On the Fourth Sunday of Advent we are close to the unfolding of the great mystery of the Word made flesh. It is easy for us to look right past it, but we do well to pause and ponder what is taught to us today about the salvation that is to unfold. One significant way we can do this is by reflecting on the first reading, which is from the prophet Micah. In four short verses we are presented with a kind of summary of our salvation, a snapshot of what ails us and how God heals us.
Let’s see what the Lord and the Church have to teach us.
I. Our Humility – The text begins, And 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.
Of all the towns and villages in the land of Judah, one of the lowliest was Bethlehem. Though not far from the great city of Jerusalem—a matter of a few miles—it was little more than a rundown, frontier village with little to recommend itself. It was a place by which one passed quickly on the way to nearby Jerusalem.
Even today, despite all that happened there, Bethlehem remains a troubled and rundown little city, impoverished and crowded. Its steep, hilly streets feature little that is pleasant to the eyes. A great sorrow hangs over it. It is hemmed in by guard towers and walls covered with razor wire. These are signs of a great standoff between Israel and the Palestinians. Largely isolated economically, the city suffers from widespread poverty and unemployment.
The ancient Church of the Nativity at the top of the hill looks every bit of its 1500 years in age. It is dingy, covered in soot, and largely in a state of poor repair, due to a standoff among the Orthodox factions that oversee the building. Thankfully, recent negotiations have yielded a renovation of some of the nave. The tension is palpable as one enters the church; nervous tour guides engage in delicate negotiations to ensure a quick visit to the cave of the Nativity beneath the altar.
Bethlehem remains lowly, troubled, and humble, yet it was here that our Savior chose to be born. He did not choose nearby Jerusalem, distant Rome, or any great imperial city. Not in a palace was He is born but in a cave. Even within this humble and lowly city, one must get mighty low to find the place where Christ was born. One descends steep, narrow steps into a cave, and once inside one must stoop lower still, even kneeling on the floor, to touch the place where Christ was born.
A lowly place in a lowly village—this is where Christ was born. See how the Lord esteems humility? God hates pride; He just can’t stand it. Pride is our greatest enemy; it is at the root of every sin we commit. That is why the Lord teaches us that humility is one of our greatest gifts.
The story also reminds us of something that took place in Bethlehem 1000 years before. The prophet Samuel was sent to anoint a new king to replace Saul. Having been sent to lowly Bethlehem, Samuel surveyed the sons of Jesse. The seven strong young men impressed Samuel, but none of them was the king he was sent to anoint. There was one other son, a boy so young and insignificant that Jesse had not even thought to include him. It was little David, who was out in the field tending the sheep. Yes, the lowliest one, he was the one whom God chose. Humility won the day (cf 1 Sam 16).
So it is that Bethlehem shows forth the humility, the lowliness that alone opens the door to God. Bethlehem is a name that means “house of bread,” not “house of caviar,” not “house of fine wine.” Humility ushers in our God.
II. Our Hardship – The text goes on to speak of our condition prior to the coming of Jesus: Therefore, the Lord will give them up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne.
Our condition without Christ is grave. We are given up, given over to sin and to our own fruitless and self-destructive tendencies. Thus, we learn of the gravity of our condition: that we cannot save ourselves. The prophet Isaiah had cried out, Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! … All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins (Is 64:1,6-7).
Yes, our condition apart from Christ is hard and quite hopeless. In the age of the law and the prophets, we learned the hard way that no matter how hard we try we cannot save ourselves. Our wounds are too deep, our pride too great, our hearts too dull, and our minds too dark. We are lost without God. How often have deluded men sought to create utopia only to discover ruins? We have only to consider the utopian notions of the last bloody century.
Yes, the age of the law and the prophets in the Old Testament shouts to us that we cannot save ourselves. We must rely on God; we must turn to Him. We don’t just need an angel—we need a savior. Until she who was to give birth has borne the son, the only way to describe the human family is just the way this text from Micah does: we had been given up, given over to our own sins so as to discover humility and our need for a savior.
Isaiah wrote, All we like sheep have gone astray, every one to his own way (Is 53:6). St. Paul would later write of the time before Christ, we were dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1), given over to our transgressions and iniquity.
