Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent
Readings: Micah 5:1-4A; Psalm 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45
19 December 2021
Christmas is less than a week away. Despite the omicron strain of the COVID virus, we are all finding ways to celebrate despite the uncertainties and the challenges. Some of my large extended family planned a reunion after two years of separation. With the opening of the Queensland border, those of us from the south negotiated COVID tests and results within 72 hours. The reunion provided the opportunity to see how much the young ones had grown, as well as the opportunity to meet Daniel, the newest arrival – reminiscent of Mary setting out as quickly as she could to a town in the hill country of Judah, entering Zachariah’s house and greeting her relative Elizabeth.
At the grandparents’ home, a separate children’s room was set up with a Christmas tree. Young Patrick from Melbourne ran into the room and promptly lay under the tree admiring the flashing lights. Next day, eighteen of us, across three generations, attended a wonderful celebration of the Nutcracker Suite, followed by a family photo-shoot by the Brisbane River.
We all know the ballet as a sugar coated fairy tale suitable for children at Christmas time. But there’s no denying the dark aspects of the plot with the deadly conflict in Clara’s dreams between the mice and the nutcracker soldiers.
After intermission, the children in the audience come to life when the Sugar Plum Fairy puts on a great display of joyful dancing by inhabitants in the Kingdom of Sweets. We all leave the theatre filled with the joy and beauty of Christmas.
The meeting between the two pregnant mothers Mary and Elizabeth can be presented as a sugar coated fairy tale. But there is so much more to it. Scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson reminds us: ‘[Mary] is among the most powerless people in her society: she is young in a world that values age; female in a world ruled by men; poor in a stratified economy. Furthermore, she has neither husband nor child to validate her existence. That she should have found “favour with God” and be “highly gifted” shows Luke’s understanding of God’s activity as surprising and often paradoxical, almost always reversing human expectations.’ 
In this meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, we encounter unalloyed faith, hope and love with none of the complexities imposed by wealth, power and honours. There’s a simplicity and innocence to their meeting. And yet we who celebrate the meeting know all that lies ahead for those two babies in vitro – John and Jesus.
There’s something about the joy of expectant mothers who are relatives greeting each other. Having observed such greetings, we can hear Elizabeth declaring to Mary: “For the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
Years later during his public ministry, Jesus hears a woman in the crowd call out to him, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” Jesus replies “Rather blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” Johnson points out that in Luke’s view, “Mary is blessed on both counts”.
During the week, Michael McGirr launched a number of books for us at Newman College, including three books of sermons. With his characteristic humour pricking all pretence and posturing, Michael reflected on the reality of so many sermons and their reception in the pews: “The congregation sits there in church and with the greatest respect, as Bill Uren would say, the question at the back of their minds is can they trust this guy in the pulpit. The Gospel ends and they pick up the parish notices and, as the sermon starts, they become absorbed by an announcement of the Vinnies meeting next Wednesday, a meeting they have never attended and never will. How can news about changed parking arrangements for the parish school next term program trump the preacher?”
Michael told us, “A sermon is essentially a call to decisive living, to make decisions about the impact of your faith on both you and the world.”
Being attentive to the sermon and trusting each other, we heed the call to make decisions this Christmas as we receive our booster shots preparing to emerge from the pandemic, counting our blessings to be here in Australia at such a time of global crisis, crossing borders for the first time in many months and greeting family and loved ones. We pray that our faith in the coming of the Christ child this Christmas might impact both ourselves and the world for the better. The image of the little boy lying under the Christmas tree, delighting in the flashing lights, excited to see family members again after two years of lockdowns, sustains us as we contemplate whatever difficult challenges might lie ahead.
From the prophet Micah, we hear the promise of the one to come this Christmas:
He will stand and feed his flock
with the power of the Lord,
with the majesty of the name of his God.
They will live secure, for from then on he will extend his power
to the ends of the land.
He himself will be peace.
During the week, Danny Meagher was consecrated as the new auxiliary bishop in Sydney. He told the congregation: “I fear becoming just another administrative hack.” He said he wanted to “serve people at the grassroots, in our homes, in the ups and downs of daily life, where God is genuinely so close to all of us.” May the power of the Christ child sustain us; may the presence of the Christ child bring us peace; and may the majesty of the Christ child assure us security in the midst of the ongoing uncertainties of our world. The Christ child will be experienced through our presence and service to each other exemplified by Mary and Elizabeth attending to each other.
 Johnson, L. T., The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 1991, p. 39
 Ibid., p. 41.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA). He has been appointed a peritus at the Fifth Plenary Council of the Australian Catholic Church.