Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
4th Sunday of Advent, C
December 24, 2006
Mic 5:1-4; Heb 10:5-10; Lk 1:39-45
1) Each your, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, the Church has us focus on the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Church does this not merely because Mary has an obviously unforgettable role in the birth and life of Jesus. The real reason that the Church proposes Mary to us as Christmas nears is because she is the model of how WE SHOULD BE LIVING OUR ADVENT. Mary is, in some sense, ADVENT PERSONIFIED. God the Father had prepared her from the first moment of her life to be a worthy mother of his Son. Like a faithful daughter of Israel, she had prayed throughout her youth for the coming of the Messiah. When she was a young girl, she discovered that she was part of God’s answer to that prayer, but in a way that would far have exceeded any Hebrew maiden’s prayers: not only would the Messiah be her son, but her son would also be God. Her “yes!” to the Archangel Gabriel launched the proximate preparation for the birth of Jesus the Messiah. Each year, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, we explicitly follow the footsteps Mary traced on that first Advent. In doing so, we’re doing more than traversing the physiological and historical events that preceded the birth of the Lord. We’re entering into Mary’s response of faith that is a guide for us along our own pilgrimage of faith. And so with the Lord, let us climb within Mary’s womb and listen to the beat of her contemplative heart, which was treasuring within this greatest of all mysteries, so that our Christmas may be as fruitful as that first Christmas.
2) Today we travel with Mary to Ein Karim, the birthplace of St. John the Baptist. During the Annunciation, after the Archangel Gabriel had told Mary that the power of the Most High would overshadow her and she would conceive in her womb a Son whom she would call Jesus, Gabriel told her as well that her cousin, Elizabeth, had also conceived a son in her old age. As soon as the Archangel departed from Nazareth, Mary, too, made plans to leave. Although she was still a young teenage girl, she “went with haste” to take care of her elderly kinswoman who was pregnant for the first time. We know, today, that if a woman is pregnant in her 40s, there are many health risks. It is likely that Elizabeth was much older than that and ancient middle eastern health care was nothing to brag about. Without question, Elizabeth would have needed some help. But notice that the Angel didn’t command Mary to go to help her. He didn’t even suggest that it would be a good thing for her to go. He just stated the fact that Elizabeth was pregnant and that was enough for Mary to spring into action. Mary’s love spawned in her the desire to help out. Just like at the wedding feast of Cana, when she inaugurated her Son’s public ministry, neither the wine steward, nor the couple, nor the mother of the bride recognized that they had run out of wine. Only Mary did, because someone who loves notices the details and does what is possible to help. Mary was doing this from the time she was a child.
3) Ein Karim was located a couple of miles outside of Jerusalem, which was 60 miles from Nazareth. For Mary to get there, first she would have had to walk about 40 miles downhill into the plains of Jericho, then very steeply up hill for about 20 miles to the Holy City of Jerusalem, before crossing the Holy City and descending to Zechariah’s house. None of that scared her. We don’t know if she traveled alone. There’s no evidence that St. Joseph accompanied her, or SS. Anne or Joachim. But while we don’t know with whom she traveled, we do know that she traveled with incredible faith. During her journey, there was no way she could know humanly that she was pregnant. Jesus would still have been the tiniest embryo in her womb, probably eight or sixteen cells according to his human nature by the time she left, well before an infant could begin to kick. She could only know she was pregnant by faith in Gabriel’s words. Doubtless along the journey, she was meditating on Gabriel’s words and what they meant and how all of the prophecies of the Old Testament were being fulfilled in her.
