Our first scripture for today’s Mass is an excerpt from the Old Testament Prophet Micah.
Micah spoke the Lord’s word of truth during the collapse of northern kingdom of the Israelites. In the year 722 BC, the armies of the Assyrian Empire invaded that territory and laid waste to it. The devastation was so horrifying that 10 of the 12 tribes of the Israelites would be wiped out, disappearing from history. The survivors fled to the southern Kingdom of Judah, the last remnant of the once mighty Kingdom of David and they were not received with sympathetic and open arms.
Years earlier, after the death of King David’s son, Solomon, the Kingdom of David had been divided by a bitter civil war, the end result had been the creation of two autonomous kingdoms. This division weakened the Israelites and made them vulnerable to their enemies. In 722 BC the Israelites were confronted with the consequences of their longstanding rivalries and feuds and in this confrontation, they lost nearly everything.
Micah decried the treatment the survivors of the Assyrian invasion received from the Kingdom of Judah. Israel was supposed to be one family, and now at the darkest and most desperate time for one part of the Israelite family, those members of the family who could help, where belligerent in their refusal. Micah warned everyone that the divisions and factions would ultimately result in destruction for everyone.
He also had little time for the royal family, descendents of King David who ruled in Jerusalem. He predicted that the time of end of the House of David was drawing near. What had happened in the northern territory was a foreshadowing of what would soon happen in the south.
Micah’s prediction proved to be correct. In the year 587 BC the armies of Babylon invaded, conquered the city of Jerusalem, desecrated the temple, enslaved the survivors, razed the city to the ground, massacred the royal family- the House of David was reduced to ruin and the descendents of mighty King David were humiliated and scattered.
The Kingdom of David was no more.
This back story to today’s first scripture helps us to understand its strange meaning. Micah predicts that a successor to King David, a new king for all Israelites and indeed all the world, will arise from the ruin of David’s house and that this new king will be revealed, not in a mighty city like Jerusalem, but in a small, provincial backwater called Bethlehem.
It will be from this place of insignificance that God will act to repair a covenant that had been broken, restore a kingdom that had been lost- the king would return to his people, and the little town of Bethlehem would be the first to receive him.
What Micah foresaw is Christ the Lord, who as the Gospel testifies, was born in Bethlehem. It was there that God acted in an extraordinary way so as to give the Israelites, indeed the world, the one, true king.
The king that is born in Bethlehem is God himself. The great story of Christ’s birth is not about the birth of a wise philosopher or a spiritual guru, but about how God inserted himself into history, accepting as his own a human nature and being born into this world as we are all born into this world. The great story of the birth of Jesus Christ is not just about the birth of a baby, but about the revelation of God as our king.
That God accepted a human nature and lived a real human life is what our second scripture for today is about- from the Letter to the Hebrews.
The Letter to the Hebrews is a lengthy essay that explores the identity and mission of the Lord Jesus. It testifies that Jesus Christ is God and that God in Christ is also a man. In Christ, God has experienced for himself all that it means to be human, even the experiences of suffering and death and that God did this, not because he had to, but because he loves us. Accepting a human nature and living a real human life is a sacrifice that God makes for us- it is an act of love in which a lover gives something to his beloved that is an expression of his love.
This expression of God’s love is revealed in Jesus Christ- in his willingness to accept a human nature and experience for himself what it means to be human.
The Letter to the Hebrews calls this a sacrifice and it truly is, because it is something God does out of love and it is also something that he didn’t have to do.
Thus, the great revelation of Christmas is not only the about the birth of God as our king, but it is also about the birth of God into our world as a child, as a man, as someone like us. God is not for us Christians an idea or feeling or some kind of cosmic force. God is a person who invites us into a relationship with him- God the person extends his invitation for us to meet him, not by hurling thunderbolts or by sending us a written self-help manual, but by meeting us face to face.
God revealed his face to us, the face of Jesus Christ, for the first time in the city of Bethlehem. Each Christmas, the Church recalls that moment when God came to us as our king and introduced himself to the world as a person who knows us, loves us, and wants to be our friend.
Finally, the Gospel for today depicts the dramatic scene that takes place after Christ’s Mother has had her encounter with a fearsome angel who has told her that the child she will bear into the world will be God, the one, true king.
This is not news that she can keep only to herself and she is seized with a sense of urgency (the Gospel describes her urgency as characterized by haste) to go out and present to others the good news that she has received.
Thus, at great risk, she undertakes a journey out into the world, bearing news of the coming of God in Christ to those who needed to hear it.
In her actions, in her urgency, in her haste, Christ’s Mother displays the essential and necessary qualities of being a true disciple of the Lord Jesus. The Gospel is not merely a private matter or given to us simply for our own personal enrichment. Nor is the Gospel simply about comforts and consolations, a flight away from the raw facts of life, but it is instead an invitation into adventure and into risk. The expectations of Christ for us cannot simply be relegated to another day or left for some future date, but press upon us with great urgency right now.
The poet Dante references this story from the Gospel of Luke in his great work, the Divine Comedy. As the poet journeys through purgatory, a place of purification and preparation for heaven, he witnesses those souls who died unprepared for the mission in the next life. It is a harrowing and frightening vision!
Those souls whose approach to the expectations of the Gospel were lacking in urgency, who while exhibiting all kinds of energy for worldly attainments (like wealth, pleasure, power and honors) but little enthusiasm for the attainments of faith, hope and love, find themselves running in circles in a kind of boot camp, running and running and all the while repeating the words from the Gospel of Luke “and Mary set out in haste… and Mary set out in haste…” In this way the souls are purged of their indolence and permitted to move forward in their journey to heaven.
The lesson of the poet Dante is that our responsibility for the mission Christ gives us, a mission to bear Christ’s life and presence into the world, is not something we can defer or evade without consequences (either in this life or in the next).
When Christ presents our mission, our response should imitate that of his Mother- go out with urgency and go with haste, share with others the Gospel and seek to accomplish what the Lord has asked us to do.