Mary’s Surprise Gift to Elizabeth
Readings: 1st- Micah 5:1-4; 2nd- Heb. 10:5-10; Gospel- Lk. 1:39-45
On December 20th, Pope Francis stated in his homily, “God lowers himself, God enters history and does so in his original style: a surprise. The God of surprises surprises us (again).” He was alluding to the incarnation of Christ and the encounter between the angel and the Blessed Virgin Mary at the annunciation. The Pope pointed out that Christmas presents us with series of surprises from God. One such surprise is the pregnancy of Elizabeth at a very old age, then the visitation of the Virgin Mary which is the story we hear in the gospel of today. God lowers himself to visit humanity through the incarnation. Divinity lowers himself in the womb of Mary to visit John the Baptist in the womb of Elizabeth.
In the first reading, the prophet Micah speaks about the coming messiah. Bethlehem, considered as one of the smallest clans of Judah produces the great king. What a surprise! Micah remarks that this king shall stand firm as the shepherd of his flock surrounded by majesty. His greatness will reach the ends of the earth. About his rulership, not with sword or spectacle of power, rather, “He shall be peace” (Mic. 5:4). This title is similar to the prophecy of Isaiah about the birth of a messiah for Israel put this way, “For a child is born to us, a son is given us… They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:5). Bethlehem hosts this Prince of Peace just as the Virgin Mary hosts the Son of God. A surprise!
The drama of the visitation begins this way, “Mary sets out” to experience the joy of the miraculous pregnancy of Elizabeth. The Lectors’ workbook for 2019 recognizes four actors in this drama: “the Old Testament, personified in Elizabeth; the New Testament, represented by the young Virgin; divine Grace incarnate, present in the Virgin’s pregnancy, and John the Baptist, in Elizabeth’s womb.” We might consider two things in this great encounter: one is the surprise emanating from the visit; the other is the acknowledgment of the unborn child.
Regarding the first, we see Elizabeth who represents the old history depicted by barrenness. Here, this old history is encountering the light of God’s grace and favor represented by the Virgin Mary. Elizabeth’s story changes, she is transformed. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth declares how much of her history becomes past. She connects with Mary’s favor, “Blessed are you among women.” Then she echoes the privilege arising from that favor, “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me” (Lk.1:43). Elizabeth partakes in the newness of God’s love irrespective of her old age. She represents the prophecy of Isaiah which states, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (9:2). This corroborates the angel’s message to Mary about her, “…and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God” (Lk. 1:36-37).
John, who will later describe himself as the “voice” leaps and dances for joy at the encounter with Grace Incarnate. John the Baptist seems to be the greatest beneficiary of the visit as Jesus’ forerunner. He leaps with joy at the presence of the one whose sandals he will not be fit to undo. John dances before the Ark of the New Covenant, the Blessed Virgin Mary. He embraces the great Light right inside his mother’s womb.
Mary’s visit offers Elizabeth the greatest gift ever, gifts wrapped in simplicity and affection of the Blessed Virgin. The joy of Elizabeth is captured in the dance performed by the infant in her womb. Mary, on her part, carries God’s surprise for her cousin. The infant Jesus is the Gift, the reason for the dance.
Equally, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth shows the value and dignity of the unborn. The encounters here depict the respect which both Elizabeth and Mary show to their unborn babies. Mary hears the angel’s message, sets out to visit Elizabeth. Elizabeth recognizes the child in Mary’s womb, John leaps in the womb. Here, we see series of affection and appreciation of the dignity of the human person right form the womb. Elizabeth greets not just the Virgin Mary but mostly the child in her womb as she exclaims, “and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Lk. 1:42). The incarnation of Christ reminds us of the sanctity of the unborn child. Like John the Baptist, infants in the womb share in their parents’ joys as well as in their sorrows. We must realize not only the biology of pregnancy but its spirituality. We must anticipate and promote freedom for the unborn. The unborn is blessed. The unborn is a gift. The unborn is a source of joy and in turn wants to be joyful. The unborn needs to be listened to, appreciated like Elizabeth and Mary appreciated the infants Jesus and John the Baptist. We must protect the unborn.
As Christmas comes very close, let us emulate Mary and Elizabeth in communicating joys to those around us. Let us appreciate the need to be with one another during this time. Mary reminds us to share gifts and presents with loved ones, to reach out to those in need. We all have been blessed by God in various ways. It is not all about material or monetary gifts. It is mostly about our comforting and positive presence. Think of what you do to another person during this season. The best gift is to make others leap for joy. It doesn’t matter how little it is. What matters is the impact of such. Let us be that symbol of joy to one another. Let us be the surprise that others would experience. If God has surprised us, we must in turn, surprise others.
