Summary: Let's us witness to a fundamental truth: that in the Incarnation, God truly came to be with us forever.
Fourth Sunday of Advent 2011
“Not From a Distance”
The Spirit of the Liturgy
About a quarter of a century ago a song that made it to number 2 on the Billboard chart taught us that “God is watching us–from a distance.” The idea was, I suppose, not much different from that expressed in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”–you’d better watch out what you do, because if you are bad, Santa will put a switch in your stocking, or God will knock your block off. Almost thirty years ago, listeners were thrown into depression hearing Kansas singing “all we are is dust in the wind.” But only a fool would listen to pop songs for an understanding of fundamental truths about human life and the divine intentions for man.
For such an understanding, the Church has proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and celebrated Christ, the Word of God made flesh, for two thousand years. What is that message today, that divine Word of encouragement? “The Lord is with you.” To David the king–no, you will not build me a house, I will build you a house, a dynasty that will last forever. To Mary, espoused to Joseph of David’s house: “The Lord is with you. Your son Jesus will be called Son of the Most High God, and he will inherit the throne of the house of David.”
God does not look on us from a distance. Just the opposite. He is with us. We may think–we may even be certain–that we are nothings and nobodies. We may believe that we are dust in the wind, that after our death and a few tears from relatives, we will be forgotten forever. But that’s the devil’s lie. The Lord is with you. The Lord–in the Holy Father’s words–abbreviated himself, made himself tiny enough to fit into the Virgin Mary’s womb. Why? St. John tells us in that famous Gospel verse from chapter 3: God so loved the world–loved humans–that he gave us His only-begotten Son, that all who believe in Him may have eternal life. We are somethings and somebodies because the Creator of the Universe loves us, and proved it by becoming a nothing and a nobody for our sake. That nothing–that son of a nobody carpenter from a nothing village in a third-rate Roman province–suffered and died and rose again, proving the incredible love of the Father for sinful humanity. That same Jesus Christ is able to strengthen us who are so weak, and bring about in us what St. Paul calls the obedience of faith.
Scripture records dozens of times in the Old Testament the words of God or of an angel declaring “the Lord is with you,” or God himself saying through a prophet “I am with you.” God declared that to Isaac at the shrine of Beer-sheba. God confirmed it at Bethel, telling Jacob, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.” When the people of Israel, having spurned the land of promise, changed their mind and tried to seize that land by force, Moses told them “the Lord is not with you.” They did not listen to him and were brutally defeated in battle.
Whenever these stirring words are uttered in the history of God’s people, God Himself is about to act on their behalf. God is intending to fulfill His covenant promise in some dramatic way. Often God is doing this through the least obvious means, the weakest human available. The angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, who described himself as the least in his family, and his family as the weakest in the tribe of Manasseh. The angel proclaimed: “The Lord is with you, you mighty man of valor.” Gideon proclaimed that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt, but left them defenseless in the hands of a gang of Arab bullies. But, strengthened by the word of God and mighty signs, Gideon went on to liberate his people from those who oppressed them.
At another time, a vast army was marching on Jerusalem, but the prophet of God promised that the Israelites would not have to fight in the battle, for the Lord would fight for them, because, as he said “The Lord will be with you.” And it happened as God promised.
Over and over again the Word of God would come to a weak and timid, but faithful follower of the Lord, and that word, “The Lord is with you,” heralded a great victory, a mighty work of God.
Now the Blessed Virgin Mary was the greatest woman created since the foundation of the world, so she knew very well the literal meaning of the words “The Lord is with you.” She also knew the Scriptures and traditions of her people. So when we read here, “she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be,” we can infer that she was wondering how an insignificant woman from a nothing town might get involved in the great deed that was surely to come. It is also clear from the text and the tradition that Mary, still a virgin even though her espousal to Joseph permitted them marital relations, intended to remain a virgin in her marriage. “How can this be, since I know not man?” was her question. The angel’s answer respects her intention: it is the Holy Spirit of God who will overshadow her. She will be the spouse of God the Most High, and so her firstborn son, Jesus, will be the Son of God and the Son of Mary, with Joseph’s consent. No man would touch her, because she would be the Ark of the New Covenant who would bear the Redeemer, the one called “The Lord saves.” Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you. What the pagans could not understood, what the Jews finally rejected, what modern songwriters just don’t get, is the fundamental truth of the Church–the Lord is with us. The Lord is in our midst.