23 December. 4th Sunday of Advent

1st Reading: Micah 5:2-5

Salvation coming from little Bethlehem — to unite the nation under God

The Lord says this: But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth, and he shall be the one of peace.

Responsorial Psalm: Ps 79: 2-3, 15-16, 18-19

R./: Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.

O shepherd of Israel, hear us,
shine forth from your cherubim throne.
O Lord, rouse up your might,
O Lord, come to our help. (R./)

God of hosts, turn again, we implore,
look down from heaven and see.
Visit this vine and protect it,
the vine your right hand has planted. (R./)

May your hand be on the man you have chosen,
the man you have given your strength.
And we shall never forsake you again:
give us life that we may call upon your name. (R./)

2nd Reading: Hebrews 10:5-10

Christ the High Priest brings reconciliation between humanity and God

When Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me.”

When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Gospel: Luke 1:39-44

Elizabeth recognises the unique child that Mary carries within her

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.”


One further holding of our breath

The readings invite one further holding of the breath in anticipation, before the birth of Jesus. The Visitation, in particular, with its explicit and implied encounter(s), may help us reflect on all the encounters of this season, not forgetting “the” encounter to which we are all invited. [Kieran O’Mahony]

Honouring the Madonna

When a mother is expecting, all the focus is on her health and wellbeing. She gets loads of advice — ‘be careful,’ ‘don’t lift that’ and ‘don’t forget your afternoon nap.’ Once the baby is born the main attention moves to the baby — ‘who does she look like?’ ‘what name will you give him?’ – and so on. So on this last Sunday before Christmas the Gospel is focussed on Mary, the expectant mother, and in particular, on her visit to her cousin, Elizabeth.

One could say that Mary is even more honoured in the Eastern Church than she is in the West. In the West, after the 16th century reformation, many Protestants stopped honouring Mary. Many shrines were levelled, stained glass windows were broken, statues of Mary shattered, pictures of the Madonna burnt. Still, not all Protestants disowned Mary. A frequently quoted line about her is where William Wordworth refers to her as ‘our tainted nature’s solitary boast.’ Martin Luther had a lifelong devotion to Mary and even kept a picture of her on his desk, though many Lutherans seem unaware of this.

All Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, like to meditate on the Magnificat, that prayerful song brimming over with anger at the way the world is tilted against the poor. It is Mary’s cry for justice: He has filled the hungry with good things/ And sent the rich away empty. This is Mary who inspires all followers of her son to challenge injustice also in our own time and place.

New life on the horizon

There is a big age-difference between the two pregnant women in our Gospel today, yet both full of joy for themselves and for each other. Mary goes to visit Elizabeth because of the dangers attendant on so late a pregnancy. That she went with hasted, halfway across the country, to make the visit is a clear sign of Mary’s generosity and goodness. Through the light of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth recognised Mary’s privilege as the mother of the longed-for Messiah. She greets Mary in the words we are so familiar with in our Hail Mary. And Mary responds in the equally familiar words of the Magnificat. These two great women understand the miracle of conception and birth. But in each case there was divine intervention in a truly exceptional way. The Gospel says that both were informed of this fact by the words of an angel; they each had a message from God telling them so.

The fact that both Elizabeth and Mary had this divine intervention is a reminder that our own lives too are a gift of God. It is from this understanding that the Church takes its position on all life issues. At some moments we may recognise the hand of God in our lives. Maybe at the point when we when we finally decided on our partner in marriage, or even felt a vocation to special service in the church. Maybe it was at the birth of a child, a change in job circumstances, or the death of a parent. Maybe it was a moment in prayer, the grace of a sacrament, advice in the confessional, wise words from a friend or relative at a critical moment.

