Fourth Sunday of Advent: December 20, 2009

Micah 5:1-4; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-44

Today’s Gospel tells us the wondrous story of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth and the recognition of the baby Mary was carrying in her womb as the long awaited saviour.  This visitation serves to bring together the two annunciation strands of Luke’s infancy narrative.  Here the two pregnant women of faith meet, even though Elizabeth is clearly subordinate to Mary.  Both children in the womb will be great, but Mary’s child will be the son of the Most High.  With the greeting of Elizabeth, the child in her womb John leaps for joy. Elizabeth takes this opportunity to call Mary as the blessed one.  What does it mean to be blessed in the context of Mary is the question we would always ask.  For a secular person Mary may look so ordinary; but Mary’s blessedness had to do with something much deeper, in the sense she had her heart open to God.  This could be recognized only by a person of faith.  The Bible uses the word blessed to mean happy.  Happiness is the joy that comes with the contact with the divine and Mary had it in her life.  Mary was blessed and happy because the promise of God was fulfilled in her.  She was the one who believed that the saviour would come to the world through her and that is the happiness we celebrate at Christmas.

The readings of today take us closer to the Christmas celebration.  There is the quietness and expectancy and we are awaiting the glorious event to take place immediately. Each of the three readings takes up a different aspect of this great mystery to help us in our understanding and in our personal preparation.  We see the divine plan put into action in the selected persons to make us understand that nothing is impossible to God.  This promise is magnificent and it is to come into existence in time.  Even the ends of the earth will hear his wisdom and peace will prevail among the nations.  His coming is already announced to the nations.

The First Reading, taken from the prophet Micah, sets out the promise of great things to come. It speaks of the obscure town of Bethlehem and not some other greater centre of Israel.  The prophet takes the listeners back to the ideal beginning of their kingdom when David of Bethlehem was anointed as King.  God will bestow on it the distinction of being the birthplace of an ideal ruler of Israel.  The one who will come from this town will be “the one who is to rule over Israel” and “his origin goes back to the distant past”, indicates that this was preordained by God. However, only God knows when this ruler will come.  Until such time as the Messiah arrives to deliver Israel from its oppressors, the Jewish people will continue to be subject to other nations. When he does come he will be the true shepherd of Israel and the servant of God. He will guide people by the standards of heaven rather than by the misguided notions of the bad shepherds who preceded him.  Very significantly, “he himself will be peace, shalom”.  Then, God’s people shall be delivered and united as one. There is peace when there is total harmony among the nations and the ends of the earth will hear of his wisdom.

Our Second Reading for today tells us that Jesus appearing among us as a human person can only be fully understood in the light of his self sacrifice and obedience.  Jesus came into the world desiring nothing but to do the will of the Father.  The letter to the Hebrews tells us that God is not really interested in sacrifices and oblations of animals and things.  The reading tells us that God took no pleasure in holocausts or sacrifices for sin.   Instead, the Father prepared a body for his Son. And, united with that body as a true human being, the Son offered himself unconditionally to his Father and chose to do his will. This self-offering far transcends any other offering that could be made. No one can offer more than one’s own self. Such sacrifice surpasses all sacrifices of the old covenant and brings them to fulfilment.  At the same time, giving himself to his Father, he joined us to himself so that we too may be consecrated to the Father. This offering of himself will be seen in the whole life of Jesus, leading finally to the dramatic confrontation on the cross where Jesus will make the final offering of himself with “the greatest love that a person can show” to say “Here I am! I am coming to obey your will.” In giving himself to his father Jesus joined us to himself so that we also might be consecrated to the Father.

As we heard during today’s Gospel Reading, when Mary entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and expressed words of greetings and praise.  Luke gives no motive for Mary going in haste to visit Elizabeth.  This visitation serves to bring together the two annunciation strands as written in Luke’s infancy narrative. Though both women are with child, it is Mary who takes the initiative to visit Elizabeth. In a sense, that is right and proper because Mary is the younger of the two. On the other hand, we know that the status of Mary is higher because she bears within her the Son of God.  In the coming of Jesus, even before his birth in Bethlehem we are presented with the humility of the mother and her Son. It is they who go to visit and not they who are visited.  Even before he is born, Jesus already comes to serve and not to be served. It is through service the world will recognize him as Lord.  While in the presence of Jesus, John the Baptist, the child in the womb, was also filled with the Holy Spirit and leaped for joy.  With the gift of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth will function as a prophetess who proclaims the greatness of Mary for being the mother of the Lord and for being faithful to the Word  that Angel Gabriel communicated to her at the Annunciation.  In this visitation narrative, Luke has shown to us who Mary is in relationship to Elizabeth and who Jesus is in relationship to John the Baptist. Elizabeth and John the Baptist expressed their joy in the presence of the Lord.

Again we notice the emphasis that is places on Mary as a believer.  One of the favourite themes of Luke that runs through the Gospel is the fidelity or the faithfulness of God.  God is one who keeps the promises no matter how difficult or complicated events may seem.  Mary is portrayed as a pre-eminent believer, who believes that God’s promises she received through the angel will be fulfilled. That does not mean Mary understood this fully at that time; it was revealed to her gradually and she understands this when her son is hanging on the cross to give his life for the world. What is important for us is that Mary was filled with grace from God and her faith made her to respond fully.  This is implied in the response of Elizabeth to Mary’s greeting. Hence she could  easily say: “Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord?” And, by implication, with a visit from the Lord himself. It is the response of Elizabeth in faith.  She could indeed see God’s working in her life.

Mary herself has already followed her Son, though he is not yet born. Asked as an unmarried virgin if she is willing to be the mother of Jesus and assured that, with God, all things are possible, she has already said: “Yes! Let all this happen to me as you have planned it.” At this stage, she had no idea what was in store but she said her Yes and promised to be faithful to it. This certainly reminds us that we too are the unlikely candidates for God’s compassionate love.  There is the providence of God which always works in our lives and certainly at the birth of the child at Christmas.  We also will be blessed when we believe like Mary, that God’s promises to us will be fulfilled.  As we approach Christmas, let us draw strength from the most comforting of promises that God is Emmanuel, God with us.  In all our ups and downs of our lives, God will be with us.  Our awareness of this can be the source of the most profound happiness.  Blessed are we who believe and live our days with this assurance.

“There was once a wise woman travelling in the mountains who found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveller who was hungry, and she opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveller saw the precious stone and asked if she might give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveller left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime, but a few days later he came back to return the stone to the woman who had given it to him. ‘I’ve been thinking,” he said, “I know how valuable the stone is, but I’m giving it back in the hope that you can give me something much more precious. I want you to give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.’   The more you share of yourself, the more you grow.

 Fr Eugene Lobo SJ, Rome

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