Doing the ordinary things!
Readings: 1st- Zeph. 3:14-18; 2nd- Phil. 4:4-7; Gospel- Lk. 3:10-18
The readings of today commend us to the joy of the coming Messiah. Being sons and daughters of God offers great joy. The prophet Zephaniah speaks in the first reading of the end of Israel’s exile and the return from Babylon. The prophet announces joy to Jerusalem after a painful experience, “The Lord your God has removed the judgment against you, he has turned away your enemies; the king of Israel, the Lord is in your midst, you have no misfortune to fear.” The prophet Zephaniah presents two images of the Lord’s compassion for the people: First, God is turning the negative judgment against Israel and has dispersed their enemies. Second, God declares his constant presence to his people and promises never to abandon them anymore.
The theme of joy becomes more pronounced in the letter of Saint Paul in the second reading reminding the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say to you again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near.” The reasons for Paul’s invitation to rejoice is clear, “The Lord is near.” God’s nearness calls for great rejoicing because it evokes a feeling of comfort and safety. It also calls for greater acts of love, compassion and service. Our joy should come ultimately from the Lord. We rejoice for good not for bad or evil. Paul puts it this way, “Your kindness should be known to all” (Phil. 4:5).
This week, two things left a remarkable image/impression in my head: One is a message which my friend sent to me while she was driving back after an event in Baltimore. She wrote, “There is a lot of homeless people in Baltimore. I need to do something, like the sock thing- that is, sharing a bunch of socks for them).” That touched me. The second was my Facebook post on Monday morning and the reactions to that post. I wrote, “if you love your wife, show it. You love your husband, let him feel it. You don’t hurt someone in the name of love. Marriage isn’t a rehearsal bed where one experiences hurt, then waits to experience love afterwards. You either start loving and love all the way or you lose your opportunity to love.” This post received a lot of buzzes with about fifteen shares. It told me that people need to be encouraged to do good.
The challenge that John the Baptist sets for those who come to him in the gospel of today narrows down the call to do ordinary things. The crowds come to ask John, “What should we do?” His reply is, “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” Tax collectors came to ask him, “Teacher, what should we do?” His answer, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” Soldiers also ask him, “And what is it that we should do?” His response, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages” (Lk. 3:10-14). Aren’t those answers simple? Maybe those different groups are expecting some extraordinary answers from John. But what do they hear and what does such response say to us? All are invited to do simple things that promote the joy of others and increase the welfare of those in need.
Today, I’m only adding my voice to that of John the Baptist to remind us of the need to do just ordinary things as we await the Lord at Christmas. Just as my friend recognized the presence of the needy and the homeless in Baltimore, we must recognize the presence of the needy around us. We must be the source of their joy.
Let’s go home reflecting on the questions we need to ask within this time, “What shall I do?” Husband, wife, daughter, mother, father, mother-in-law, son-in-law, brother, sister, friend, etc., should ask, “what shall I/we do? Employer, employee, government official, security personnel, medical practitioner, clergy, office clerk, should ask, “what shall I/we do?” Salesman/woman at Walmart, Costco, Amazon, BestBuy, Sears, etc., should ask, “what shall I/we do?” Public servant at MVA, IRS, Post Office, Verizon, etc., should ask, “what shall I/we do?” School teacher, counselor, social worker, etc., should ask, “what shall I/we do?” The answer is to promote the joy of your customers. Do not manipulate anyone. Do not market bad products. Do not tell those you serve lies. Do not take advantage of your subjects. Do not look for unusual profits at the expense of your consumers. If you are in any relationship, do not cause pain to your partner. Do not cause heartbreak. Do not hold malice and grievances against family members and friends. Those answers appear simple, yes. But that’s real conversion. That’s what the Lord wants of us. Let your kindness be seen by all. We all need to rejoice at the coming of Christ.
