Saturday, December 23, 2006

Bethlehem and the Baptist: Finding God in the Small Stuff

(4th Sunday of Advent-Year c; this homily was given 23 & 24 December, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy Church, East Greenwich, R.I. See Micah 5:1-4 and Luke 1:39-45)

Does today’s Mass “count” for Christmas?

How many times do we have to go to Mass this weekend?

If I go on Christmas, does that count for the Sunday Mass too?

These are the questions that people have been asking all week, and for the most part they have been asked by people sincerely looking for the right answers! They are not looking for loopholes, but for some clarity on what to do, since Christmas this year falls on a Monday. Sometimes, when a Holy Day of Obligation falls on a Monday, it is not an obligation. How do we sort all of that out?

In 1991, an assembly of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops for the United States approved changes in the way we observe certain Holy Days of Obligation. They specifically looked at January 1, the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, August 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and November 1, the Solemnity of All Saints.

It was decided—on account of the shortage of priests in some places and a number of other factors—that if these days fell on a Saturday or a Monday, then they would no longer be obligatory. We were certainly encouraged to attend Mass, but not obliged to.

But the Solemnity of the Nativity of Christ does not fall under that rubric. Along with Easter Sunday, it is one of the most important days of the year for us as Catholics. Therefore, whichever day it falls on, we are obliged to gather together and celebrate that great event.

Now, with all of that said, some people have asked one additional and very important question: Does God really care about all those details? Does it make a difference whether we come to Mass once or twice this week? Do these things really matter? Based upon our readings for this Sunday and the teachings of our faith about how God continues to guide the Church, I would say, unequivocally, YES! All of these things matter to God a great deal.

If we seek and search for God in the small things of life, than we will find Him also in the greater things, as well. But if we are not attentive or faithful in the small things—like how and when we come together for Mass on Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation—then chances are that we will not be faithful in the larger matters of our faith lives, as well.

Now that is not just pop-psychology, and it is not simply my own personal opinion. Those are the words of Jesus Christ Himself, from the Gospel of St. Luke. He says:

He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.
—Luke 16:10

Our readings this Sunday challenge us to see, in that message from Christ, not so much a juridical statement about a God who is hovering over the most minute details of our lives, as much as it is an invitation to discover God in the small things of life.

Our first reading is from the Book of the Prophet Micah. Micah is one of the smallest books of the Old Testament; it’s about 5 pages long. And in that book we hear about the little town of Bethlehem. All of us are familiar with that beautiful Christmas carol; we all know the story.

But it reminds us of the fact that God could have been born anywhere in the world that He wanted to: in Rome, the center of the Empire; in the great cultural centers of Egypt or Greece. But He chose to be born, instead, in the little town of Bethlehem, because God delights in the small stuff. He is celebrated in the little things, and if we want to recognize Him in the greater designs of the world we live in, then we have to be attentive to God in the little things.

In the gospel we heard the moving story of the Visitation, when Mary went in haste to see her cousin Elizabeth, who had herself conceived a child in her old age. Suddenly, as that story unfolds, John the Baptist recognizes the presence of Christ and he begins to rejoice! He is not yet born, and he is able to discern the presence of God in the voice of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and He is filled with joy. Are we that attentive to the presence of God in our own lives?

One of the great classics of Western spirituality is a small book by a 17th century monk named Brother Lawrence. The name of that book is “Practicing the Presence of God,” and it was inspired by an event that happened when Brother Lawrence was 18 years old. He was looking out into a field in winter, and noticed a large tree covered in snow.

It occurred to him, as he meditated on that scene, that in a few short months that tree would take on leaves and it would look fully alive and fruitful. He suddenly felt the overwhelming sense of God’s presence, as if God were showing him how life and fruitfulness is the very work that takes place deep within the soul touched by God.

Brother Lawrence was transformed by that experience; from that day forward he set out to daily practice the presence of God in the smallest and most ordinary experiences of life: cooking in the kitchen, walking outdoors, or sitting quietly in the chapel.

Our challenge for this 4th Sunday of Advent, in these few short hours before Christmas, is to search for and find God in the small stuff. Like Brother Lawrence, and John the Baptist, and the Little Town of Bethlehem, we are called to find the presence of God in the most ordinary and often remarkable circumstances of our lives.

Which brings us back to one of the questions from the beginning of this homily: Why does coming here two days in a row really matter? Why do we come here for the 4th Sunday of Advent, and then again on Christmas itself? Because God Himself is present here in a way that He is not fully present anywhere else this Christmas. He is present here—body and blood, soul and divinity—in the Eucharist. The God of the universe will become present here in the form of bread and wine. We will receive that tiny piece of bread, and receive the same Christ who was recognized by John the Baptist and born in the Little Town of Bethlehem (which means, literally, “house of bread”).

May we open our eyes and our hearts to recognize the presence of Christ in that great mystery of our faith, and so be open to recognizing Him everywhere God sends us in the days and weeks ahead.