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Sunday, 23 December 2012

Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year C) 2012


 Sunday of Advent (C)

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

It has been noted from very early times in the Church that whereas the child John the Baptist -- still in the womb of his mother Elizabeth -- ‘leapt for joy’ at the  proximity of Jesus, Elizabeth responded to the presence of Mary:

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.   And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?   For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.  Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” 

There is no question that Elizabeth appreciated that the Infant being carried by Mary (the mother of my Lord) was indeed the Lord God of Israel:

And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord -- who believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled -- should come to me? 

Why then did not Elizabeth, together with her as yet unborn son, rejoice at the proximity of ‘her Lord’ rather than at the presence of Mary?
As of old, some Protestants may, still today, feel their ‘traditional’ jealousy for the honour of Jesus which had been foreshadowed by Joshua’s passionate reaction to what he feared was the demeaning of his master Moses (Numbers 11:27-29): 

When a young man told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp,” Joshua, son of Nun, who from his youth had been Moses’ aide, said, “Moses, my lord, stop them.” But Moses answered him, “Are you jealous for my sake?  Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets!   Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!”   

Such a reaction by Joshua and such rigidly protestant sentiments, however, were and are far too narrow for the whole-hearted love of God, and far too shallow for the depth of His wisdom; since we should recognize immediately that it was under the guiding influence of the Holy Spirit of Jesus that Elisabeth addressed herself to Mary, so that together with her son, the proclaimer and precursor of Jesus, they  might show Catholics and Christians of all times how, fittingly and without fear, to welcome God’s good news of great joy for all people(s).  
Mary was and is immaculate; the handmaid of the Lord Who had done great things for her.  All that she has is of His great goodness and mercy; so that those well-known words of Jesus:

            What God has joined together, let no man separate

are supremely significant in her regard.  God the Father Himself, by His Spirit, joined Mary to Jesus through her physicality and by her faith; thus, she is, always and irrevocably, one with, and totally committed to, her Son.   And that no jealousy should ever, or in any way, try to separate them is the most important truth Elizabeth and her unborn son would proclaim and teach to all willing to listen and learn for love of Jesus.
St. Augustine puts it most succinctly when he writes that Mary conceived Jesus in her heart by faith before she conceived Him physically in her womb; words which are an echo of the teaching of Jesus Himself (Luke 11:27-28):

A woman from the crowd called out and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed.”   He replied, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” 

In our account of the Visitation, Mary is shown as a figure, a foreshadowing, of the Church.  She is, by Jesus’ gift, our heavenly mother; the Church is our mother on earth.  For, as Mary gave birth to Jesus, the Church herself gives birth to disciples of Jesus, born from her womb -- the baptismal font -- by the power of the Holy Spirit bestowed on her by Jesus. Mary is praised in Scripture as she who believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled, while Mother Church ‘unfailingly adheres to the faith … delivered once for all to the saints’.  We should recognize this mystery of oneness between Jesus, Mary, and the Church, and learn from Elizabeth and John’s individually distinct reactions to Mary’s Visitation how best to welcome and appreciate God’s Good News: by reverencing Mary and the Church she foreshadowed and by devoting oneself to Jesus, carried on the bosom and in the heart of the Church, commissioned by Him uniquely to proclaim the fullness of His truth and dispense His saving grace.
So vitally important is this oneness of Jesus, Mary, and the Church, that the conflict over its validity is most crucial; on the one hand, it is the devil himself who is most deeply committed to the separation of what God has thus joined, while,  on the other, Jesus explicitly promised that to the end of time He would be with His Church to defend her against all the Devil’s attempts to destroy her.  And to associate her with Himself in this most vital combat He has given His own most Holy Spirit in fullness to His Church, to guide her into all truth, and with His own most precious Body and Blood does He continuously nourish her growth and deepen her love.  When His disciples gather together as Church, Jesus is infallibly in their midst leading their worship of the Father; and, in their individual lives, He has promised, that by the Spirit He will abide with His Father in the souls of all who love Him and will to obey Him,
Just as we heard in the second reading that:

When Christ came into the world, He said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight in.  Then I said, ‘As is written of me in the scroll, Behold, I come to do your will, O God’”

so now, in heaven at the right hand of the Father, He still uses a body to continue His Father’s work on earth, not a fleshly one (which is in heavenly glory) but a mystical body: His Church on earth, of which He is the Head and which He continually nourishes and feeds by His sacramental body, the Holy Eucharist.
No errant thinking resulting from human ignorance or devilish pride, no burrowing, nagging, human fears so prevalent these days, must ever separate what God has joined together.  Human beings, even those most highly placed in the Church, are ever weak, and, each in their own degree, personal sinners.   Indeed, even those recognized as saintly or acclaimed as Saints may at times manifest such human weaknesses, such personal failings and occasional sins.  But the Church is greater, far greater, than any of her individual members; even Mary is in the Church, as a uniquely glorious member indeed, yet not above her;  how much more, then, is the Church greater than any other individual or groups of individuals.  At times she suffers from, but is never to be condemned by, the lucubrations of proud scholars; nor can she be judged by the sinful behaviour of some -- always too many -- supposedly holy priests or religious.  Even when there are circumstances in which we must necessarily grieve with and for her, still must we ever reverence Mother Church, given to us for our salvation by the Lord Who is and ever abides her Master and ours: He uses her uniquely to guide us and bless us; He even uses her inherent weaknesses and human sinfulness for our warning and salutary punishment.   However, He never allows her to be led herself, or to lead us her God-given children, away from His divine Truth; and He always bestows His gifts of grace through her sacraments and in answer to her prayers.
People of God learn from Elizabeth; she was, as the Gospel tells us, ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’, and that Holy Spirit led her to cry out:

How does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  

With Elizabeth therefore, reverence, love, serve, honour, trust, stand up for, pray for, and delight in, Mother Church; do all these things not because of her earthly pomp or worldly successes, her prestige or influence, but because she is one with Christ, she is His Body, He is her Head, and His Spirit is her very life.

We should also learn from the overpowering and irrepressible joy shown by the unborn John: joy that One, as yet Himself unborn, has come; One Who would, by His own Spirit of Holiness, purge Israel of her sin, just as He was at that very moment sanctifying John himself, though still in his mother’s womb, by the same Spirit of holiness. This Child – mightier than John – was the One Whose way he, John, would prepare by his life of penance and preaching of repentance:
And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. (Luke 3:3)
This was the joy of Simeon too, who, on receiving the Infant in his arms from Mary declared:
Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word.   For my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples: a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)
Finally, this heavenly glory, this spiritual joy, is Mary’s very own, celebrated most sublimely in her great canticle of humility and gratitude:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour.  For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.   For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. (Luke 1:46-49)
Therefore, dear People of God, you who have been chosen in Christ, look forward to Christmas with spiritual joy; look forward, that is, to what the God of all faithfulness and truth, beauty and goodness, promises He will give, not what human desires solicit.  In this holy season our joy should be -- first and foremost -- like that of John, simple and sincere; a joy which encourages and enables us to open our minds and hearts, to offer our very lives, to the One who comes to do His Father's will; a joy that compels us with Elizabeth, to lovingly reverence and acknowledge His Church, asking  that through her, our mother, He might continue to teach us His ways and bless us with His empowering Spirit, so that we too -- as true disciples -- may seek with Him in all things to  promote the Father’s glory.