When the parish staff got together on Tuesday morning to reflect on this Sunday’s scripture we were five women and three men. One of the women – whose name is not written in the book of life – remarked that only a woman should be allowed to preach on this Sunday’s gospel. Only a woman would know the wonder of a child kicking – or as Luke says – leaping in her womb. Only a woman would be able to relate to the feeling Elizabeth knew at the movement in her womb – only a woman knows the joys and the anxieties of pregnancy. So, only a woman should preach on this gospel. In a way I had to agree with her – I can’t speak to the joy of knowing new life is forming within me or the thrill of a child moving in the womb – I only look pregnant.
So, I’m going to preach on Paul’s reflections on Christ coming into the world as we read it in his letter to the Hebrews. Paul doesn’t talk about stars and angels and shepherds – he goes to the very mind of Christ. Paul tells us, “When Christ came into the world he said, sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me – in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, see God I have come to do your will.” Paul sees beyond Bethlehem to Calvary when Christ would offer His very life – a perfect sacrifice, perfect gift offered in total obedience to His Father’s will.
Throughout Jewish history many of the prophets railed against the phony piousity of the religious leaders and the people. The prophets let them know that the elaborate temple sacrifices and correct ceremonies meant nothing to God. God was not interested in their performances – their lip service. God was concerned about how they lived their lives, how they treated one another, especially the neediest among them.
So we hear Isaiah saying, “what are you endless sacrifices to me – I am sick of holocausts of rams and the fat of calves. Bring your worthless offerings to me no more; the smoke of them fills me with disgust. Cease to do evil, learn to do good, search for justice, help the oppressed, be just to the orphan, and plead for the widow.”
And Hosea has God saying, “What I want is love not sacrifice – knowledge of God not holocausts”.
Micah, seeing through the emptiness of temple worship lets the people know, “this is what Yahweh asks of you; only this, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with God”.
One time Jesus told those who followed Him, “It is not those who say to me Lord, Lord who will enter the kingdom of heaven but the one who does the will of My Father in heaven.” In other words, lip service doesn’t work – faith without good works is dead. Our faith in God and in Jesus as our Christ has to be lived out every day of life, in every circumstance of life. Remember that old question, “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Or that other jingle, “Mr. Catholic went to Mass, he never missed a Sunday, but Mr. Catholic went to hell for what he did on Monday.”
We hear of people referring to themselves as ‘nominal’ nominal Catholics, nominal Anglicans, and nominal Jews. They will use the title but not live the life.
The people involved in today’s gospel, the seniors Elizabeth and Zechariah and the teenagers Mary and, though he is not in today’s gospel, Joseph, had one thing in common – they heard the word of God and kept it. Each in his or her own way said to the mysterious request of God, ‘yes, what you ask of me I will do.’ Even though I do not understand what you ask nor where it will take me, yes I will do your will. Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph were not nominal Jews; they were phenomenal Jews – making their lives available to God.
When we are thinking about the great feast we will be celebrating tomorrow we have to get beyond star and stable, shepherds and sheep. Jesus, in coming into the world offered the sacrifice, the gift of his obedient will to God, a gift far greater than burnt offerings – ‘see God I come to do your will’. And that’s the gift that is to be imitated by all those who call themselves Christian – doing the will of our father in heaven and trying to live out the new commandment, ‘love one another as I have loved you’
As we continue to celebrate this Mass and prepare ourselves for celebrating the birthday of Christ, we can pray for ourselves and for each other that we will be among those who not only hear the word of God but keep and live the word of God outside these wall, in the lives we live, the work we do, the service we give and the prayers we pray.