Fourth Sunday of Advent
Who can build a dwelling place for God? David wanted to build God a nice house, God responded by saying something like this: ‘I have never had a house. I have lived in a tent. I like tents because I can move quickly that way and be with people.’ God has been on the move, dwelling with the people who lived in tents as they journeyed through the desert from Egypt to Canaan. None of Israel’s leaders were asked to build God a temple. Pope Francis continually reminds us about ‘people on the move’ around the world. He presents us with a God who journeys with us and with all people especially those ‘on the move’.
God never stays put and cannot be boxed in. People in power think that they determine God’s dimensions by making God in their own image and likeness: remote, comfortable, powerful, controlling, manipulative, straight, white, male and unwilling to upset the status quo. But the gospels preach the good news of liberation - from patriarchy, feudalism, and capitalism or any kind of society that uses people as tools, or discards them. Any attempts to limit the scope of God’s presence in any way are rejected especially if they are laws and dogmas. God does not need David’s wealth or protection and will not be domesticated to David’s agenda. Jesus’ birth reveals one who undermines all forms of imperial power, wealth and domination. The subversive and inclusive nature of God’s Reign is proclaimed in the Song of Mary. God becoming flesh is not just about the birth of a child but the birth of a whole new order of love and justice. Buildings can be a way of controlling who is inside and who is outside. But we celebrate the God of new beginnings and who comes to be in the smallest and darkest spaces of our lives as well as revealed by our beautiful cosmos. As in the case of Mary, and those Jesus sat with, God takes notice of the unnoticeable. The coming of the Spirit over Mary reminds us that she, as well as God’s presence, is always associated with geographical places and nearly always comes to poor people, to women and children. That must say something about our God!! Mary seems to show up in some backwater country town or village and chats to poor people as we see in her apparitions. God takes residence in human flesh and walks in skin like ours. The less impressive by human standards is the most favoured to reveal God’s presence as was the youngest son of Jesse, David, and the ordinary young woman in an insignificant town named Mary. We too are asked to make a dwelling place within ourselves and within our world for Christ. It can be very messy.
In Jesus, holiness occurred in a new place. It came to live within the parameters of humanity. Humanity became a holy space. God’s favourite dwelling place is in the human heart. Mary became a ‘living place of God’s presence’. She had made space for God. This is our task too. God never touches us in a vacuum but through people, through the material world, through the touch of others, intimacy with others (the person who may share your bed), voices raised on behalf of the oppressed and gestures that reveal goodness in people. We hear how God came to live in the in all the dark spaces in our world – even our lives. God lives in places where there is peace and where there is no peace. God sits at our tables that might team with food as well as where there is an empty place at Christmas. Build God a house? God already has a home - within each of us as well as the ruined squat with a homeless person, amongst the nurses and doctors and other aides at the medical clinics around the world, in the refugee camp, in slums, and in our homes. The only house of God is the human ‘building’ where people who reach out to the other discover the God in the other. It is when people are less focused on self-promotion and self-protection and seek to be in solidarity with others, sharing in their joys and pains, and always moving to a new physical and social reality.
Paul Kelly’s song, ‘From little things, big things grow’ tells of the birth of a movement that seemed so insignificant that nothing would come of it. Yet it grew. It commemorates the birth of the Aboriginal land rights movement when the Gurindji people at Wave Hill Station in 1966 refused to do the cattle run thus beginning a struggle which 9 years later saw Prime Minister Whitlam hand them the lease to 3200 square kilometres. A protest by a few people in the outback, a geographically insignificant place, did not seem to have much chance of capturing the attention of the wider community. ‘From little things, big things grow. From little things, big things grow.’ If such a walk-off seemed insignificant and unlikely to be effective, the birth of a child in stable in another geographically and politically insignificant place was likely to have an impact. But the gospels imply: ‘From little things, big things grow. From little things, big things grow.’ And this, not only in the life of Jesus, but ourselves as well.
