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Homily - Fourth Sunday of Advent C - Bishop McKeown

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Sunday, 19 December 2021 

We talk about Advent being the time when we prepare to welcome Christ into our world. But Christians do not just recall an event 2,000 years ago and then move on. We are expected to be ready to welcome Christ today in 2021, wherever he wants to come, and not just where we would like. The Church prepares to welcome Christ into a community. That church community has to make space for all to participate. But the purpose of the Church is to bring Christ to the people of our time. What might we learn about the Church's mission from today's readings?

Firstly, in the Gospel Mary has just been told about her call to bear the Saviour. But her first thought is to go to visit Elizabeth, her older cousin who is also expecting her first child. We are not just called to welcome Jesus and feel good about making space for him close to our heart. God's mysterious presence is not a private possession. It was not an easy trip for Mary. She was pregnant and it was substantial journey from Nazareth to the hill country near Jerusalem. But she went with haste because her mind was focused on the needs of someone else. In fact, this passage contains the theme for the huge World Youth Day celebrations in Lisbon in August 2023 – Mary rose and went in haste. She is the model of the first disciple who bears Jesus with her. Our own culture emphasises that I ought to obey my thirst, feel good, and never say 'no'. It is all about me. The starting point for the disciple of Christ is to ask, 'where can I bring Jesus to another person?'. Our companionship with Jesus is meant to prepare us to share the One whom we have welcomed into our midst. Mission is an antidote to a selfish culture that leaves people feeling lonely and unfulfilled. How ready is our parish to be urgent in bringing Christ to others in our community?

Secondly, like Mary, a missionary church is energised. A frightened, defensive church is unhappy, and can easily go to war with itself. Pope Francis defines the church as a community of missionary disciples. (Evangelii Gaudium EG 24) He writes that we need to examine the Church's structures and way of working so that our work 'can be suitably channelled for the evanglisation of today's world rather than for (the church's) preservation' (EV 27). An inward-looking church is not the church of Christ, not the one that we see modelled in Mary. A politically strong church without a missionary heart is useless. All church renewal is not based on how we update our teachings and practices to become popular. We seek to please the Lord, not the passing fads of those who think they are important or smart. At the present time, our only question has to be whether we are effective in making new disciples for Christ. And the need for propound renewal is based on the fact that we have been failing to bring many hurting and idealistic young people to know Christ and his mercy. The question is not about how we bring them to us. The real and awkward question is about we bring them to know the love of God and the divine dream that Christ has for each one of them. God has loved us first in our weakness and thus – as Pope Francis writes - we can take the initiative, go to others, seek those who fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast (EG 24) This Advent Sunday, Mary might ask us whether that is how non-churchgoers see us.

Thirdly, this modern talk about a synodal way of being church is not focussed on us, or on going where we feel comfortable. Pope Francis talks about the unruly freedom of the Word of God (EG 22) We would always prefer that God's ways would keep us feeling comfortable. But the real joy of the saints came from being joyful, even when the Word of God was leading them down difficult paths. Like Mary, the great Irish saints from St Patrick to the modern time went well beyond their own comfort zone. Often, they were criticised for being too enthusiastic or too radical. But that is what happened to Jesus and to early disciples. In the case of Jesus, the devil tried to tempt him to be sensible and take the easy path. If we are open to letting the Holy Spirit be our guide, like Mary, we will be led down paths and we will wonder where God is. But the Lord wants us to trust him, not just to rely on our own efforts and perceived gifts. The Pharisees felt smug in their keeping of the Law. Jesus, on the other hand, asks us to step out of the boat and come to him. He asks us to put our nets into the deep, even though we have fished all night and caught nothing. Pope John Paul II wrote that 'communion and mission are profoundly interconnected' (quoted in EG 23). Shortly after you receive Holy Communion, you are told to 'go and announce the Gospel of the Lord'. Christ comes to us, not just to make us feel good but to strengthen us to go out. Because the missionary Christ is in Holy Communion, staying at home to watch Mass on TV is no substitute for being part of the missionary congregation, fed each week by the Body of Christ. That is a huge challenge for us as we move forward.

This Fourth Advent Sunday, Mary is presented to us, not as meek and mild but as a model of the Church on mission. She has received the Body of Christ within her. She carries that Jesus who has so changed her life and her plans. As soon as she meets Elizabeth, both Elizabeth and her unborn son John the Baptist are touched by the presence of the unseen Lord. Christ is communicated, not by harsh words but by gentle gestures. Just as the first witness of the Resurrection is a woman, Mary of Magdala, so here the first disciple of the Lord is his mother, Mary. Can we pray this week that we might have the welcoming heart of Mary as she makes space for God's will in her life? And can we learn from Mary to make haste and bring the Lord to others? If Christ is to be born again in our day, it will be in communities of little people who carry the Lord close to their hearts – and allow the uncomfortable wisdom of God's ways to unfold in our story.

Mary, first disciple and missionary of Christ, help us to listen to the little signs of Christ's presence in our midst, the Christ who was recognised by an older woman and an unborn child.

+ Donal McKeown


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