December 21, 2018

Christ the Cornerstone

Christ comes to be our peace and calls us to conversion

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“Thus says the Lord: You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; whose origin is from of old, from ancient times. Therefore, the Lord will give them up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne, and the rest of his kindred shall return to the children of Israel. He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the Lord, in the majestic name of the Lord, his God; and they shall remain, for now his greatness shall reach to the ends of the Earth; he shall be peace” (Mi 5:1-4).

This weekend, we celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Advent, our final opportunity to prepare ourselves for the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas).

The Scripture readings for this weekend call our attention to two particular places—the little town of Bethlehem, from which the prophet Micah says “one who is to be ruler in Israel” will come, and “a town of Judah” in the hill country destined to be the birthplace of the last great prophet, John the Baptist. What do these two places have in common? What do they teach us about the great feast of Christmas?

These two biblical locations—Bethlehem and a town in Judah where Mary visited Elizabeth—are by no means centers of political power or economic influence. They are humble, out-of-the-way places where, by the miracle of God’s grace, wonderful things happened. Both locations serve as signs of the very different context in which God visits us, his people.

Jesus will not be born in Jerusalem or Rome or any other major city. He will be born in Bethlehem, “too small to be among the clans of Judah” (Mi 5:1). But his humble origins will not prevent him from shepherding his flock with strength, “for now his greatness shall reach to the ends of the Earth; he shall be peace” (Mi 5:1-4). His power and influence are of a totally different kind than we normally associate with earthly rulers.

He who was to be born of an ordinary woman, a woman who was nevertheless extraordinarily faithful to God’s word, revealed himself in the very first instance as an unborn child. Elizabeth’s son, himself an unborn infant, recognized his Lord and proclaimed his greatness from the womb. “For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,” Elizabeth said to Mary, “the infant in my womb leaped for joy” (Lk 1:44). What an amazing demonstration of God’s closeness to us! Two unborn children communicate with each other to announce the imminent reign of God and to share their joy with each other—and with us.

There are a series of divine paradoxes here. Places that are “too small” or too obscure give rise to greatness. Two women—one who is a virgin and the other who is too old to bear children—rejoice in their pregnancies and strongly support each other. Two unborn children communicate with each other, and in so doing prefigure their respective missions as evangelists and martyrs called to proclaim God’s kingdom and the need for repentance and conversion.

Each year during the season of Advent, we reverence Mary, who had the courage to believe that God’s promise was being fulfilled in her, and John the Baptist, who serves as a bridge between the ancient hope and longing of God’s people and its fulfillment in Mary’s son, Jesus.

The ultimate paradox, of course, is the fact that Christ brings peace to the world (in fact, he is peace) while at the very same time causing division (Mt 10:34). Christ’s peace is not an affirmation of the status quo. It is a call to conversion, a radical transformation of our minds and hearts and of our social and political systems, so that we become new people living in a new world.

The Christmas peace that we will celebrate in a few days does bring us comfort and joy. But as Pope Francis frequently reminds us, the peace of Christ also challenges and unsettles us. It invites us to let Jesus break open our hearts so that we can share his closeness with others.

No place on Earth is too small for Christ to be born there. No individual heart is too closed for Christ to enter and dwell there.

As we complete our observance of Advent, let’s make room for Jesus Christ in our hearts and homes, in our communities and our churches, and even to the ends of the Earth. Come, Lord Jesus. Help us rejoice in your closeness and share our joy with everyone!

Merry Christmas! †

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