God is always working within us and for our good. This thought can help us through times of trouble. Troubles are part of that drawn-out gestation which is our life on earth. We were meant to be pilgrims in this world and to grow to rebirth into eternal life. Sometimes we clearly recognise God’s presence, as John recognised a special presence in Jesus, and feel an impulse of joy. As we journey through life, God remains with us. We were loved into being, and the One who sustains us each day will in the end give us fullness of life. As well as the birth of Jesus, at Christmas we celebrate our own birth also — birth into a life in this world that flows towards final resurrection.


Dia ag obair ionainn

Tá Dia ag obair i gcónaí taobh istigh  dínn agus dár gcuid mhaith. Is féidir go gcabhraíodh an smaoineamh seo linn i dtráthanna trioblóide. Tá trioblóidí mar chuid den ghéarchéim a  bhfuil ár saol ar domhan. Ní mór dúinn bheith ina oilithrigh sa saol seo i dtreó ath-fás  sa saol síoraí. Uaireanta aithnímid láithreacht Dhia go soiléar, mar a d’aithin Eoin Baiste láithreacht speisialta in Íosa, agus braithimid an-áthas as. Agus muid ag dul tríd an saol, fanann Dia linn. Is lena ghrá a chruthaigh Sé sinn, agus ag deire tabharfaidh an Té a chothaíonn linn gach lá iomlán na beatha dúinn. Chomh maith le breith Íosa, ag an Nollaig táimid ag ceiliúradh ár breithe féin – breithe i saol sa domhan seo a théann i dtreó aiséirí deiridh.


Saint John of Kanty

Cantius (Latin: Joannes Cantii) (Polish: Jan z Ket or Jan Kanty) (1390-1473) was a Polish priest, scholastic philosopher, physicist and theologian. He is also known as John of Kanty or John of Kanti or John Kantius. As professor theology in Kraków, John Kanty became well known in the city for his generosity and compassion toward the poor, especially needy students at the university.


  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    Bethlehem: A Light of Love in a World of Violence

    1. O little town of Bethlehem:
    How still we see thee lie.
    Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
    The silent stars go by.
    Yet in thy dark streets shineth
    The everlasting Light.
    The hopes and fears of all the years
    Are met in thee tonight.

    Strangely, I did not know this famous carol until I heard it in the most suitable place of all, the Shepherd’s Field near Bethlehem, on Christmas Eve in 1977. (I caught a glimpse of the spot from a bus many years later and it seemed to be spoilt by being built up; but it may not have been the same location: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/bethlehem-shepherds-fields.)
    The words were written by Rev Phillips Brooks in Philadelphia in 1868 on his return from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The usual tune is one adapted by Ralph Vaughan Williams (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRuXdOb6TrA&t=3s) I hear that Fr Robert Ormond, Cork & Ross, remembered for his great piety and charity, disliked this hymn, perhaps thinking it too literary and aesthetic, looking at Christmas from outside, in a distancing, objectifying way. Is it better consigned to the confectionary of carol services rather than used in the liturgy? Well, today’s first reading from Micah would provide a good pretext for smuggling it in.

    2. Ephratah, mentioned by Micah as another name of Bethlehem, is the place where Rachel died in giving birth to Benjamin. But some scholars locate it elsewhere, near Bethel. Indeed, some scholars locate the birthplace of Jesus in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem. As the city of David, celebrated in Micah’s prophecy, Bethlehem was the most suitable birthplace for a Messiah; yet it was already a place of pilgrimage in the second century; just as the sites that the Holy Family visited in Egypt are places of pilgrimage there since https://aleteia.org/2017/05/18/the-path-of-the-holy-familys-exile-in-egypt-to-become-a-world-heritage-site.

    That factual history should be enhanced by theological legend need not trouble a mature faith. The recognition of Jesus as Messiah is based on his public impact, his teachings, miracles, death and resurrection, and the retroactive shaping of his infancy in light of this experience is a theological statement of great depth and beauty.

    3. The name “Bethlehem” means “house of bread” but more anciently “house of Lahem”, a Canaanite fertility god. A place of nourishment and fertility rather than of vain pomp. Its existence is recorded from more than 3,500 year back.

