This past Monday night our Kindergarten through Eighth Grade students in Faith Formation went Christmas caroling at Mease Countryside Hospital and three nearby nursing care centers. I had scheduled the caroling as a Christmas service project for the children and their families.
The group at Mease Countryside Hospital was met by the Coordinator of Pastoral Care, who gave them instructions about navigating the hospital corridors. While we were listening to his instructions Brahms’ Lullaby began to play over the hospital’s public address system. The kids and their parents were curious about the lullaby. The Coordinator of Pastoral Care explained that the lullaby is played to announce the birth of a baby in the Maternity Care Unit. The kids and their parents replied in unison, “Awww.”
Today’s Gospel reading, which we heard two weeks ago on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, was written as a birth announcement. It had the same function as the lullaby that the hospital plays when a baby is born. There are numerous examples in the Hebrew Scriptures of birth announcements. An angel promised Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son despite decades of infertility. (Genesis 17:19) An angel appeared to the wife of Manoah, and promised her a son; the boy born to the childless couple was Samson, who became a powerful military leader of the Israelites. (Judges 13:2-24) Hannah, the childless wife of Elkana, prayed to the Lord for a son, and was assured of an answer to her prayers. (1 Samuel 1:17)
All of the birth announcements in the Scriptures have an identical structure. They give a name to the child to be born, and specify the child’s destiny. Isaac was the son who would make Abraham “the father of many nations.” (Genesis 17:4) Samson would be a leader dedicated to the Lord’s service. (Judges 13:7) Samuel restored faithful leadership to the Shrine at Shiloh. (1 Samuel 2:35) Today we hear the announcement of Jesus’ birth. The extraordinary circumstances of his virginal birth indicate the sort of person he would be; Jesus was the one who would “save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)
This Scriptural birth announcement also offers quite a lot of detail regarding how Jesus would accomplish his divine mission of salvation. Mary was a young woman from the very small village in a poor and disreputable region. (Luke 1:26) Galilee was most well known for being ruled by the vassal king Herod the Great, and for having a mixed population containing many gentiles. Mary was quite confused by the announcement of Jesus’ birth, and seems to have acquiesced without grasping the meaning of the angel’s message. (Luke 1:34-38)
These, and other, details from the Gospel portray a very unusual savior, one from a poor and humble background. He was born to a couple who were very conscientious about following God’s will. All of these details foreshadow Jesus’ life and ministry. He addressed his preaching and healing ministry primarily to the poor and outcasts. He served God’s will faithfully, even to the point of death. Furthermore, it was in these unusual details of his birth and life that we see his divinity made manifest. One commentator on this Scripture passage wrote that the finest moments of his humanity revealed the presence of divinity in Jesus.
Luke’s Infancy Narrative tells about Jesus’ identity and destiny. In doing so, the story tells us about ourselves. As we are the disciples of Jesus, we are called to participate both in Jesus’ identity as humble servant of God and in his destiny as the one who reveals God to the world. In our own humble way, we are to make the divinity of Jesus manifest in our humanity.
For good or for ill, Advent and Christmas afford ample opportunities to let Jesus’ divinity shine through our humanity. Everyone talks about a season of peace and good will and, at the same time, everyone loses their temper and peace of mind. Some people lose control of themselves. Others drive aggressively, and shop even more aggressively. Some misbehave at the office, with friends and with family.
The natural response to inappropriate behavior in others is to return the carelessness and thoughtlessness in kind. For this reason, I said that this time of year affords ample opportunities to let Jesus’ divinity shine through our humanity. The faithful and humble alternative is to be compassionate, forgiving, generous and welcoming – in other words: to be the presence of Jesus in difficult situations and with difficult people.
The angel referred to Mary as “full of grace” (Luke 1:28), because God had chosen her to bring the Savior to birth. We, who are Jesus’ disciples, have been chosen to bring Jesus’ Gospel to all the world. We, too, have been filled with grace through our Baptism. Advent and Christmas are opportunities to live up to our divinely appointed destiny: to make the divinity of Jesus manifest in the finest moments of our humanity.