When we think about the characteristics which define the season of Advent the first word that perhaps comes to mind is ‘waiting.’ Indeed, it is a time of reflection and patient waiting for the time of fulfillment to be at hand, to paraphrase the evangelist Luke. Unfortunately we live in a culture which does not like to wait for anything, and with all the distractions which abound it can be difficult to be patient until the moment when Christmas arrives. It is actually beneficial for us to enter into the struggle of waiting, sitting in the tension between the pressure to hurry up and the contrasting spiritual virtue of being patient, because in this we can discover insights into the experience of Mary and Joseph who had to wait the normal nine months for their child to be born; or that of the nation which had been waiting for centuries for the Messiah to come. In that light, how difficult can four weeks be? Of course, in the spiritual life, (as in the whole of our lives), we know that we are constantly waiting, and it is in the waiting that we find God. But another important virtue which accompanies the patient waiting of Advent is the humility it takes to do so. To wait is among the most humble things a person can do because it means we are acknowledging that time and eternity are not in our control. Thus Advent becomes a humble season, not just because of the holy ones we contemplate, but it is humble because we are being invited to enter into their ranks. When we wait, we acknowledge our powerlessness and our inability to do anything without the gift of God.
Throughout Advent we hear Scriptures which highlight the process of waiting and which encourage us to be ready for fulfilment at a time we do not know. The prophets express the benefits of waiting as well as the glory of God which will be revealed. It is not just the difficult messages which they bear, but they tell us that God is ready to bring healing, peace, and joy as He comes into the world through His great love. A prophet who always has a large presence throughout Advent is Isaiah. With eloquent prose he describes the Prince of Peace who will come. In his day Isaiah was a powerful figure, a prophet of great renown, and as such he had followers which sometimes included the current king. Therefore, it is his contemporary, and very probably such a follower, to whom we turn as our final guide in prophetic living: the prophet Micah. We know little about this man, except that he came from an obscure, humble village in the foothills of Judea.
The passage we hear on the fourth Sunday of Advent when our waiting is at its height, is the ultimate description of the humility of this season: “But 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; whose origin is from old….” (Micah 5:1) God chose an insignificant town, so small that the people of Judea could barely identify it, to bring forth the fulfillment of His promise. Bethlehem was the place of origin of David the great king, yet it had become so obscure and his clan so small that no one expected another leader to come forth from that place. Many people in this area were poor, the area was one of the humblest places in the land. Micah, also from an obscure village, truly understood the profound depth of this reality: God, who is supremely glorious, would come to the humblest place among the lowliest people, to make His entry into the world. Micah emphasized this to teach something profound about God: He comes to a humble place because God is humble! Micah must have learned this truth from Isaiah who taught that we are not the only ones who wait. “Yet the Lord is waiting to show you favor, and He rises to pity you; for the Lord is a God of justice: blessed are all who wait for him!” (Isaiah 30:18) The Almighty humbly waits for our readiness and forces nothing upon us. He waited to send His Son; He waited to show the people His mercy and love; He waited to bring them justice from oppression. And so He humbly waits for us.
Micah gave us an important insight when he showed us that greatness and humility are not opposites. Rather, we learn that to be holy means we recognize that greatness is found in humility. He wrote that the Messiah would be like a shepherd and that His greatness would extend to the end of the earth (Micah 5:3). This seems like a contradiction in terms, but Micah knew that it takes a tremendous strength to remain humble when one has power. Power can corrupt unless the mighty one is grounded in a relationship of accountability, trust, and humility. Jesus, though divine, was accountable to the promise made by the Father; in His humanness He had to trust in that same promise, and in humility and vulnerability He came to fulfill it. God the Almighty came as a tiny baby, to an obscure couple in a ‘forgotten’ village. And Micah, reminiscent of the words of Isaiah, tells us: “He shall be peace.” (Micah 5:4)
From Micah, then, we learn an important lesson in prophetic living. We learn that patience and peacefulness, kindness and humility are what make us strong. We learn that to live prophetically we draw our strength from the Humble One, Jesus the Lord for whom we wait. Just as Mary humbly gave herself to the service of the Lord, saying to the angel Gabriel: “May it be it done to me according to your word,” and just as Joseph followed the instructions of the same angel in so much humility that he acquiesced to becoming one of the most obscure saints of all (and thus one of the greatest); just as John the Baptist was able to announce that one was coming who was mightier than himself; just as the shepherds were out in the fields watching their flocks, the humblest of all and yet most open to God; and just as Micah was in the shadow of the great prophet Isaiah, so too are we called to humility, ‘quiet’ service, and peace.
