I am a friend of a family that I met soon after I was ordained a priest, more than thirty years ago. They are a lively, faith-filled family with four children and now a whole cadre of grandchildren. A couple of years ago, I visited one of their daughters and her husband at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where their seven-year-old son was in the intensive care unit, a few days away from death. Devin had been born with a rare neurological disorder. He managed fairly well during the first couple of years of his life, but when he was just three years old he suffered a severe stroke. The stroke left him completely incapacitated. His parents and extended family took amazing care of him in the years leading up to his death. Devin's young mother and father (the father is a Navy nurse) were simply remarkable in their fidelity and devotion to their son. His grandparents were also closely involved in his care. During the final days of his life, his parents never left his side in the intensive care unit. It was difficult to tell how much Devin could understand after his stroke. But his parents had their own ways of communicating with him, and he seemed to be tuned in to them. As I visited them in that ICU, it was clear to me that Devin must have realized that he was a beloved son.
Before the proliferation of Marian feasts in the Church's liturgical calendar, the Fourth Sunday of Advent provided the opportunity for the Christian faithful to reflect on Mary's unique role in the story of God's self-disclosure to the human family. It was through Mary, the mother of Jesus, that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became part of the human family, bringing to perfection God's self-disclosure in creation.
The love that binds together the Three Persons of the Trinity burst forth in the creation of the cosmos in all its wonder, beauty and diversity. Among all God's creatures only human beings are able discern in the cosmos not only the presence and power of the Creator but also God's love for what God has called into being. God has chosen to make explicit that love and God's desire to be loved by God's human creatures through the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth whose mother was Mary. It was through Mary's giving birth to Jesus that God disclosed the full dimensions of God's love for the human family.
The Scripture selections for this Advent Sunday capture the double-edged message of this compelling liturgical season: joyful hope and a call for renewal of life.
This third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called "Gaudete Sunday"-the Latin word "rejoice" taken from the opening lines of both the first and second readings today. In the first reading we have the exuberant message of the 6th century B.C. prophet Zephaniah. Zephaniah lived in tortuous times as Israel attempted to get out from under the violent oppression of the Assyrians who had subjugated Israel. With the coming of the new king Josiah and the apparent weakening of the Assyrian grip on their land, the prophet calls on the people to rejoice because God is about to deliver them from the scourge of their enemies.
On this Second Sunday of Advent, we have already sung this most familiar Advent hymn:
"Oh come, oh come Emmanuel And ransom captive Israel That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear Rejoice, Rejoice Emmanuel Will come to you oh Israel."
The meaning of this refrain is rooted in the history of Ancient Israel, whose people were taken into Exile in Babylon when Israel was conquered by King Nebuchadnezzer in 597 BCE. Our Advent hymn could easily have been theirs.
I love the signs and symbols of our church. As a young child with my parents on Sunday, I can remember the bells, the incense, and the colors of the liturgical season. All these pointed to the mysterious reality of our faith. They reminded me to pay attention to the mystery of God's presence in the world, to the mystery of our faith- the Paschal Mystery. In a homily I recently heard, the deacon began by snapping his fingers. He said that when he was a young child, his father would snap his fingers whenever he wanted to get his attention. Today, we are entering the season of Advent. Advent is the season that calls us to pay attention to the mysteries of our faith and prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ in our hearts and minds.