The readings today take up a common theme in the Bible: that of a seemingly lesser or more vulnerable person or community being better attuned to God’s ways than their highfalutin “superiors”. In the reading from the prophet Micah we hear how the village of Bethlehem was overlooked and regarded as insignificant within the territory of Judah by the people, but was not disregarded by 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” (Micah 5:1).
Similarly, in the gospel we meet Mary and Elizabeth, both of whom are open to the word of God however unexpected it may have been in their lives, as well as the yet unborn John the Baptist who exults at the very presence of the Word made flesh in the womb of Mary. That two women were chosen to play such a freely and consciously accepted role in the story of our salvation is remarkable, as women were often marginalized in the society of their time. Going even further, the irony of one unborn child recognizing another underlines that in God’s way of thinking it is not earthly power or standing which enables one to behold the Lord’s coming but rather faith and innocence of heart.
Sadly, other figures we encounter among the prophets and gospels do not share in this ability to perceive the presence of holiness in their midst. One might think of Eli the priest of Shiloh, who failed to hear the Lord calling the boy Samuel, or Peter in the midst of his fear over being identified as a disciple of Jesus during his passion. All too often we imitate this blindness to the visits which God so regularly makes in our lives, preferring to see the Lord in grander movements or events than the often humble and quiet manifestations that God prefers.
The perfect illustration of this human tendency to overlook the humble is seen in the Christ child himself—born not in a royal palace but in obscurity and poverty in the stable at Bethlehem: “she…laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). Through the scriptures we relive the moments of recognition when Jesus was truly acclaimed for who he was: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39); and we see as well the instances in which he was ignored and dismissed as a nobody: “[The Pharisees] said…look and see that no prophet arises from Galilee!” (John 7:52).
Why do we do this? Why do we frequently ignore the most profound things in life in favor of passing ones, and become more attuned to the ways of the world than the rhythms of revelation? And why is it that those who do perceive that they are in the Lord’s grace-filled company are often not highly regarded by society? It may have something to do with the words spoken to Mary by her kinswoman Elizabeth: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45).
With these words Elizabeth explains in her own way that faith is what enabled Mary to accept, if not completely understand, her role in God’s plan, and that that same faith finds a ready home not in hearts filled with self-satisfaction, but animated by a humble acceptance of what God has given them. This Christmas let us receive the surpassing gift of the Word made flesh with the eagerness of those who know their littleness in the eyes of the world, and who can recognize God’s greatness in the humblest among us.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.