So, here is our hardship. We are wandering, lost, and in need of a savior.
III. Our Head – The text goes on to speak of our Savior, our shepherd, our ruler, and our head: Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times. He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the Lord, in the majestic name of the Lord, his God.
Thus, we see that our Savior will be both God and man. He is God, for His origin is from of old, from ancient times (cf also Hebrews 7:3). He also saves us by the strength of the Lord. Yet He is also one of us, for the text speaks of Him as acting in the name of the Lord, His God.
He must be God in order to have the power to save us, and yet He must also be one of us in order to speak and act on our behalf. As God, He cannot obey God, for there is only one divine will. As man, having a human will, He is able to obey the Father. Thus, it makes sense that our Savior must be both God and man.
It is said that He will shepherd His flock. Shepherds feed, lead, and protect their flocks. All this the Lord does for us. It is a trait of sheep to be wayward; sheep tend to stray. They need the watchful care of a shepherd. Similarly, even after saving us from our sins, the Lord must continue to feed us, lead us, and protect us. Otherwise, having been snatched from the wolf, we might run into a bear. Or, having been saved from the edge of a cliff, we might wander into a thicket.
Christ, our shepherd and head, must go before us, showing us and opening the way. He must also walk behind us to guard us and to observe our every action. He must also walk beside us to keep our paths straight. We need our Savior, not just on Good Friday, but every hour of every day.
IV. Our Healing – The text goes on to say, and the rest of his kindred shall return to the children of Israel and they shall remain, for now his greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; he shall be peace.
Thus, we see that Jesus’ essential task in healing us is not simply a personal healing for me alone or for you alone. It is also healing that removes the divisions within and among us. One of the chief sources of our suffering in this world is division. Nation is divided against nation; races and ethnic groups are in competition; there is conflict and crushing hatred.
At the time of Jesus, Jews and Gentiles (largely Romans and Greeks) were in major conflict. The Jews of Jesus’ time were taught to love their neighbor and their fellow Jews, but to hate their enemy. Jesus taught that we must love and forgive our enemies and began the process of establishing a universal Church, a Catholic Church. He gave the apostles standing orders to preach the gospel to every nation and to unite everyone under the common title of disciple, of Christian. The dignity of baptism and of being a child of God was to be offered to all. As this text of Micah prophesies, the Lord’s salvation and greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth.
The text goes on to say, He shall be our peace. Note that this is not a “can we all just get along” sort of peace. It means that He shall be our peace. That is to say, the Lord Jesus Christ and the truth He proclaims are to be the source of our unity. In sending the apostles forth to proclaim the Gospel to every nation, Jesus said that they should teach the people to observe everything that He commanded and should draw them into the life of the Church through baptism (cf Matt 28:19). He is our peace. Jesus and His teachings are what are meant to unite us. Every other form of peace is not a true or lasting peace.
Thus, Jesus initiated a process that was not meant to conquer the world politically. Rather, it was a process whereby His truth and grace would be proclaimed and those who accepted these gifts would be able to come to greater and more lasting peace.
This peace must begin in the heart and mind of every individual believer who, by the grace of Jesus Christ, experiences an inner healing of the many conflicts and destructive drives caused by sin. Then, by drawing others to that same healing through evangelization to a life-changing, transformative relationship with Jesus Christ, this peace is meant to spread throughout the world. This will put an end to division, bring together the children of God, and show forth God’s greatness, truth, and salvation to the ends of the earth.
He is our peace. Jesus is our healing.
This Sunday’s first reading, coming just before the Christmas reality, presents us with a summary of our salvation. It stresses our need for humility, describes our hardship, announces our Head (a Shepherd), and sets forth the basis for our healing. In a word, the basis for our healing is the Word made flesh, Jesus.
This song says,
We need to hear from you
We need a word from you
If we don’t hear from you
What will we do
Wanting you more each day
Show us your perfect way
There is no other way
That we can live.
Destruction is now is now in view
Seems the world has forgotten all about you
Children are crying and people are dying
They’re lost without you, so lost without you
But you said if we seek
Lord if we seek your face
And turn from our wicked, our wicked ways
You promised to heal our land
Father you can.