As we prepare for Mass on the Second Sunday of Advent, Father Joshua Whitfield writes…
Opening the Word: We are both Mary and Elizabeth at the Visitation
The nearer I’m drawn to God, the nearer I’m drawn to others. That’s the lesson: that the love of God and neighbor is born in us in Christ. It’s beautiful, this mystery. It’s what Christmas is about.
Mary goes to Elizabeth. Mary greets Elizabeth. In a sense, it’s almost scandalous to suggest, but it’s a divine encounter. Elizabeth, too, is pregnant — with the prophet, John the Baptist. Filled with the Holy Spirit, hearing Mary’s words, she responds in Marian praise and divine adoration: “Most 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?” (Lk 1:42-43). Mary bears Christ within her, and it makes even her greeting a sort of preaching. Drawing nearer to Elizabeth, Elizabeth in praise draws nearer to God, calling Mary “blessed” and her unborn child “Lord.” It’s the Incarnation that makes this human encounter a divine encounter. Again, that’s the lesson: that Christmas brings about Visitation, that God dwelling among us changes everything.
|December 19 – Fourth Sunday of Advent|
These mysteries of Advent and Christmas reveal what’s true about our life in Christ. As Mary bears Christ, so do we. St. Augustine said, echoing the words of Jesus himself, that “every devout soul that does the will of his Father by the fertile power of charity is Christ’s mother in those to whom it gives birth, until Christ himself is formed in them” (cf. Mt 12:50; Mk 3:35). That is, in Christ, each of us is Mary to some Elizabeth; so, too, each of us is an Elizabeth to some Mary. Within each of us is both prophet and Christ. In prophetic longing for Christ, we seek Christ present in the other person; in bearing and speaking Christ, we draw near to others with words of greeting powerful enough to inspire praise and divine and human friendship.
And this is hope. Christian de Chergé was prior of the Cistercian community at Tibhirine, Alergia. His was a very dangerous world. The 2010 film “Of Gods and Men” tells the story of his monastic community. Along with six of his brother monks, he was martyred in 1996. He and his brethren understood the dangers of extremists, but still they refused to live in fear, refused to stop loving and serving the poor Muslim villagers they lived with. In fact, de Chergé saw every encounter as a sort of Visitation. “We know that those whom we have come to meet are like Elizabeth: They are bearers of a message that comes from God,” he said. Not an encounter of fear, but an encounter of hope: That’s the difference the presence of Christ makes. When, like Mary, we bear Christ within ourselves, we can’t help but draw others near, can’t help but in grace offer greeting. Which, as I said, is hope, the mystery and the moral gift of Christmas, goodwill to all.
And that invites us, as we draw near to Christmas, to reflect on how in our lives we’ve drawn either closer to others or farther away. It invites us to reflect upon the fruit of our personal faith. If my religion, my living in Christ, is meant to draw me nearer others in a sort of Visitation, has the way I’ve practiced my faith this past year born that fruit? Has the way I’ve practiced Catholicism isolated me in fear and self-righteousness or drawn me closer to others in love, service and witness? These are the mature moral questions of Advent and Christmas, the more difficult questions about the birth of Christ, born not just of Mary but of us, too.
Jesus was born first of Mary; he is also born in each of us. Jesus present in our hearts can only mean love. Ours is a weary, bickering world in need of just that sort of love. The world needs Christ, desperate for the love only Christ can bring. This speaks to the moral urgency of our Christmas. The only question is whether we’ll share in that birth and gift of love by making our souls like Mary’s soul, magnifying the Lord. It’s a question about whether our Christmas will be merely sentimental or instead, in fact, real.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books.