Fourth Sunday of Advent – Year C
[Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45]
In these final days prior to the celebration of Christmas, the minds of many of us are turning to visits with family and friends. During the months of pandemic, the visit has become something especially precious, given all that we have had to endure in terms of restrictions on travel and gatherings, and at times the sheer impossibility of being present with people we love. Of late, we are all keeping a close watch on the spread of Omicron and on how government restrictions might unfold in response to it. We simply do not want to miss out on a visit with people dear to us, especially now.
The Gospel passage for this mass unfolds around a visit, what we commonly refer to as the visitation to Elizabeth by the Blessed Virgin Mary. The text is rich in meaning, and throughout the centuries the Church has pondered and savoured all that it communicates. To assist our own reflection upon it this morning, I invite us to consider the experience we have of visiting with others.
To begin, when we go to the home of another, especially in the days surrounding Christmas, we’ll often carry with us a gift or two. We take care to ensure the gift is something that will respond to an expressed desire or known preference and will therefore be welcome and appreciated. As St. Luke presents the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, his central focus is the wondrous gift that Mary is carrying within her womb, the very Son of God made flesh. This gift corresponds perfectly to the hopes and longing of all humanity, and is received with unbounded rejoicing. Even in the womb of Elizabeth, John the Baptist leaps for joy at the recognition that the Christ has come, and both Elizabeth and Mary rejoice in the Holy Spirit at this wondrous deed of God’s love and mercy.
As our visits to friends and family proceed in current conditions, we continue to grapple with the reality of limit. Travel takes place within restrictions, and there are limits placed upon the number of people who can gather in a venue. This means that plans themselves have to be made taking into account very narrow parameters. God, on the other hand, is not limited. In today’s readings from Scripture, what is recognized and celebrated is the unlimited desire of God to save all people. The one carried in the womb of Mary is the long-awaited Saviour, whose impact and greatness was foreseen from of old by the prophet Micah as extending “to the ends of the earth”. In the text from Luke, we encounter the great joy of Elizabeth and John as they realize this wondrous purpose of God is about to be fulfilled in the child to be born of Mary. The gathering of only two kinswomen in the household of Zechariah might well have fallen within our current pandemic boundaries, but what they acknowledged and celebrated in their encounter was the divine presence and purpose that no human limitation could ever contain.
When family or friends arrive, it is wonderful to see them, especially if we have been separated for a while. It is a joy to have them with us, and we often do things together that are not normally a regular part of our daily living. The visit, though, lasts but a while, and we eventually all return to our normal routines. It is not so, however, when God is the visitor. The meeting of Mary and Elizabeth teaches that, when we receive a visitation from God, there is no returning to former ways; life is changed irrevocably.
Let’s develop this by a close consideration of what we are told about Mary. As we know, the visitation follows upon the annunciation to her by Gabriel that she would be the mother of the Saviour. Everything changed for her following that visit of the angel. Mary’s circumstances were unique, of course, and we are aware of all that unfolded in her subsequent life with her son. Yet, in what happened immediately after she received the news from Gabriel, we have an indication of how our lives, too, are changed when God visits us.
We are told that Mary “set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country” to visit Elizabeth. The angel had told her that Elizabeth, in advanced age, was expecting a child. Mary knew from this that Elizabeth was in need of help, and so she went to her kinswoman. Now, for Mary, this would have been a long and arduous journey, along which she would have had to deal with the “travel restrictions” imposed by the topography of the land, difficult road conditions, and challenging means of transport. Yet, far from balking at the difficulty, she did not hesitate but went out “in haste”. Here is the lesson for us: when we encounter the living God in Jesus Christ and receive him fully into the dwelling of our hearts, self-reference vanishes and we are impelled by a charity that is impatient of delay and yields to no obstacle as it moves us out of ourselves and towards others in need.
When the visitor arrives on the threshold, we need to open the door to allow admittance. The door of our heart is opened to God’s visitation by the act of faith. Mary opened her door when she gave her surrender to God. As Elizbeth recognized, Mary’s act of faith was moved by complete trust in God and in his power to bring to fulfillment all that he had promised. The Gospel today calls us to that same trusting decision to have faith in the love of God, and open our hearts wide to be changed by his visitation. There is nothing to fear from welcoming in the divine guest, and everything to gain.
So, as the Lord visits us anew today in the mystery of the Eucharist, may his grace ready our hearts to welcome him with a joy that knows no limit.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
Saint Joseph’s Basilica
December 19th, 2021