Fourth Sunday of Advent (C)
By Msgr. John N. Fell
In these final few days before our upcoming Christmas celebrations, the Gospel reading focuses most appropriately upon the Blessed Virgin Mary. Immediately after her humble submission to God’s plan, “I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38), St. Luke recounts that Mary proceeded in haste to visit her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. Having been the recipient of God’s great mercy, Mary immediately accepts her role to be a practical exemplar of that mercy.
As soon as Mary arrived, Elizabeth welcomed her with the greeting, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Lk 1:42). St. Luke explains that Elizabeth knew this because she herself was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk 1:41b); God had opened Elizabeth’s eyes to the great marvel before her. It is interesting that Elizabeth calls Mary blessed twice in this short Gospel reading. Her blessedness in this first greeting is linked to the holiness of her child. In this case Mary is declared blessed because of what God had done for her — allowing his Eternal Son to enter into her womb, the great miracle of the Incarnation had occurred; God had become flesh through her.
Elizabeth also calls Mary blessed at the end of this reading: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Lk 1:45). In this case, Mary is declared blessed not because of what God had done for her, but because of what she had done for God. By freely consenting to her major role in the divine plan, Mary became the humble vessel that the Author of salvation would use to further reveal his kingdom. In her willingness to place God’s mission over her own plans, she clearly manifested a holiness that made her an ageless exemplar of the perfect human reaction to God. Having the humility and the wisdom to place her trust in God, she became the model of faithfulness for all ages.
This Gospel reading also records another reaction to Christ’s imminent presence. Elizabeth declares that “from the moment the sound of [Mary’s] greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy” (Lk 1:44). The infant in Elizabeth’s womb is, of course, the great forerunner of Jesus Christ, John the Baptist. Even before birth, John recognized and reacted with joy at the nearness of Jesus. The long-desired of the nations had finally come among his people. After the ages of hope and despair, the awaited Messiah had come in the flesh. The adult John, for the previous two Sundays, has called upon his followers to prepare themselves for this coming by prayer and repentance. The child John has a simpler, no less important lesson to teach us — the utter joy that comes from being in Christ’s presence!
On this last Sunday before Christmas, our Gospel thus lays before us two very important, very different reactions to the coming of Christ our Savior. Through Mary we learn the lesson of humble fidelity. By her unpretentious embrace of the mission God had laid out for her, the mission of becoming the Mother of God, Mary had allowed divine power to work through her in a unique yet exemplary way. By similarly trusting in God, Christ’s followers could powerfully re-present the Savior this Christmas by allowing God’s will and not their own to dominate their lives.
Further, the example of the infant John also calls us to take notice. Privileged as we are to see so many signs of Christ’s presence in our lives (in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, in the Scriptures, in the love we share for one another), we must also allow ourselves to react with joy. Our God is so abundantly good to us — may we celebrate and bask in that goodness this holiday season — all the more reason to renew our efforts to hasten the coming fullness of his kingdom in the year to come. The Father sent the Son to love us — and for that reason we should all leap for joy!
Msgr. Fell is a Scripture scholar and director, diocesan Office for Priest Personnel