4) In going to Ein Karim, Mary became the first missionary, the first bearer of the Good News that would change all of human history, forming Jesus to be the itinerant preacher he would become even before he had developed the tiniest of feet. Mary was able to bring incredible joy to Elizabeth and to the fetal John the Baptist, BECAUSE SHE WAS BRINGING CHRIST. And Mary was able to burst out with joy in her famous Magnificat during this scene for precisely the same reason
5) This brings us to the first lesson the Church wants us to get on this fourth Sunday of Advent: TO BRING JOY TO OTHERS THIS CHRISTMAS, WE REALLY HAVE TO BRING THEM CHRIST. Jesus is the greatest gift that we can ever bring to someone we love. This is something we all have to remember especially at Christmas.We can buy kids all types of clothes and toys, but if we aren’t trying to give them the Lord Jesus, then we’re really giving them only counterfeit goods. We can send out a thousand cards and letters, but if we’re not praying for others that they come to the Lord and not trying to help them to encounter Jesus with our meager words, then, to a large degree, what we’re sending is not much better than junk mail. Unless we try to bring Christ to them, we’re really not giving them anything truly lasting. Mary didn’t bring Elizabeth ancient Hebrew pregnancy text-books; she wasn’t bringing John the Baptist a cute little circumcision outfit; she was bringing Christ and, hence, she was bringing them EVERYTHING
6) Today Mary wants to bring us Christ here in New Bedford in the same way she brought him to Ein Karim. Then she wants us to learn from her example and inspire us to bring her Son to others this Advent. We all know people who need Christ in their lives, who need his forgiveness, who hunger for his love and his presence, perhaps without even knowing it. But many of us are spiritual Ebenezer Scrooges, keeping our relationship with Jesus completely to ourselves, and not wanting to share the Lord with anyone else. Mary’s example shows us the way to live Advent well and explicitly challenges and calls us to bring Jesus to our relatives and to those we know who are in need
7) As soon as Elizabeth heard the sound of Mary’s greeting — very likely “shalom” — three things happened: John the Baptist leaped in her womb, Elizabeth herself was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she burst out saying: “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? … And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” The Holy Spirit inspires Elizabeth to bless Mary among all women for two reasons: because of the BLESSED FRUIT OF HER WOMB and because of her FAITH that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled. In other words, she was blessed because of Jesus and because of her faith in her embryonic savior and son.
8 ) That’s the second lesson the Church wants us to grasp on this Advent pilgrimage with Mary, that the greatest blessings in this world are JESUS and our FAITH IN HIM. These are the gifts we should be longing for this Christmas, because these are the ones that will truly make us happy. Even if we were to receive the entire inventory of the Dartmouth Mall for Christmas, that would not be as valuable to us as the gift of God and the gift of increased faith in him. Mary cried out in her hymn of praise later in this scene, “All generations will call her blessed.” And that prophecy came true. We still call her blessed today, for the same reasons, because “the Lord — the blessed fruit of her womb — is with her,” and because of her faith, which is the model for every disciple’s. This Christmas, the Lord is calling us to make these our priorities. The Father who gave us the gift of his Son that first Christmas wants to give us that Son anew this Christmas, to be God-with-us, Emmanuel, but he wants us to ask for him in faith and respond to him in faith, by making the time to be with God in prayer, by saying “let it be done to me according to your word” and allowing the Lord’s words to be fulfilled in us, in every moral decision we make.
9) The last lesson is that we’re called to emulate from that first Advent Mary lived is what she did at the end of the scene. As soon as Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, blessed her, Mary’s contemplative heart exploded in prayer: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior!” Mary’s response to the blessing of God’s love in coming into this world, into her heart and into her womb, was not just faith but prayer, which is properly called faith-in-action. If God doesn’t just exist but is really God-with-us, then our response in faith should be prayer, to be-with-God. The Advent preface every priest in the world prays today stresses the irreplaceable importance of prayer in preparation for Christmas: “In his love, Christ has filled us with joy as we prepare to celebrate his birth, so that when he comes, he may find us watching in prayer, our hearts filled with wonder and praise.” Mary’s heart was filled with this wonder and praise. Her soul magnified the Lord and her spirit rejoiced in God. Ours are called to do the same. We’re too called to magnify the Lord and rejoice in his love. Only the soul that does not magnify itself can magnify the Lord, and that can only happen when we center our lives on God and not our ourselves or on anything else. We center ourselves on God in prayer. If we were to ask Mary for the best way to prepare for her son’s birth at Christmas, she would probably say that the most important thing we need to be doing is not going to the Mall, but going to her Son in prayer.
10) The Church puts on our lips on this Sunday a particularly helpful prayer, if we allow the words to penetrate deeply into our hearts and our souls. The prayer is a combination of the words that God put onto Gabriel’s lips when he brought the message heaven had been waiting from all eternity to say to Mary and the words that the Holy Spirit inspired Elizabeth to say in the passage from today’s Gospel: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Today we make those words our own and ask her to pray for us sinners, now, so that we might be full of grace and with the Lord. Mary knows that some of us in this Church are not full of grace and maternally pleads with those in this situation to go to the tribunal of mercy her Son founded to forgive our sins. Confessions will be heard by three priests right after this Mass. And she’d remind us that for the Lord, Emmanuel, to be with us, we need to head toward him who is coming, to embrace him in prayer and have a loving Communion with Him.
11) The same Holy Spirit who overshadowed Mary in Nazareth will soon overshadow me and overshadow this altar. The same Jesus whom Mary carried in utero to her cousin Elizabeth comes to us today in Holy Communion. Through Mary’s intercession, may we do what she did after the Annunciation and bring that Jesus out to others who so need him this Christmas, so that he can make them leap again! Praised be Jesus Christ!