconfessed and unforgiven, patterns of addiction that have not been treated, illness that has caused pain and grief and fear, death of a loved one that has left the survivors questioning God’s will.  How insignificant we seem; how hopeless the situation appears for us in these dark Advent days.

But, in these last days of Advent, the Church gushes forth hope that cannot be contained.  These last days find us praying the “O Antiphons” – antiphons that are sung before and after the Magnificat in Vespers, the Church’s Evening Prayer.  These antiphons call on Christ to come to us under his many wondrous titles. Today’s antiphon is “O Key of David” and the antiphon for Vespers is this:  “O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of heaven: come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.”

And the Key of David is the key to unlocking the hope that the Church would turn loose on the insignificant ones in today’s readings.  Because Bethlehem-Ephratha is just big enough to give birth to the Savior, born of David’s line; the aged couple are not too far gone to give birth to a prophet, and the young virgin is not too young to significantly affect the salvation of the world by just saying yes to God’s will.  And more than that, because the Key of David has unlocked unimaginable hope in the lives of all these insignificant ones, we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that God’s hope will obliterate the insignificance and sadness of our own lives with hope beyond all telling.

And let me tell you, dear ones, that’s not easy for me to say.  Because for me to prophecy hope to you during these difficult times is very hard for me.  And it’s hard because I know how much some of you are hurting this year, and I’ve heard from you the disappointments you are suffering.  And as your father, that breaks my heart.  And yet, God has asked me to prophecy hope to you this Advent, unimaginable and unbelievable hope, and so that is the message I bring to you today.

I have no idea what that hope is going to look like for you.  And I haven’t a clue when it’s going to come.  But as I have prayed about these readings during Advent, I know that is the message that God wants us to take away.  The hope that comes from God is enough to break forth upon the earth and take away darkness, disappointment, sin, death and pain.  It wasn’t just something that happened in tiny little Benjamin-Ephratha two thousand years ago, but instead it is something that absolutely lies in store for all of us who give ourselves over to God’s hope.

And I don’t mean the kind of false hope that says, “hey, hang in there, things will get better.”  That just doesn’t work when you’ve lost your job, or your house, or a loved one, or even the thought that God cares for you.  I would never tell you that things will get better when your significant other is abusing you, or your family is close to living on the street, or your loved one is dying.  And I know how hard it is to hang in there when your family is overscheduled, and you desperately want to get the kids out the door to be at Church on time, and little Annie was up sick last night, and Jimmy can’t find his left shoe for the fourteenth time in the last two days, and despite your heroic efforts, you walk through the doors of the Church late.   “Hang in there” is a horrible thing to say to someone who’s at the end of their rope.

And so I think the hope that Jesus brings us and that the Church would have us receive today is a much different hope.  This is a hope that opens the way to freedom for all of us who have become imprisoned by sin and sadness and disappointment.  It is a hope that says that whatever present anxiety we are currently experiencing is not God’s will for us, and that while that anxiety may not magically go away tomorrow, that there is no way our God will let us walk through it alone.  That was true enough for the young virgin in today’s Gospel who had no idea how this pregnancy would turn out, but said yes to God’s plan anyway.  Mary’s journey led her through fear and sadness and pain to glory, and the Church courageously believes that her journey is ours too, if we would just say yes to the hope God offers us.

We will find that hope is easier to accept when we are in relationship with our God, as Mary was.  Sin keeps us from that, and it is sin that desperately wants us to believe that we are unworthy of hope.  Thankfully, through the grace of Christ, the Church provides a way for sin to be overcome so that we can confidently approach the throne of grace, and that is through the Sacrament of Penance.  If you have not experienced God’s grace this way so far in Advent, I urge you to come to our Penance Service on Tuesday night at 7:30.  We will have eleven priests available to hear your confession and put you back in the path of hope.

Now, having said that, I fully understand that there are many of you here who have not been to confession in many years.  I get it.  I myself was away from the sacrament for years before God worked on me and brought me back.  So here is Father Pat’s “Consumer’s Guide to the Sacrament of Penance:” If you have been away a long time, it will be hard to go back, but go anyway.  Be honest with the priest and tell him that it’s been years.  Even tell him if you’re not sure how to make a confession.  If he doesn’t welcome you back warmly and help you to make a good confession, you have my permission to get up and leave and find a priest who will.  Because it’s my job to help you make a good confession.  And it’s a privilege and a responsibility that I take very seriously.  The priests who will be here on Tuesday do too.  Nothing must stand in the way of you receiving God’s mercy and grace and forgiveness, because that is the way we come to know God’s hope.

Today we pray, O Come, O Key of David, come.  Open wide the doors that have held us captive to hopelessness, break down the walls that keep us from accepting you, and free us all from sin and death.  Come, Lord Jesus, come.  Come quickly and do not delay!