DAVID BUILDS A HOUSE, GOD BUILDS A DYNASTY
Readings: 1st- 2Sam. 7:1-5, 8-12, 14, 16; 2nd- Rom. 16: 25-27; Gospel- Lk. 1:26-38
So, what was David thinking? He was such a successful king, a strong military commander. David was a great political strategist who won several battles. He must be enjoying some peace from his victory as a result of his policies. Hence, he had to plan the next step in growing his kingdom- building a house for God. Despite its religious significance, that would add to his achievements. He envisaged a Jerusalem that is the center of worship. This provides the background for today’s reading whereby David summons the prophet Nathan to express his desire, “Here I am living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God dwells in a tent” (2Sam. 7:2). Nathan, on his part endorsed David’s idea, “Go and do whatever you have in mind, for the Lord is with you” (v.3). David thought that he was the one who has been responsible for the victory Israel enjoyed in his time. He thought that he was the victor.
But God revealed to Nathan the true story behind Israel’s success, “Go and tell my servant David, “Should you build a house for me to dwell in?” It was I who took you from the pasture and from the care of the flock to be commander of my people Israel” (2Sam. 7:9-10). God wants David to acknowledge his supremacy. What type of house is David to build for God? David plans to erect a structure, man-made costly house that will last for some time. That’s not the type of house that God wants. Then came the revelation, “I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm. I will be a father to him and he shall be a son to me”. This prophecy has both immediate and future fulfillment. Solomon was the immediate heir to David while the ultimate fulfilment of the prophecy was in Christ Jesus, the begotten Son of God.
Christ is the house that God erected for human salvation, the dynasty that would last forever, whose throne will have no end. While explaining the parable of wicked tenants, Jesus explains the meaning of this house to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures: "'The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes'?” (Matt. 21:42). God’s dynasty is the eternal kingdom that will accommodate everyone on the journey towards salvation.
In the gospel, we see God’s Master plan laid out. The angel Gabriel is the divine contractor sent to survey the land for the building. Our Blessed Mother the Virgin Mary is God’s land prepared to house the eternal structure. The annunciation is the groundbreaking ceremony for this building. The angel’s greeting to Mary, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you” tells us exactly that God is the Architect of the entire plan. The angel said, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (Lk. 1:32). The angel attests to the nature of God’s building. The Son to be born will rule over the house of Jacob forever and his kingdom will have no end. Mary accepts God’s offer. Is this structure to be like any other building made by man? She asks, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” God’s building is different. The angel made explains to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Lk. 1:35).
Mary is to be filled with the Holy Spirit and overshadowed by divine presence. She understands that and makes herself available. Whereas David thought he was the builder, Mary made herself available for God to build. Ironically, David thought that the ark of God should dwell in a magnificent structure. Did God really intend to live in a costly place? Maybe David was thinking about majesty defined in human terms. In the fulfilment of this prophecy, David was proven wrong. The Ark of God dwelt in a manger, a poor, lowly place. Mary was a young maiden who lived in simplicity and virtuous poverty.
Mary’s obedience to God is a great lesson for us. Most times, we feel that we are over-achieving and attribute success to ourselves. Although we might produce results that are great, we need to recognize that God is the one who plants the seed of eternal growth in our lives. That is the reason for Christ’s coming in human form, dwelling in such a humble state. He meant to possess us in a special way. We have to open up and let him reign.
Mary’s response is, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word”. It is a statement of commitment, availability and openness. God needs us to just be available for him. He builds. Those who are available for God do not fret about things. They rarely let anxiety eat them up. They do not panic about results. They are not taken aback by disappointments. They are not possessed by material things. Archbishop Fulton Sheen calls it the “long span of voluntary obedience” when he wrote, “By this long span of voluntary obedience, He revealed that the Fourth Commandment is the bedrock of family life. In a larger way, how else could the primal sin of disobedience against God be undone except by the obedience in the flesh of the very God who was once defied. It was Lucifer who said, ‘I will not obey,’ and Eden caught up that echo”. Obedience to God's will builds a dynasty that lasts, not a house that collapses. It makes us understand the true value of our lives and what we have. It makes us understand that everything belongs to God, and that material things will always fade.
Christmas is a time of saying yes to the will of God in our lives. It is a time to recognize that God is the Architect, he lays the plan. We must be open in order to obey God. He leads and we follow. We just have to be present to his desire. Saint Paul enjoins us to “obedience of faith”. It is the best way to accept Christ in our lives. Just learn to be present. Give it to him. Let God reign. Let him rule. Let him decide for you what you need to do. Make him your coach and play according to his game-plan.
