Fr. Bill Carroll – The Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 19, 2021
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Have you ever had to rely on other people? Maybe, in a time of crisis, or of loss, you reached out to your family. Maybe you spoke to somebody at work, or one of your friends. Maybe you even had to ask a stranger for help. If we are honest, we all know that we need other people. But what about God? Do we ask God for help? Do we pray? Do we pay attention to our relationship? Do we keep him at the center of our lives?
We live in a time when the faith of many has grown dim—and the love of many has grown cold. Each of us needs to learn how to give and receive help. We need God. We need each other. We need God’s amazing grace. We need to share his love with other people.
That’s the point of the story we just heard from Luke. Mary comes to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. At the time, she is probably thirteen, fourteen, maybe fifteen. She is unmarried. She is pregnant. And, in her culture, that means disgrace and possibly violence. Many people in her village don’t believe her when she tells them about the angel. They might stone her to death.
And yet, at this point in the story, the angel has spoken to Mary and told her that her child is special. The baby she is carrying is the Son of God. Jesus will show us God’s mercy and justice. He will make us children of his Father. He will make us brothers and sisters to each other. And, “of his kingdom (which is coming)there will be no end.”
Even though she’s confused at first by the angel’s message, Mary receives it with joy. She embraces God’s call for her young life completely: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” she says. “Let it be unto me according to thy word.”
Jesus is Good News. At the same time, his birth raises many questions for his mother—and for those around her. In the very next chapter, when he is just eight days old, Simeon will prophesy about the death of Jesus. As he lifts the baby Jesus up into his arms, Simeon tells Mary that “A sword will pierce your soul.” Mary will have to watch her Son suffer and die. Throughout his thirty-three years of life, she will discover the truth in these awful words. She will participate in the suffering of her Son.
William Butler Yeats captures the fear that Mary must feel in his poem, “Mother of God,” where he imagines what it might be like to be God’s mother:
The threefold terror of love (he writes); a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.
Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?
What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a Sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?
As with the death and resurrection of Jesus, the women know his birth first. They receive the angel’s message with joy—but also with terror. The birth of Jesus, like his death on the Cross, will involve a massive disruption of everything. It will even bring a change of regimes. Jesus is the Lord.
And so, Mary runs for the hills. She runs to Elizabeth, her older cousin. She comes to this woman for strength. She comes also for counsel. Sisterhood, as they say, is powerful. Elizabeth, also, is pregnant in an unusual way. She is past the normal years for childbearing. Like Sarah and many other women in the Bible, she has had trouble conceiving a child. Her own son, John the Baptist, is the forerunner of Jesus. He is the voice crying in the wilderness. He is the one who prepares the Way.
As Mary and Elizabeth visit together, each draws strength from the other. By the gift of the Spirit, each one of these women confesses the mighty deeds of God. Everyone in this story proclaims God’s loving purpose for our world—a purpose that God is at work even now to bring about. “Blessed are you among women,” says Elizabeth. “And blessed is the fruit of your womb.” She’s talking about Jesus. She is preaching Jesus to his very own mother. Elizabeth greets Mary as the Mother of her Lord and Savior. And then, John himself, the baby, leaps up in her womb, to rejoice in the nearness of Jesus.
The meeting between these two women is a model for the rest of us. Mary and Elizabeth show us how to welcome Jesus into the world. They show us how to have faith—how to rely on Jesus. They commit themselves fully to his Kingdom. With these two women, we learn to greet the newborn King. Behold, he stands at the door and knocks. His love changes everything.
And Mary knows this. She knows it as a faithful daughter of Israel. But, more than that, she knows it as his mother. She can feel Jesus growing in her body. She ponders what his life will mean.
Mary is filled with the Spirit of prophecy. She is like the prophets of the Old Testament. She is the “first and perfect disciple” of her Son. And so, she proclaims the same Kingdom that he will preach, as Jesus himself soon will do. She speaks to us of God’s new world, where the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. She sings about God’s revolution of love:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord (she says),
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.
And so, God’s Kingdom is coming. God casts down the mighty and lifts up the lowly. God is mighty in mercy, and he is fierce in truth. He is relentless in his love.
And “Holy (Holy)….Holy is his Name.”