Homily: 4th Sunday of Advent
Sunday 23 December 2018
The story of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth is one of the really lovely events in the Gospel: two pregnant women knowingly greet each another. This is a moment any mother or mother-to-be knows only too well. It’s a moment full of things that don’t need to be said.
Mary and Elizabeth’s meeting had an importance all its own. Mary had just accepted to be the mother of the promised Messiah and Saviour. Rather than going to the leaders of the people to reveal this startling news, she instead headed away from the centre of power and towards the edge of society. Mary brought her news, and the gift that she carried, to the lives of ordinary folk.
Catholicism has always presented Mary as our model of discipleship. But perhaps we have not always taken the manner of Mary’s actions at the time of her pregnancy seriously enough. The image of a pregnant Mary is perhaps closer to who we are meant to be. We rightly acknowledge her as our Queen and Mother, but we also need to see the Mary who is pregnant with our own faith life: the one who gives of herself so as to give God to us.
There is one odd aspect about Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, which is not mentioned in today’s Gospel passage, but is worth noting. Immediately after their greeting, Luke tells us that “Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then went home.” Of itself, this doesn’t sound odd: a pregnant woman being around to help out another pregnant woman during her final weeks.
But Luke goes on to say: “The time came for Elizabeth to have her child and she gave birth to a son.” So, Mary, very oddly indeed, chooses to leave just as Elizabeth is about to give birth. Why didn’t Mary wait a few more days to assist with the birthing? Why leave immediately before the most crucial moment?
This oddity tells us something important about the unborn children Elizabeth and Mary were carrying. John the Baptist was Elizabeth’s child. John was Christ’s herald, preparing the way for the Lord. He was to go ahead of Jesus to announce the coming of God’s promised messiah. In the great plan of God for all humanity, John needed to be seen before Jesus so he could be the one to prepare the way for Jesus. All in good time, all in the right order, all according to plan. First the Baptist, then the Lord.
Elizabeth and Mary are the mirror image of John and Jesus. Mary, carrying the Saviour, withdraws from the scene so that Elizabeth, carrying the Precursor, can bring forth the expected herald. Mary needed to be out of the way with Jesus, so that Elizabeth could be in the foreground with John. Only then could John – later in his ministry – be able to rightly say: now I must decease and he must increase.
Expectation, then, is the key to understanding the oddity of Mary’s actions: a divinely planned expectation that leads to the right events happening in the right order at the right time. In a word, this is what Advent is about: recalling expectantly that God has always acted for us according to the right way, in the right order, at the right time.
Like the expectation of birth, which cannot be hastened, our task is to trust that God will continue to get it right in our own lives, both personally and in the Church. Advent is not a season to get us to the birth of Jesus: it is the time to get us to the birth of God in our own lives. Yes, blessed is she (or he), blessed is anyone who believes that the promise made to them by the Lord will be fulfilled.