THE ERA OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
Readings: 1st- Is. 61:1-2, 10-11; 2nd- 1 Thes. 5:16-24; Gospel- John 1:6-8, 19-28
The period preceding Christmas can be described as John the Baptist era. John does two things in today’s gospel: 1. He clarifies his own identity. 2. He turns our attention to Christ. The gospel opens up this way, “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light” (Jn. 1:6-8). John is sent by God, he is the voice of the one crying in the desert urging believers to prepare the way, and baptizing them with water. John is not the Christ.
In today’s gospel, different groups exert pressures upon John regarding his identity and role. The Jews from Jerusalem pressure him asking, “Who are you?” They think that John must be either Elijah, the Prophet or the One who is to come. Some Pharisees also pressure him asking why he should baptize if he is not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet. “What have you to say for yourself?”, they quiz him. John’s response is, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord”. John is unambiguous in explaining his position, “I am not the Christ”. That defines the meaning of his era; a period of preparation and waiting.
The second part of John the Baptist’s mission is to turn our attention towards Christ. John bears testimony to the light so that that all might believe in Christ through him. John is like the altar server. The altar server usually leads the procession, announces the commencement of the liturgy. John the Baptist announces the beginning of the Liturgy of salvation made manifest in Christ Jesus. He says, “I baptize you with water, but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie” (Jn. 1:26-27). John’s role is to bear witness to Christ, “the light of the world” (Jn.8:12).
One of my professors told us a story of her experience in school. She said she was in for her final exams in the fall. They had all 5 of their course exams (all comprehensive) on one day. Then the first professor met them in the class at 8am, gave them their exam and waited for them to be done. When they went to turn in the test, they were given another for the second class, and so on for all 5 exams. They were exhausted and sleep-deprived. Somewhere a few hours in, one of their classmates who had actually taken a 10minute nap (in the middle of the exam!) lifted up her head with sleep lines on her face and shouted, "y'all, Christmas is coming. No matter what, Christmas is coming." You know what that means for a student in such a tensed atmosphere. It means more than just enduring exams to get to the holiday break. It means that no matter how difficult and painful life gets, no matter how tired the students are, the Messiah is coming. This world can be tough, a brutal place where the innocent suffer and the undeserving are oppressed; 2017 might certainly have been no exception. Yet there is great beauty in the season.
The prophet Isaiah’s message in the first reading is given to a people on their return from exile. Israel come back to find that their land is in ruins and that injustice and poverty had pervaded the land. The prophet foresees great things happening to the people. He foresees a jubilee year, freedom and liberation. And he writes, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God” (Is. 61:1-2). This is what the coming of Christ announces; what Advent reminds us of, that we are not only suffering. We are also working. We are still waiting. We are altogether preparing. Ultimately, we trust the Redeemer to complete what we cannot do, to come back for us, to heal us, redeem and set the captives free.
Saint Paul invites us to do three things within this period: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks” (1 Thess. 5:16). Can we just do those things? –Rejoice! Pray! Give thanks! We must rejoice each time recognizing the love of God in our lives. We must pray to God who is the reason for our joy. And we must give thanks at all times remembering always the great favors that God bestows on us. Saint Paul states, “for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus”. God wills to free us from the entanglements of worldly nightmares.
John the Baptist era reminds us of the great coming of Christ. He announces the good things that await us in Christ Jesus. Like the student in my professor’s story, I say to you, "y'all, Christmas is coming. No matter what, Christmas is coming." Christmas is coming, and must come. No matter what you face, Christmas is coming. No matter what you fail to accomplish, Christmas must come. Some of us live in anxiety. Some live in fear. Some live in uncertainty. Some, in anger and sadness. Works, family, children, health, relationships, politics, etc. There’s always something driving us crazy at one time or the other. Those things cannot compare with the joy brought to us by Christ. They cannot deprive us of the Christmas joy. The will of God for us is joy and happiness. God wants us to bear witness to the light that Jesus brings at Christmas.
The era of John the Baptist is the era of announcement, of preparation, of waiting. It is the era of constant reminder that Christmas is coming. It is the era of bearing witness to the light of God’s goodness by our words and actions. The needy need to hear the voice that Christmas is coming. Captives need to hear that Christmas is coming. The broken-hearted need to hear that Christmas is coming. Prisoners need to hear that Christmas is coming. The sick need to hear that Christmas is coming. The bereaved need to hear that Christmas is coming. Let us bring glad tidings to those around us. Like John the Baptist, we must bear witness to the light. Christmas is coming! God wills us to be joyful.
