Fourth Sunday of Advent: O Root of Jesse

For the Simbang Gabi Mass for the Filipino Community
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.  Elizabeth: 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.  Mary: 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.  God can do mighty things when we are humble, when we feel insignificant.

We are in the closing days of the year.  For so many, this has been a horrible year.  The pandemic and resulting 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 beautiful titles. Today’s antiphon is “O Root of Jesse” and it says this: “O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.”  It’s a message of hope to a seemingly-insignificant people!

I have no idea what that hope is going to look like for you.  And I surely don’t know 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 where this pregnancy would take her, 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.

So 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!

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