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Homily - Fourth Sunday of Advent - Bishop McKeown

Sunday, 20 December 2020 

During the first weeks of Advent, we heard Isaiah who articulated the longing of people for peace, justice and healing. And he spoke of one who would bring these by breaking into the closed self-destructive cycle of a one-dimensional world. Then we heard John the Baptist who echoed the message that the Anointed One would begin his ministry in the physical desert and in the human desert of broken hearts and fractured lives. And today we are invited to journey with Mary who bears the mysterious one who will save his people from their sins and the result of that sinfulness. What do our scripture readings teach us about the Advent journey?

Firstly, the Gospel story is the Annunciation is similar to the call of many individuals throughout the Bible. An apparently insignificant person is called to do an apparently impossible task. Naturally, Mary is frightened and is simply told, 'do not be afraid'. When she argues that this could not happen, she is told that nothing is impossible to God. In the end, like so many before and after her, she simply accepts that all she can do is submit to the divine call or refuse that invitation. So, despite all the pain and uncertainty of the next thirty years, she will walk on in faith, often having to trust without understanding. Yes, she will get glimpses that what is promised to her will be fulfilled. But, despite her privileged status, she has to walk in hope.

Mary is the first disciple of Jesus. She accepts him into her life, whatever the cost to her. She invites all of us to be disciples of her Son. Becoming a disciple is ultimately not my decision. It involves my consent to a divine invitation. It is the result of believing that you have been called by name, as Mary was. It means accepting to walk wherever God leads and not insisting on our rights. There is always the temptation to say that I want to accept God on my terms and that Christ has to be sensible in the rules that he expects me to follow nowadays. Alternatively, we are often tempted to reduce God's way to a proclamation and keeping of the rules. Yes, Mary would tell us that the divine call will never be to do the merely sensible thing. But the scriptures always speak about a God who bursts into our lives, offering challenges to the relatively strong and healing to those who expect little. The divine messenger in Nazareth upsets human expectations and pride. Mary knows that a loveless following of Christ misses the first lesson in discipleship.

Secondly – as we heard in our first reading – God is in charge. King David decided that, now he was in charge in Jerusalem, he would decide to build a Temple for the Lord. Even the prophet Nathan agrees at first with this eminently sensible idea. But God breaks into their plans as well. Any plans that smack of human greatness and pride have to be subordinated to God's vision. The Lord reminds Nathan that all that David has was a gift. David is at the service of a bigger divine plan. We will see later in David's life that, when he lets personal pride or lust take over, disaster happens. The temptation of the strong is believe they have only to do their best for God. Thus, for the strong, discipleship means a constant conversion to the knowledge that God is in charge. God alone will build the future. Human certainty about the future gets in God's way. In the current flux within the Church, there are different voices saying that they know exactly where we should be going and what sort of Church we should build for the Lord. Mary and David would simply tell us to wise up about our arrogant certainties and have the humility to become disciples of the only one who can build the future.

Thirdly, the Annunciation also tells us about what we are to be in our parishes today. My generation grew up with a model of widespread church attendance. But the changing social environment shows just how little we had focussed on making disciples. Pastoral conversion means moving towards prioritising missionary disciples. A self-certifying model of the perfect holy huddle behind high walls or a watery 'stand-for-nothing-and-fall-for-the-latest-fad' theology have nothing to do with the Mary of the Annunciation. We must let our hearts be formed by God's revelation and not by the fleeting spirit or the time or the childish goody-baddy world of computer games. The first disciple is a strong woman who knows how to love and not merely a frightened chid who knows how to obey. Parishes that focus no matter how generously, only on administering a spiritual food bank have missed the point. That is why the first stage of formation for priestly ministry is the Discipleship stage. Those who are not disciples themselves are unable to help others to become disciples. Those who think they have arrived can only lead others up a dead-end of their own creation. Thus, the Advent journey is not merely pretending that Christ has not come. It is a preparation to let Christ come into our lives and into our Church today in his way and not merely in a way that suits us. If we do not open ourselves to his strange coming, we are wasting Advent and its scriptural message.

St Paul in our second reading gives all glory to God. When Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, she too glorifies the Lord who has done great things. All generations will call Mary blessed because she has allowed God to be Lord in her life, she has come to know 'the obedience of faith', as St Paul says. This is how God wants things to be done. We face an uncertain Christmas and New Year. But the Lord's message is always the same – do not be afraid. We journey is faith because we believe that God can bring great good out of this crisis, if only we stop letting our plans get in the way. Emmanuel will be with us at Christmas in hidden ways, if only we have Mary's eyes to see what others overlook or dismiss. In these last days before the Christmas season begins I invite you to journey with Mary, open to God's outrageous dream for the world and ready to welcome God with us in simple words of prayer, humble sacraments and big-hearted little people. Three weeks ago, I met a 9-year-old child with her aunt in the city. She was going to a charity shop to hand over her First Communion money for children in care. That was one little girl who understands what grace and Advent all are about. Can we learn from her, Mary and David as we face these last days of Advent? Only then will be able to recognise Jesus wherever and however he bursts into our lives.

+ Donal McKeown

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