Readings from: Micah 5; Ps. 80; Heb. 10; Luke 1
In preparing for this reflection, I was intrigued to discover that our liturgy for tomorrow treats us to a panoramic celebration of little things: in the first reading, Bethlehem-Ephratha—too small to be counted among the clans of Judah; the little vine of the responsorial psalm; and, in the second reading, the doing of God’s will which, compared to the sacrifices, offerings, and holocausts of the Old Law was negligible. Finally, in the Gospel, there is the small, joyful stirring inElizabeth’s womb when she greets Mary. This theme of little things, however, is accompanied by another theme—that of great faith and trust.
Who would believe that the small town of Bethlehem could provide Israel with a ruler whose greatness would reach to the ends of the earth (Micah 5:1-3); that a little vine would be protected by the “right hand of the one God had made strong” (Ps. 80:16); that the doing of God’s will by Jesus would win a world, and that the small stirring in Elizabeth’s womb would portend the coming of the Savior? Yet none of these unbelievable realities took place without deep humility and dependence on God, without a belief that God can do great things with very little things and very little people.
The Israelites would not have accepted Jesus—indeed, some did not—had they relied solely on the origins of his birthplace; the Church would have faltered very early in its history without reliance on the guiding hand of the vinedresser; and Jesus, had He worshipped God with the customary, more grandiose ritual offerings instead of simply doing God’s will, could not have saved the world. Finally, Mary, had she not “trusted that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled,” would not have been aware of the great things God had done in her, nor, it is certain, would we.
The lesson seems clear. Trust in God can work greater things in us and for the world than countless more pretentious deeds. This is a difficult lesson for us to learn, particularly as Americans. So often we are tempted to take on too many projects or to turn everything we do, sometimes even minutiae, into major ventures. I am reminded of this tendency periodically when, for example, I am in front of the computer trying to formulate a sentence or paragraph, and I find myself worrying words “to death” in an effort to get them “just right.”
The competitive spirit runs in our ancestral blood and dies hard in us; we want whatever we do to be the biggest and best. Still, as Christians and Benedictines, we know our witness is meant to proclaim that quantity of life can never be a substitute for quality of life, and that, though activity is important, it is never as important as being. This is not to say we are exempted from alleviating the world’s agonies in concrete ways. It is simply to say that anything we do, when seen in relation to God, is just that—relative and is, in that sense, of little importance. The world could function quite well without us.
What counts is faith; what counts is great trust. Or, as Jesus himself expressed it, THE great activity, THE great work is to have faith in the One whom God sent—a tiny baby who came into this world with little fanfare. The following quotation from Teihard de Chardin’s Divine Milieu helps to make tomorrow’s liturgy particularly meaningful to me:
In one of his stories, Robert Hugh Benson tells of a ‘visionary’ coming upon a lonely chapel where a nun is praying. He enters. All at once he sees the whole world bound up and moving and organizing itself around that out-of-the-way spot, in tune with the intensity and inflection of the desires of that puny, praying figure. The convent chapel had become the axis about which the earth revolved. The contemplative sensitized and animated all things because she believed . . .
I, too, believe that such prayer produces the real energy holding our universe together. It is my hope that our efforts as Community to prepare for the coming of Jesus during these final days of Advent will evolve into a living womb of prayer in which these saving vibrations will be conceived and brought forth for our world. God can do great things with our quiet, unassuming hopes and longings. Blessed are we if we trust that Jesus will bring these small beginnings to birth in us.
—Mary E. Penrose, OSB
Sister Mary E. Penrose is a Sister of St. Scholastica Monastery in Duluth, Minnesota. She edits readings for the liturgical Hours and writes reflections for the Community. And she is a tutor for the African Sisters attending The College of St. Scholastica. She was editor of a journal, Spirit & Life, for 18 years.
Read all Sister Mary E.’s reflections.