Sacrifice will warm God's heart

By  Fr. Scott Lewis, S.J.
  • December 19, 2006
Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year C), Dec. 24 (Micah 5:2-5; Psalm 80; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45)

We should not be dazzled or deceived by appearances, glamour or power. Great things and great people come from humble beginnings. This passage from Micah spoke to the people of the eighth century BC, who had suffered destruction and deportation.

Bethlehem, the sight of so much devotion and violence in our own time, has become almost synonymous with deliverance and Messianic hope. But it was one of Israel's least significant cities in the territory of a minor clan. The seeds of hope were planted for the future, forming a tradition that a Messianic figure would arise from Bethlehem who would restore the Davidic monarchy of Israel. But that hopeful vision had to be sustained throughout the centuries.

For at least two of the New Testament evangelists, Matthew and John, the promise was fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. We must attend to the reality before us, but never be consumed by it, for it is only part of the overall picture. Our own eyes should simultaneously be fixed on the path immediately before us and the horizon that is formed by God's will and promises for humanity.

Sacrifices are strange things. Often they consist in what we do not really value, and they can be thrown out like bait in an unconscious hope that God will not ask something of us that we are not prepared to give. The sacrifice that most of us dread is giving up control of our own lives, even if it is to a higher power.

The prophets made it abundantly clear on numerous occasions that God is massively unimpressed and uninterested in — and even disgusted with — the sacrifices that many deem so important, especially when they are used to mask injustice and a calloused disregard for the well-being of others. Deal honestly and justly with others, the prophets insist. Help the widow and orphan, lighten the burdens of those who struggle — these are the sacrifices that warm God's heart.

Jesus came to do the will of God — nothing else — and that is the ultimate sacrifice. The sacrifice of Jesus did not consist in being killed to satisfy the honour of a wrathful God. His act of obedience to the divine will was to manifest compassion, forgiveness and justice always and in every situation, revealing how to be authentically and fully human. God no longer (if He ever did) desires any sort of violence or blood as a form of worship or fidelity. True sacrifice consists of opening the mind and heart to embrace humanity and all of creation.

If we walk in faith and hope, we are never powerless and the consequences for others extend far beyond what we can ever imagine. The saving power of God in human history for us is enabled by the faith and hope of such people as Elizabeth and Mary, who kept the flame of hope burning for centuries. Their faith and hope has made the impossible not only possible but imminent in the birth of two extraordinary individuals — John the Baptist and Jesus.

Elizabeth's praise-filled blessing, "Blessed are you among women!" is only uttered to women twice in the Old Testament, both times to courageous women who laid their lives on the line for the safety of Israel (Judges 5:24 and Judith 13:18). Mary's unwavering faith that God would fulfil God's promises and her perseverance were powerful weapons in her arsenal.

In the story, she is on the verge of surpassing all of her ancestors by consenting to bear the Messiah. Jesus is portrayed in the New Testament as the author of life, and this scene is a dramatic illustration of power that He bears. His mere presence gives life, joy and power to John the Baptist in the womb. This is what Jesus intends to give all of humanity, not judgment or punishment. If we draw near to that source and "hear" Jesus with open minds and hearts we too are gifted with this new life.

Jesus came to do the will of the Father, and that will is that all have abundant life. On the eve of the Lord's birth, let our prayer be that we experience the gift that He brings, and that we be bearers of faith and hope in the coming year.

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