Advent is the humblest time of the year. It is not mere symbolism or even sentimentality which calls us to contemplate the crèches we have in our homes and churches. It is not an exercise in ‘good psychology’ or a giving in to being so tired that we are helpless to do much else other than stare at the scene, (though if that is what it takes, so be it.) Advent teaches us to be like Micah, one who hears the word and speaks it verbatim,* a message of hope, of peace, and of openness to the flow of God’s time. He teaches us to embrace our powerlessness over God’s timing, something which offers grace, not ineffectiveness. He teaches us that to live prophetically we have to slow down, let the silence open our hearts and minds to God’s Word. Prophetic living springs forth from the listening, the discerning, the laying down of our need to do things our way and in our time, and therefore, enables us to allow God to come in His way, at His time, and in the way that is most needed. There is strength in that humility, and thus there is glory: God’s glory. As Micah tells us, “His greatness will reach to the ends of the earth: He shall be peace.” But it is Jesus' disciples, you and I, who will bring His greatness to the world through the strength we have learned from the prophets and from His heeded message.
Finally, Micah tells us that God requires (only) one thing from us, which is “to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8) Perhaps that is the most important message we can receive concerning how to live prophetically. It implies that we are kind, just, willing to serve, and humble. In other words, we are to bear peace when we live prophetically, emptying ourselves completely to the time and desires of God, who is Himself humble because He waits for us to offer ourselves completely to Him. Once we make such an offer, we will be able to see the goodness of Justice and Mercy, even though we may not understand. To be humble is to trust God and to accept that we are powerless to comprehend many things and that much is out of our control; it is to trust that He carries us under the shadow of His wing, ready to come again, so that we might be with Him forever. Therefore let us embrace this humble season, let us join with Mary and Joseph in the empty stable, let us work for justice with John the Baptist, and with Micah let us learn to walk humbly with our God.
May we continue to open our hearts to the beauty of the humble season of Advent! May we find serenity in our contemplation of our Nativity scenes and thus discover blessing in the waiting! May we recognize that humility is our strength and that kindness is our call in the midst of a culture filled with the message of self-aggrandizement! May we learn through the example and words of Micah that our holiness lies in our lowliness! May we learn to do the right, love goodness, and walk humbly with our God! And in humility, may we join Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds and kings in adoration, wonder, awe, and gratitude at the coming of our Lord Jesus into our world! Peace! Maranatha! Come, Emmanuel, come!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next post December 31. (Joyous Christmas to all!)
* See Isaiah 2:2-4 and Micah 4:1-3. They are identical.
1. This painting is part of a triptych painted by Fr. William Hart McNichols. This one is called Study for Winter Trees of Life. I chose it because it is a humble scene which seems to heighten a sense of waiting. I love the candle in the left corner, beneath the tree, which appears to speak of hope and comfort: the Light of the World, perhaps. You can find this image at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/study-for-winter-trees-of-life-299-william-hart-mcnichols.html
The triptych is found at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/tree-triptych-for-rivera-funeral-home-220-william-hart-mcnichols.html
2. This is an icon of the prophet Micah found in the iconostasis of Transfiguration Church in Kizhi Monastery in Karelia, Russia. I found it on a Wikipedia page, admittedly, but I liked it because I believe the scroll he is holding has the words of Micah 6:8 quoted later in this post. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micah_(prophet)
3. This map is of ancient Judea, to which I have highlighted in yellow the two obscure, small towns mentioned in the post. The one on the far left, west, near the Mediterranean Sea is actually Gath, which was a large city. But Micah's hometown, Moresheth, was not far from Gath. His town was too small to be on any map! The other highlighted town is Bethlehem-Ephrathah. For those with good eyes, you will see Jerusalem just north and a bit east of Bethlehem. I chose the map to give a sense of perspective of the area and how humble those towns mentioned really were. I found the map at https://www.conformingtojesus.com/charts-maps/en/map_of_ancient_roman_judea.htm
4. This painting is called Bluebell Wood by Nicholas Hely Hutchinson. I chose it because it seemed to resonate with the passage: "He shall be peace." This wood seems peaceful, somewhere I would love to walk.
5. This icon is called Mother of God Waiting in Adoration by Fr. William Hart McNichols. As I said in the last entry, I can hardly imagine an Advent reflection without an image of Mary. She is in prayer, but in a posture of humility. Although she is already pregnant in this icon, it seems as if she is saying yet again to the Lord: "May it be it done to me according to your word." You can find this icon at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/mother-of-god-waiting-in-adoration-248-william-hart-mcnichols.html
6. This is one of my photos taken in the Tirolean Alps in Austria. We had stopped by the side of the road for a stretch break and this was the view. It is true that mountains are humbling in their majesty. The way the sun was emerging from behind the peaks gave me a sense of the glory of God.
7. I took this photo of part of my crèche scene at home. It may seem silly that Mary and Joseph are looking adoringly at an empty crib, but I do this every year as a way to highlight their anticipation and joy, and hence my own. They are reflecting upon what is to come and Who is to come.
8. Since this post is the last one of Advent and the next entry will not come until after Christmas, it seemed fitting to end with the four candles of the Advent wreath lit.
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