    “Bethlehem is a collection of very fertile villages that grows almonds and, more importantly, olives for oil. It’s so fertile because Bethlehem sits on an enormous aquifer, which eventually became the water source for Jerusalem in around 200 BCE. There were so many Jewish pilgrims coming to Jerusalem that the city couldn’t cope. The older water supply was contaminated by the animals slaughtered in the temple. They needed fresh water and this came from Bethlehem.” (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/12/bethlehem-christ-birth-blincoe)

    Yet when we think of this fertile town we also think of want and need. Forever associated with the plight of migrants and the cruelty of Herod, Bethlehem resonates with that ongoing human struggle today. The child that dominates this Christmas season is the 7-year-old Guatemalan girl Jakelin Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin who died from dehydration and septic shock and exhaustion after being taken into Border Patrol custody in the USA. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqA2G5Wdztg)

    The back story is chilling:

    “Last Wednesday, a nonprofit group that provides humanitarian aid to migrants in the Arizona desert released a lengthy report alleging Border Patrol agents were intentionally destroying supplies left for migrants in the desert, the group said, to ‘condemn border crossers to suffering, death and disappearance.’

    “What received wider attention, however, was a video that the Tucson-based aid group, No More Deaths, also distributed with its report. The footage, taken between 2010 and 2017, showed Border Patrol agents kicking over water jugs that had been left in the desert. In one clip, a male agent sneers at the person filming him, demanding to know whom the water is for, as he empties a gallon bottle of water onto the ground.

    “In the report, the group called the systematic destruction of supplies meant for migrants’ survival part of a ‘culture of dehumanization’ within the Customs and Border Protection agency.”

    Herod the Great looms over the birth of Christ (Mt 2), as his son Herod Antipas gets a look-in at his execution (Lk 23:6-12). Movies and operas have accustomed us to think of them as buffoons or pantomime villains who came to sticky ends, but they were no doubt highly honoured in their glorious reigns. The only one to die spectacularly is Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, who dislodged his uncle Herod Antipas, martyred the apostle James, imprisoned Peter, and when he declared himself divine was smitten by the angel of the Lord and eaten by worms (Acts 12). (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herod_Agrippa). His son Herod Agrippa II, the eighth and last of the dynasty, the fifth to bear the title King of the Jews, was a jolly fellow, the pal of the Emperor Claudius, traveling with his elegant sister Queen Berenice (Acts 25:15-26:32).

    Herod is alive and kicking today. In 1992 I met an Iraqi wandering in Tokyo and I asked him how he’d been affected by “Desert Storm” in 1991. He replied that his village had been wiped off the map. I hope he did not return to his ill-fated land to face “Shock and Awe” under Bush II in 2003. Tempestuous theologian Eugen Drewermann was too much for his prim diocese to handle; they published a book to justify their expulsion of him; it includes a sample of his allegedly bad preaching, a sermon on “Desert Storm” ending with the prophetic words, “Let us make sure that this never happens again.” In how many little towns throughout those Islamic lands are women and children dying in poverty, pain, and fear, victims of our Christian bombs? Rachel continues to weep for her children, and will not be comforted (Jer 31:15; Mt 2:18).

    4. Bethlehem is a flashpoint in Israeli-Palestinian tensions, another painful subject on which it is impossible not to muse at Christmas. On that evening in 1977 I heard a bomb explode behind me in the Manger Square. I asked some fellows behind me if it was a bomb and they replied, “We’re Palestinians, bombs don’t worry us!” The next day I chatted with them in Dheisheh (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dheisheh); they talked about their advocate Felicia Langer (1930-2018), and her book These Are My Brothers. After lunch in one of their simple homes (the village is a refugee camp), I strolled along with three on my left and three on my right, feeling as if I’d strayed into the Gospels: “What did you come to see, Israel or Palestine?” “I came to see the biblical places.” On my second trip to Israel I came in close proximity to a much more serious bomb, which killed a whole busload of passengers.

