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Sam Sawyer, S.J.December 23, 2023
People celebrate the arrival of the Peace Light of Bethlehem outside St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, Ukraine, during a ceremony Dec. 10, 2023, to launch the Christmas season. (OSV News photo/Vladyslav Musiienko, Reuters)

A Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Find today’s readings here.

Once every six or seven years, when Christmas falls on a Monday, we have the shortest Advent possible and the Fourth Sunday of Advent, as it does this year, falls on Christmas Eve. For parish staff, this means both a very quick turnaround from Advent purple to Christmas finery, and also fielding hundreds of questions about how the Christmas Eve vigil Mass “counts.” But it also means that the church invites us, right on the cusp of Christmas, to stay with Advent just a moment longer, even if only for a few hours this Sunday.

Today’s Gospel takes us back with Mary to the Annunciation, and the first reading puts us with David, having his plans to build a house for God, for the ark of the covenant, pulled up short. Instead, God tells David through the prophet Nathan that he will establish a house for David himself, a legacy that will stand firm forever. One of the traditional images this juxtaposition of readings brings to mind is Mary as the “ark of the new covenant”—the one through whom God comes to dwell with his people in the flesh.

But this year, this juxtaposition of readings, hearing David’s hope to build God’s temple in Jerusalem alongside Gabriel announcing God’s plan to Mary in Nazareth, these readings draw my attention back to the Holy Land, to the suffering in Israel and Gaza, where hostages are still separated from their families and innocents are being killed in the violence of war.

Through Nathan in the first reading, God recalls how he has “destroyed all your enemies before you” and promises to “fix a place for my people Israel … so that they may dwell in their place.” As Advent asks us to deepen our longing for the fulfillment of God’s promises, what do we do with this reading? What do we do with the deep longing for peace that seems so far from being possible right now, and with God promising security in the aftermath of violence?

May our longing for God’s peace grow ever deeper, and may it break open the hardness of our hearts to seek that peace together.

I’ll be honest: I don’t know how to answer this question. But I do know how my own longing for peace is being deepened—even painfully deepened—at this moment. Let me offer a few examples through some of the pieces of America content I’ve been spending time with this Advent.

Near the beginning of December, our Jesuitical podcast featured an interview with Rachel Goldberg, whose son Hersh was taken hostage by Hamas on Oct. 7, as she spoke about how she maintains her Jewish faith, remaining in conversation with God in the midst of her own pain and confusion as they continue to work and pray for Hersh’s safe return. The next week, Jesuitical spoke with Stephanie Saldaña, who lives in Bethlehem with her family, about how it feels to prepare for Christmas in Manger Square, in a Palestinian community under the shadow of war. And this past week, we published a piece from Rami Aljelda, a staff member with Catholic Relief Services who is sheltering with his family in Gaza in the Greek Orthodox church of St. Porphyrius, with bombs falling around them.

Here is how Rami describes his longing for peace: “This is the only dream that I can imagine. This is what I want and what I hope for: a safe place where we can guarantee that there are no conflicts, and where people can really build their dreams and start building their lives.”

So let me close by suggesting a way to pray with that longing. One of my favorite Advent hymns is “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming,” which our Hark! podcast just explored in its closing episode for this Advent. In that episode, the composer J.J. Wright says of the hymn, “I never feel like I’m able to express why I love it so much.” But his description of how the music of the hymn conveys the sense of longing for God helped me realize why I love it so much: because it holds open a hope, along with Mary, that the rose is ever blooming, that even when “half spent is the night,” God’s promise is still in the midst of being fulfilled.

Or as Stephanie Saldaña puts it, writing from Bethlehem and quoting her young daughter, “Maybe Christmas will stop the war.” God is always coming to dwell with us, always calling us to dwell with each other in peace. May our longing for God’s peace grow ever deeper, and may it break open the hardness of our hearts to seek that peace together.

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