Surprised by joy

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4th Sunday of Advent, Year C: Dec. 23, 2012
Micah 5:1-4; Ps 80; Heb 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45

Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah had had a long, gray life, filled with a certain sadness. They were good people—sincere and faithful—among the People of Israel, living out lives characterized by faith and treating others decently and fairly. St. Luke tells us that “both were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.” (1:6)

But they had never been able to have children. Year after year they had tried, before there was medical science that could discover and heal the problem in Zechariah’s body or Elizabeth’s body. Year after year they had prayed, in a culture that emphasized having children much more than ours does. Until they reached the point when Zechariah called himself “an old man” and his wife “advanced in years”—the point when they knew that there would certainly be no more childbearing for them—a point that they knew just as well as we do. And so what stretched out before them for the rest of their lives was a long, gray horizon.

And then one day they received a great surprise. They would have a child—a son! That was amazing news; impossible news! Miraculous, like the miracles that had happened earlier in their people’s history, to Abraham and Sarah, Elkanah and Hannah, and a few others. But that wasn’t all. The message had been delivered to Zechariah by the archangel Gabriel right in the Holy Place of the Temple, where Zechariah was carrying out his service as a priest. And their son would not be an ordinary man: he would be great in the sight of the Lord, filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and would go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah! (1:15-17) What joy had entered their life; what grace!

And Elizabeth even got a bonus gift: Zechariah wouldn’t be able to speak throughout the whole 9 months of her pregnancy. Good guy though he was, if he was one to talk back to an archangel, then his wife could probably use a break from his mouth now and then!

At the point that our Gospel reading begins, Elizabeth had had 6 months to savor all of this unexpected joy—her gray world unexpectedly turned bright—and to anticipate the birth of her son John and dream about how the angel’s words would be fulfilled in his life.

And then she got another surprise, which topped all the others. She spotted her younger relative Mary walking up the hill toward her house—and that in itself was a wonderful surprise, to receive a visit from this loving young woman who would help her out and share in her joy.

And then, in an instant, something shot through Elizabeth and she knew that it was much, much more. She couldn’t have known, naturally, that Mary was coming; or that she was pregnant (it had probably only been a couple weeks since the baby was conceived in her); or that she too had been visited by the angel; or who her baby was. But then, supernaturally, in an instant, the Holy Spirit filled her and her son within her, and they both knew. They knew something that no one in Israel could have ever expected, even from the thousands of years that they had known the Lord and worshiped him and believed his truth and followed his ways. They knew that Almighty God himself, Creator of all, holy beyond all limit, was contained in Mary’s womb.

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

During this Advent season, we have been preparing ourselves to welcome the Lord at his advent, his coming, which we anticipate. And for the past two weeks we have heard from St. Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist, as one of the great figures of Advent—for his entire life and his very being were dedicated to preparing people to welcome the Lord. And so we have heard again his preaching of repentance and conversion of life.

But today we encounter the other great figure of Advent, as Elizabeth encounters her: and that is the Virgin Mary, her relative, the mother of Jesus and our mother. And the Virgin Mary communicates to us the likelihood of surprise and joy.

For Mary herself was surprised by the arrival of the angel, and by his invitation to her to become the Mother of God. She was small and ordinary, young, hidden, of no human importance. And neither she nor anyone else could have expected or comprehended the thought that God the Son would become man; that she would become the Mother of God; that she would carry him in her womb for 9 months and raise him and accompany him for his whole life. But she said yes; and she believed. As Elizabeth said to her: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

Christ the Lord had arrived; and our Lady had been the first to welcome him in his advent. And then she proceeded to surprise Elizabeth with joy. For it was Mary who took the initiative to set out and travel in haste and enter Zechariah’s house and greet Elizabeth; and Elizabeth simply welcomed her, and the joy that filled her, and the Christ whom she brought with her.

And as we draw near the close of this Advent season, we—you and I—can be on the lookout for the arrival of the Virgin Mary as well. For she is your mother, given to you by Christ; and she loves you very much, and wants nothing more than for you and her Son to draw even closer together in this beautiful season. With her loving presence and her gentle touch, she reassures you that it is wonderful to say yes to Christ; that it is worth it; that there is nothing to fear; that indeed you should “do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5)

That in this season you should allow yourself to be surprised by joy.

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