O Little Town of Bethlehem

4th Sunday of Advent (C)

You can tell we are getting near to Christmas because our readings for the fourth Sunday of Advent begin with a mention of the “little town of Bethlehem.” And indeed, Bethlehem is a little town; “too small to be among the clans of Judah,” the prophet Micah says (Mi 5:1). We may wonder, why would God choose such a small, insignificant town as his birthplace on earth? Why not Jerusalem, so close by? Why not Rome? Why not anywhere but Bethlehem?

A better question might be why would we expect anything different? After all, all through history God demonstrates a preference to work miracles through small, poor, and obscure people and places — not the mighty and powerful. God chose David, the youngest and smallest son of Jesse, a mere shepherd boy, to be the King of Israel. He chose Joseph, a slave in Egypt, to save his people. Even in the age of the Church, there is a reason why the Blessed Mother appears to children living in small villages, as she did at Fatima, and not archbishops living in big cities. It’s just not God’s style.

Why would God have a preference for the small? One reason is that manifesting his glory even through the small and weak is a greater demonstration of God’s might. But there is more. It’s also meant as a lesson for us: we must be humble if we want God to come to us, and work through us.

Those who are humble, or poor in spirit, have learned to rely on God more than their own power, and to trust in God more than their own wisdom. By contrast, the proud rely on their own strength and knowledge and so aren’t as open to God working with and through them. That’s why pride is the biggest obstacle to holiness.

So it shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus chose the humblest of all women in the humblest of all towns to be born of and in. Mary was the humblest of women — the “handmaid of the Lord” (Lk 1:38) — so it also shouldn’t surprise us that God chose her when he demonstrated his own divine humility; when he “humbled himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness” (Phil 2:7).

This Sunday’s gospel reading recounts the visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, who, though advanced in years, was six months pregnant at the time with John the Baptist. At the sound of Mary’s voice, John leaps in his mother’s womb and Elizabeth calls Mary “the mother of my Lord” (Lk 1:41, 43). It is truly remarkable. The first person to recognize Jesus was an unborn child, and the first person to call him “Lord” was a pregnant old woman. God indeed loves the humble.

What is the lesson for us here? That to recognize Jesus’ presence, even when he is hidden (as he was in Mary’s womb, as he is in the Eucharist, as he is in the poor) we need to be humble, like Elizabeth is humble. We need to be small, like John is small. That for Christ to be born in us, we need to be humble, like Mary is humble. We need to be small, like Bethlehem is small. We cannot know God without recognizing our own smallness, because everything is small compared to the greatness of God.

Christmas is a magical time when it is easier in many respects to reconnect with the feelings of childhood. We all become kids again on Christmas morning. This is a blessed time, for Christ says we must become child-like to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 18:3). So as we rekindle the child-like excitement of this season, let us not waste this opportunity to become small, like a little child, before our mighty God, who became a small child for us.