Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Year B
When I was studying in Rome, I had the great privilege of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land – perhaps some of you have had a chance to go there yourselves. To pray and see first-hand the land where Christ walked was a very powerful experience, which affected me in sometimes unexpected ways.
For example, while there were certainly many beautiful places—particularly around the Lake of Galilee—one of the things that struck me the most was the ordinariness of the land. There was something about the land that just seemed very ordinary, as if it could have been in any other part of the world. And it seemed a bit strange that this ordinary piece of land—which people have been fighting over for millennia—happened to be the place where God chose to make his home on earth.
This observation drove home for me what some theologians call the “scandal of particularity” – the utterly strange notion that the God of the universe would be concerned with a particular piece of land, a particular people – to say nothing of the audacious Christian belief that God condescended to take for himself a particular body in a particular time and place to walk among us. I was now in that particular place, and in some respects it didn’t seem all that different from places that I knew and loved back here in Australia.
Why God chose this place and this people is perhaps a question for the next life, but it did drive home for me an important point that is deeply imbedded in our Catholic understanding of things – namely, that a universal truth must first be seen in one place. A universal truth must first be seen in one place.
If we say that we love all people, and we want for that to mean something, we must first learn to love particular people. It’s no good to say you love humanity if you can’t stand the guy next door! If we want to be able to see God in all things, we must start by learning to see God in one particular thing – such as in a humble piece of bread, where the Lord has chosen to dwell in a particular way.
This principle came to its fullness with the sending of the One – the coming of God’s only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. And for reasons known to God alone it was in the Holy Land—in this place and with this people—that he chose to get his hands dirty, and light a spark that would go on to illuminate the whole world.
One of my favourite places that I visited there was Mary’s house in Nazareth, where the gospel story we heard today took place, where the Holy Spirit covered Our Lady with his shadow, and where our saviour and redeemer was conceived. There is a small chapel in the grotto by the house where they believe the Annunciation took place, and on the front of the altar is a striking phrase. You are perhaps familiar with the Latin phrase “Verbum caro factum est” (The Word was made flesh). Well on the altar in the grotto it is slightly different: “Verbum caro hic factum est” (The Word was made flesh here). I smiled when I first saw it, thinking, “That’s quite a boast!”
Now, scholars debate the exact location that various biblical events took place – and indeed, there is a rival spot in Nazareth where the Eastern Orthodox believe that the Annunciation took place. But that didn’t really bother me. For everyone was in agreement that somewhere nearby—in this most ordinary place—the second person of the Blessed Trinity took flesh and entered into our world. The Word was made flesh here.
That brings us to today. It has now been almost nine months since Mary’s miraculous encounter with the angel. The Holy Family are on their way to Bethlehem, and a very pregnant Mary is only a few (days/hours) away from giving birth. It can’t be a very comfortable donkey ride for her at this point! And little do they know that they will find no place to stay at the inn in Bethlehem. But the Father has a place prepared for them – a humble manger that will make a fitting location for this most humble act of God.
There is also a church in present-day Bethlehem where they believe the Nativity of the Lord took place, and there is a famous door on the front known as the “Door of Humility”. It’s about four feet tall, so to enter it you have to lower yourself and bend down. It’s a small symbol of the great humility that God displayed by entering the world for our salvation.
And so, the day is almost at hand. Our time of redemption draws near. The daybreak from on high is coming to visit us. The angels are preparing their song of joy. May our hearts and minds be ready to receive the Lord when he comes, and let us strive to praise him with our whole heart, and our entire life. Amen.