DIVINE COMFORT: THE BEST PRODUCT OF THE SEASON
Readings: 1st- Is. 40:1-5, 9-11; 2nd- 2Pet. 3:8-14; Gospel- Mk. 1:1-8
Business owners and marketers advertise their products. They make them attractive to prospective customers. Marketers develop the best jingles for their commercials. The prophet Isaiah does same for God today. He acts like the Lord’s salesman presenting the divine offer; the Lord’s comfort is the best product for the season.
“Comfort my people, comfort them”, says the Lord (Is. 40:1). This book of Consolation begins the second part of Isaiah’s prophetic writings, what is called Deutero Isaiah (chapter 40 to 55). It is written for the people of Israel at the end of their Babylonian exile around the Sixth Century BC. The people are on the verge of losing hope having endured years of separation from their land and their God. The prophet offers them hope and comfort. He offers them freedom from captivity. More so, he rekindles in them God’s love and his reassuring intimacy. God’s tenderness and compassion is the reason for consolation; “Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord God, who rules with strong arm… Like a shepherd he feeds his flock, in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care”.
What the prophet Isaiah offers to the Old Testament Israel, John the Baptist offers to the New people of God. The 2018 Workbook for Lectors remark, “Three biblical figures express in different ways the spirit of the season of advent: the prophet Isaiah, whose words create hope and expectation; Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose obedience opened the door to the Incarnation; and John the Baptist, whose ministry was to prepare the way of the Lord”. John the Baptist is not just another prophet, he is an introduction to the Jesus’ chapter. Mark’s gospel captures his message as “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” (Mk. 1:1). It says, “John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.
Just like investors prepare to do business, to take advantage of opportunities, John the Baptist invites believers to prepare. Repentance is the price, while the reward is forgiveness. John’s preaching drew a large crowd of people because of the reward of forgiveness from the Lord. The people are consoled by his words. They expect their sins to be forgiven. They expect their bad ways to be corrected. They expect deliverance from the Messiah. They believe in John because he spoke passionately about the Messiah. John’s marketing strategy is powerful. He offers the people a sample of the product from his master, baptizing them in the Jordan River. Hence, he declares, “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals”.
Christ is the mighty one, the Messiah we are waiting for. The advent invitation is that we prepare to welcome him. We must get ready to invest in the “best product” ever- John calls him, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29-30). The prophet Isaiah gives us an idea of what our business plans should look like: “Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” Saint Peter expounds God’s offer in the second reading, recognizing the privilege of being part of the heralds of his coming. He reminds us that God does not delay, he is only being patient with us. He desires our salvation and so invites us to repentance. The divine package is an amazing gift for believers, “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13). God is giving us extraordinary gift, newness of life completely transformed by the coming of Christ. We must therefore aspire to receive it, to be found without spot or blemish, to be at peace. That is the great consolation.
I wish to ask that each of us make a commitment at this advent in view of Christmas. That is our business plan to invest in the Lord’s offer. The prophet says, “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low, the rugged land shall be made plain, the rough country, a broad valley. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” (Is.40: 4-5). What valleys need to be filled up in your life? What mountains need leveling? What rugged lands need to be made smooth? Is there a relationship that has bothered you for years now? This is the time to smoothen it. Someone tells me -It is my relationship with my dad. We have not been in good terms for the past ten years. Each time I come to church, my wish is to not hear the pastor preach about forgiveness because I’m not ready for it, just that one relationship. I’m good with every other one. Each Christmas, I feel as if my celebration is incomplete. I feel like it’s not that time yet to let go of the hurt I feel for my dad. But it is suffocating me inside. I come to advent confession, and wish that the priest doesn’t tells me to go and make peace with my father. I can take any other penance but not that. What do I do?
Go and level that mountain, the Lord is offering you another opportunity. He offers you comfort in the healing that comes from reconciliation with one another, with your father. Go, fill up the valley. That’s the rough road you need to smoothen. And together, like the prophet said, all people shall see the glory of Christmas. Have you ever witnessed the joy of a family reunion before? Of course, no reunion can take place without forgiveness. No reunion can happen where there is no peace because the Lord Jesus is our Peace. And peace comes through sacrifice. God brings us comfort and consolation today, as Peter says, “The Lord does not delay his promise” (2 Pet. 3:9). Let us not remain exiled by hatred and anger. Let us not remain exiled by iniquity and sinfulness. Let us not remain exiled by divisiveness and pride. God’s comfort is here. It is the best product of the season. It is free, made available for us in Christ Jesus. We must reach out to take it.