    Christmas has too often been a bombing season: Nixon’s Christmas Bombing of 1972 (http://www.vvaw.org/veteran/article/?id=2204); Indonesia, 2000 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_Eve_2000_Indonesia_bombings); NIgeria, 2011 (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-16328940); Alexandria, Jan 1, 2011 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Alexandria_bombing) and Cairo, 2016 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/with-bombing-victims-still-dying-its-a-somber-christmas-for-egypts-christians/2017/01/07/95d27a9c-d162-11e6-9651-54a0154cf5b3_story.html?utm_term=.91169d7a2bd7); Baghdad, 2013 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_Iraq_Christmas_Day_bombings); Pakistan, 2017 (www.straitstimes.com/asia/isis-claims-pre-christmas-suicide-bombing-of-pakistan-church-eight-dead).

    5. Stepping back from these grim events, can we hear the carol as anything other than escapism and false consolation?:

    O morning stars together
    Proclaim the holy birth
    And praises sing to God the King
    And Peace to men on earth.
    For Christ is born of Mary
    And gathered all above
    While mortals sleep, the angels keep
    Their watch of wondering love.

    Wherever a child is born, no matter how great the dangers all about, a mother rejoices with wondering love. The Bethlehem of Christ’s time was a dangerous place, but it is there that the message rings out: “Peace to men on earth.” Bethlehem gives a voice to the little people, while monarchs rage and kill, and its star shines undimmed by the centuries of bloodshed.

    How silently, how silently
    The wondrous gift is given.
    So God imparts to human hearts
    The blessings of His heaven.
    No ear may hear His coming
    But in this world of sin
    Where meek souls will receive him still
    The dear Christ enters in.

    The actuality of Bethlehem today is that Christ is born in our hearts, a theme dear to Christian mystics from Origen to Eckhart. Christ is born anew in this world of violence wherever love prevails. Every family on earth is a place where love is prevailing, and the great army of loving families is a mightier power than any agents of death. Christmas brings us back to this basic tonality of human existence, to the love that flourishes amid so many tragedies, so much destruction. Jesus will wrestle with the forces of violence to the bitter end, but his mission begins here, amid a humble, loving family, and it is this that gives him a joy and confidence that nothing can dint or daunt.

    O holy Child of Bethlehem
    Descend to us, we pray.
    Cast out our sin and enter in
    Be born to us today.
    We hear the Christmas angels
    The great glad tidings tell.
    O come to us, abide with us,
    Our Lord Emmanuel.

  2. Mary Vallely says:

    From horror, shame, despair:-

    “In how many little towns throughout those Islamic lands are women and children dying in poverty, pain, and fear, victims of our Christian bombs?”

    To this uplifting message of hope and joy:-

    “ Christ is born anew in this world of violence wherever love prevails. Every family on earth is a place where love is prevailing, and the great army of loving families is a mightier power than any agents of death.”

    Joe, this was fascinating reading. I learned so much.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, your knowledge and insights and long may you continue to challenge and inspire us. Beannachtaí na Nollag. ?

  3. Hi Joe,

    Thanks for a great and timely application of the Christmas message. I second Mary Vallely’s appreciation, and completely join her in urging you to “continue to challenge and inspire us” into 2019.

    Happy Christmas to you, and good health for the New Year 2019.

    Pat Rogers

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    Thanks, Mary and Pat — for your good wishes and your inspiration all round. Every blessing for Christmas and the New Year.

  5. Paddy Ferry says:

    Joe@1, thank you for that wonderful reflection and, like Mary, I also found it fascinating reading. I, too, learned so much.
    You continue to educate us, Joe. I hope you keep it up. Thank you for all the knowledge you have shared with this last year.
    I want to wish you a Happy and Peaceful Christmas and my very best wishes to you for 2019.
    PS. Joe, I took the liberty of sharing your post on the Scottish Laity Network (SLN) Facebook page. SLN is a new group of reformed minded lay Catholics here in Scotland.

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