This year, the final Sunday of the Advent season falls just two days before Christmas. Unless you are one of the late shoppers, most, if not all of your gifts have been purchased and probably wrapped for placement under the Christmas tree. The tree has been decorated and final preparations are being made for how the day will be celebrated with family or friends.

Each year at this time, we witness a great deal of activity surrounding the celebration of Christmas. Shopping used to be kicked off with a frenzy on Black Friday, with people lining up - sometimes for days beforehand - to get those great bargains. This year, we witnessed a further attempt to make this season more commercial, with some stores opening on Thanksgiving evening.

It makes one wonder how much more commercial could this holiday become and whether or not we have truly lost the real spirit of Christmas.

With this background, we come to the liturgy on this final Advent weekend to hear readings that are a far cry from what we are experiencing around us. Our first reading from the Old Testament (Mi 5:1-4) is taken from the prophet Micah, an eighth-century-BC prophet who speaks about the coming Messiah and links His emergence with the tiny spot called Bethlehem.

While Micah does not say the Messiah is to be born there, Gospel writers Matthew and Luke, in their narratives about Christ's birth, place the Messiah's birth in this insignificant place. Although Bethlehem was the birthplace of the great King David of Israel, it had very little significance when compared to the great city of Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish faith and the location of God's temple.

Together with the Gospel reading for this Sunday (Lk 1:39-45), we see a note of simplicity and humility. The Gospel recounts the visitation story of Mary - the young maiden from Nazareth now pregnant with the Son of God - to her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, who was not thought to have the opportunity to bear a child, yet bore in her womb John the Baptist, the precursor of the Messiah. Mary comes to Elizabeth's village in deference to her cousin and to assist her in preparing for her child's birth.

This scene is seen by Scripture scholars as the meeting of the Old and New Testaments. John, as the last prophet of the Old Testament, moved by the Holy Spirit in the womb of his mother, greets the great prophet of the New Testament: Jesus, the foretold Messiah.

Elizabeth seems to turn the tide by praising Mary and being moved that "the mother of her Lord" should come to her. Later in this Gospel passage, Mary will deflect that honor and place the honor where it should be as she says, "He who is mighty has done great things for me and holy is His name" (Lk 1:49).

Mary and Elizabeth are part of the group known as the anawim: the "poor ones" of God who remain faithful to God even in their littleness. God always has a special love for the poor and downtrodden, as we can hear in Psalm 113:5-8: "Who is like the Lord, our God enthroned on high, looking down on heaven and earth? The Lord raises the needy from the dust, lifts the poor from the ash heap, seats them with princes, the princes of the people."

From these anawim, we can learn the virtue of humility. Regarding humility, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has said: "A key point in which God and man are different is pride. We, who are little, desire to appear great, to be first; while God, who is truly great, is not afraid to humble Himself and make Himself last."

The true spirit of Christmas, then, is the spirit of humility. The word comes from the Latin "humus," meaning "earth" or "ground." Humility is keeping our feet firmly on the ground and not our heads in the clouds.

Bishop Hubbard, in his Christmas message this year, has pointed out that humility is a virtue that does not come easily to many of us. It is difficult to separate the idea of success from socioeconomic status in a society where we tend to measure our worth by the acquisition of material goods.

Humility is also truthful. If we are blessed with gifts and talents, true humility means that we recognize that we possess these but also recognize from whence they come: from the hand of a good and benevolent God. Mary recognized this; she knew she had been chosen for a special purpose, but did not glorify herself, instead rendering thanks to the God who had chosen her.

Let the spirit of humility, then, help us to realize the great gift of Christmas: the gift of a God who humbled Himself to become one of us. Our Christmas and all the days beyond will then be truly blessed, because we have accepted the gift of God and let it grow in our hearts.

(Deacon Hook is homiletics instructor for the Albany Diocese's deacon formation program and a member of the Diocesan Liturgical Commission and the Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. The other reading for the fourth Sunday of Advent is Heb 10:5-10.)