Many of us can feel small and insignificant; that we cannot make any real difference to anything that matters, particularly when we see what is happening in the church, in this country or the wider world. But social changes only occur with one person gathering with others to be the change they want to see. Someone once said, ‘If you think you’re too small to make a difference, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito!’ If we think we are too small to make a difference, we need to contemplate the Gospel today. ‘From little things, big things grow.’ And this is where God wants to be.
Luke’s story is set amid the cries for liberation from Rome’s oppression and its forced ‘peace’. The one who will announce his mandate using Isaiah 61:1 does bring a new kind of peace. It is both vision and agenda for action. The world in which God comes is the one where people cry out for freedom from tyranny, bullying and oppression. Can we hear that cry in the voices of people in Yemen, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, in Afghanistan, the Rohingya, Manus Island and Nauru, and in parts of Queensland, Western Australia and New South Wales? The angel announced a new reign where the marginalised and poor find a place. The Spirit descending on Mary reminds us that God is always associated with real places and comes to poor people, to women and children. This is our God!! Humanity – even if unbelieving, sceptical, religiously confused - is a holy place. We can become places that make possible a new and different world.
We can make change. There is a hidden web of connection between us. We have choice. We can choose to participate in bringing peace to God's people beginning in our homes, workplaces and homes of friends and then to people who are belittled or treated contemptuously such as refugees, Muslims, gays, women, youth, people of other ethnic backgrounds. We might be tempted to say, ‘How can this be? I am only one person. There is nothing I can do’ but we can say with Mary, ‘Here I am’. In the face of an unknown and potentially dangerous future, her faith sustained her, and she gave birth to God among us. As followers of the Prince of Peace, we must answer God's call to be people of peace, even in the face of unknown dangers.
As Mary brought Jesus to birth and hope to the world, we are called to give birth to Jesus and nourish hope in the world - even if it seems hopeless, or unappreciated, or thankless. Dare we look and recognise a Presence in everyday faces. Dorothy Day called it ‘making room for Christ’. Dorothy Day tells us where we can welcome Christ: ‘it is with the voices of our contemporaries that he speaks. With the eyes of store clerks and children, he looks at us. With the hands of slum dwellers and suburban housewives, he reaches out. He walks with the feet of the soldier and the tramp. With the heart of all in need, he longs for us to shelter him. And, the giving of shelter or food or welcome to anyone who asks or needs it, is giving to Christ and making room for his holiness to dwell within.’ From little things, big things grow.
Christmas requires us to step into, not out of, the tough realities of our world. We are called to radical, subversive and transformative engagement which is different to the seductive power, wealth, domination and ‘divide-and-conquer’ methods used in daily life. Do we believe that God’s new order is among us? We do not have to wait for it to come. We can take part in it as we engage in our own little ways with the issues of power we become more and more like servants who are in solidarity with others rather than those who dominate and control. The new world order that God in Jesus initiates is about a different way of live and relationship. We are called into a radical connectedness with others - especially the least and marginalised; to a radical generosity and care for one another and creation.
Advent is not a time to be passive. God is on the move because as Pope Francis says people are on the move and we are responsible as individuals and nations. Passivity or comfort cannot cause us to neglectful of others due to distinctions based on ethnic, religious, political or other while millions of men, women and children flee violence, extreme poverty, persecution, wars and climate destruction. For Pope Francis, the person who pays attention is one who, ‘in the noise of the world, does not let him or herself be overwhelmed by distraction or superficiality, but lives in a full and conscious way, with a concern directed above all to others’ and ‘the vigilant person is the one that welcomes the invitation to watch, and is not overwhelmed by the weariness of discouragement, a lack of hope or disappointment.’
We need not only to continue support for ‘people on the move’ but to increase work for peace. It is up to each of us to determine what we are able to do locally, nationally and globally. What ultimately matters, is the sum of our total efforts for the good of all and the Earth itself.