Fourth Sunday of Advent
On a beautiful Sunday evening in Advent, a group of Confirmation students strolled with lit candles to a nearby nursing home. Once there, they sang favorite Christmas carols while the residents, wheelchairs and walkers in tow, joined in. Meanwhile, parents of the students were arranging Christmas cookies on platters to be served. Instead, the home’s administrator suggested each student accompany an elderly man or woman through the line and then sit with him or her. The students agreed, and as I surveyed the room my heart swelled as I witnessed joy on the faces of both the students and the elderly. The older men and women were animated as they shared stories while the students listened intently and reverently. I was awestruck as I realized the lesson unfolding before me.
When we returned to the parish, I lay aside my notes, and went straight to the heart of the evening. “You did a wonderful job of caroling, but you did so much more! You made all the difference as you sat with the residents and listened to their stories. Though you did not take away their aches and pains, you lightened their burdens through your presence. This is the meaning of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus cares so deeply He is present to us each day. He accompanies us through each moment of joy and sorrow, including all our heartache, failure, betrayal, sin, and loneliness. He alleviates our suffering by being with us. With Jesus, we are never alone. We are never forgotten. We are never abandoned. In Jesus, God is forever present to us.
In this first chapter of Matthew, God promises a Savior, Emmanuel, God with us. As Christians, we are called, like Jesus, to be with others. In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis emphasizes the ministry of presence as the “’art of accompaniment” (#169). In our relationships, we often try to fix problems or to buy things when the greatest gift is to accompany others through our presence.
A popular toy brings momentary happiness, but playing together creates lifelong memories. A knickknack may be fashionable for a season, but sharing a cup of coffee strengthens a friendship for a lifetime. A jeweled bracelet may glitter for years, but holding hands is timeless.
Our children’s deepest desire is presence. Our greatest gift is bringing them into the presence of Emmanuel, God with us. As parents and grandparents, we name grace—God’s constant presence—in the domestic church by reminding our children of Jesus’ presence whether they’re praying, playing with friends, studying for a test, or sleeping in bed. Jesus draws close to them, whether they’re happy, lonely, hurt, scared, or sick. We name grace by spending extra moments, instead of dollars, to be present to our loved ones.
With each Christmas carol sung, may we remember Emmanuel is present in our singing and our crying. In Jesus, God walks with us, listens to us, and comes to us in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. In the concluding chapter of Matthew, we are told Jesus remains with us, present to us, “until the end of the age” (Matt: 28:20). Now, that’s good news!
Walking into this classroom, one was struck immediately by its warmth, peacefulness, and joy. This was not a class for “Gifted and Talented” students. Rather, this class of eleven extraordinary children included three special needs children. There was dark-haired Maggie, whose eyes twinkled while she talked up a storm. And Lauren, whose language skills were limited, but conveyed her joyous spirit through her infectious smile. And there was Timmy, whose hand was always the first raised to volunteer. The Spirit of the LORD seemed to rest upon this truly gifted classroom. The children were amazingly kind and considerate. Incredible teachers, parents, and helpers embraced each child, each need, and each lesson. They worked together, prayed together, and laughed together. Truly, the kingdom of heaven was at hand!
In this Sunday’s readings, Isaiah draws back the curtain to grant us a vision of the kingdom of heaven: a holy mountain where the “wolf will be a guest to the lamb.” John the Baptist announces the entrance into the kingdom with his fiery call: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
Repentance, the key to the kingdom, is a letting go, which, according to theologian John Shea, clears our hearts “for the arrival of what is deeply desired.” When we yearn for God’s original plan, we begin to reimagine what our homes, churches, neighborhoods, and cities could be. We can then let go, repent, of pre-conceived ideas and self-deceptions. Repentance turns us from self/sin and opens our hearts to God.
With repentance, the Spirit begins to rearrange our homes into dwelling places of the Christ child. We soon envision our families gathered around the kitchen table, candles lit, heads bowed in prayer and thanksgiving. We begin to act by turning off social media to be truly present to one another. We begin to live out God’s vision by caring tenderly for our young and old, by graciously inviting neighbors and foreigners into our homes, and by humbly serving the poor in our midst.
Families with a vision of the kingdom of heaven are inspiring. My daughter’s college roommate and husband have eight children, five of whom are adopted, some with special needs. A family from our parish serves together each month in a soup kitchen, participates in the annual adopt a family, and regularly visits the elderly in a local nursing home. Any size or shape of family where God’s love reigns is a light to the nation. Truly, the kingdom of heaven is at hand!
As parents/grandparents, we name grace—God’s presence—by praying for God’s vision and invoking the Spirit to work in our domestic churches. We name grace by modeling the kingdom of heaven through our inclusion of other races, abilities, and incomes. We name grace through our outreach in charity and justice.
When preparing to return to the Twin Cities after Thanksgiving, our nine-year old granddaughter, Ellie, asked her mom, “Why can’t we just live together?” Laura explained all our obligations in our current locations. Ellie listened, but didn’t buy; Ellie’s heart sees the bigger picture—where four generations could love and care for one another under one roof. Ellie envisions the kingdom of heaven: a holy mountain, a glorious dwelling, a home filled with all our loved ones. Now, that’s good news!
The blog on this page presents reflections on the Sunday readings through the lens of a parent/grandparent, aiding leaders of the domestic church in their vital task as “first heralds” or “first preachers” of the Good News in the home.