FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT (2021)
Readings:Micah 5:1-4Psalms 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19Hebrews 5:5-10Luke 1:39-46
One of the charming stories in Luke’s infancy narrative recounts a simple visit by the Virgin Mary with her cousin Elizabeth, what we call the Visitation. One woman, Mary, is at the beginning of her life, Elizabeth is at the end of her life, and both women are expecting a child, a boy for each of them. Mary learns of Elizabeth’s pregnancy from the angel Gabriel, who announces to Mary that she, too, has “found favor with God,” and she will conceive, “and bear a son, and [Mary] shall name Him Jesus.” In spite of the frightening dimension of Gabriel’s visit, no sooner had Mary heard this remarkable news before she sets out in haste to the Judaean “hill country,” where Elizabeth lives. There is always a compulsion to share ‘good news’!
These two women dominate the beginning of Luke’s gospel. The evangelist Luke has a decidedly special interest in the women who were part of Jesus’ life, and no other Evangelist takes the time to let the women of the gospels shine. We should not underestimate, however, the challenges women faced in a culture where their value was measured by their ability to bear sons. Elizabeth survived to old age, but probably not without frequently hearing the whisperings of others who saw her barrenness as a direct punishment from God. In short time, Mary, too, would no doubt hear the whisperings of those who could not possibly envision the possibility of an unwed pregnant woman. In addition to the natural challenges of child bearing at the time of Jesus, both women had to have faced enormous pressures, no less daunting than the traveling up and down the hills of Judaea.
There is a very definite sense in today’s readings on this Fourth Sunday of Advent about God’s proclivity for the poor, downtrodden, and marginalized. Neither Elizabeth nor Mary possessed any real prestige; they were the most ordinary of people, and God chose them for their special roles in the unfolding of salvation history. The first reading from the prophet Micah speaks about God choosing the most insignificant of places, “Bethlehem-Ephrathah,” to make His glory known, for from Bethlehem “shall come forth for [the Lord] one who is to be ruler in Israel.” “When she who is to give birth has borne,” says Micah, her son’s “greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; he shall be peace.”
The liturgy’s second reading from Hebrews makes it clear that God would not be found where one might expect to find Him. The Temple sacrifices and offerings according to the Law are not what are most important. Indeed, God is to be found in the body of a young Virgin, a body prepared directly by God, where “the fruit of her womb is blessed” because she, and her Son, do the will of the Heavenly Father. Like the Son she gives birth to, Mary surrenders, in cooperation with God’s grace, her very life, handing it completely over to the God who has called her to be the vessel of God’s grace, with little to no concern about her reputation.
Luke has Elizabeth recognize that her cousin’s pregnancy is no ordinary pregnancy, for in her beautiful tribute to Mary, Luke has her recognize that she is carrying the Lord and Savior: “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Given that Elizabeth’s husband is mute until after the birth of John, her statement to Mary is profound: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” There will be many who do not believe that the time of fulfillment has come, especially in the humble surroundings of a stable in Bethlehem, especially in a person born of an ordinary woman from Nazareth. Indeed, some of those people will put Him to death.
In the course of His brief life, Mary’s Son will continue to touch the lives of the poor and marginalized, just as God has done in the events surrounding His birth. For those who believe while still unable to see, and for those who humbly recognize their “ordinary” status, we are called to recognize how God continues to use the poor and the marginalized to bring to fruition the plans God has for our ordinary world. May we not thwart God’s continued use of the poor and marginalized to fulfill His desires for our ordinary world, and may our cooperation with God’s will, like that of Elizabeth and Mary, bring us the “peace” spoken of by Micah, and given to those who fully abandon themselves to God’s plan.