A Reminder of Jesus’ First Visit or Advent

The readings for Sunday, December 20, 2015, Fourth Sunday of Advent, Cycle C, are
Micah 5:1-4a; Hebrews 10:5-10; and Luke 1:39-45.

The term “advent” in its pre-Christian meaning referred to the official visitation of the Roman emperor or his delegate to a city or state in the empire. It is appropriate that Christians use the same terminology for the visit to earth of the ultimate Emperor, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords. His first visit or advent to the earth took place in the conception, birth, life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. His second visit or advent is expected at some unknown future time when as final judge he will wrap up what he began over two thousand years ago.  Date-setters for this second advent have been with us since the beginning of Christianity. St. Paul started it. The gospel of the first Sunday of Advent reminded us of the King’s final anticipated visit. The Gospels of the Second and Third Sundays of Advent recall not so much the beginning of his first visit, but preparation for his public appearance during that first visit. For two Sundays of Advent the Gospels emphasized the ministry of John the Baptizer, “to prepare the way of the Lord.”

This Sunday’s Gospel goes back about thirty years before John’s ministry. It reminds us of the very beginnings of the first visit or advent — the conception and birth of the King. The scene: Mary’s visitation of her elderly and now pregnant cousin Elizabeth. The Visitation is the immediate sequel to Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary. The astounding news proclaimed to Mary left her troubled. She gently asked for an explanation. The angel granted Mary a sign that the message brought to her was absolutely true. The sign: “Behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month” (of Elizabeth’s pregnancy), “for with God nothing will be impossible.” Luke tells us that the annunciation to Mary took place in the city of Nazareth in the province of Galilee in northern Palestine. As the gospel reading for this Sunday begins, Mary leaves immediately for “the hill country of Judea” in southern Palestine to visit Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah. The latter was a priest who took his turn functioning in the temple at Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life.

Mary arrives at her destination. “She entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” Mary was already filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment in which she gave consent to become the mother of the Son of God.  Her presence brings the Holy Spirit into the home of her elderly relatives. “When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the child in her womb leaped for joy, and Elizabeth herself was filled with the Holy Spirit.” There have been theologians of the opinion that baby John’s leap of joy was Luke’s proclamation that the child at this moment was freed from original sin. That is something of a stretch since the doctrine of original sin was not developed until centuries later. We should rather think of this leap of joy as the future Baptizer’s first witness to the person he would later call, “One mightier than I, the cords of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie,” and “who will baptize with the fire of the Holy Spirit.”

Luke notes that Elizabeth herself  “was filled with the Holy Spirit, and exclaimed with a loud cry….” Through the presence of the Holy Spirit in her, Elizabeth received the gift of prophecy. This does not mean that she could now foretell the future. biblical prophecy essentially consists in being God’s mouthpiece of revelation. The Lord’s new prophetess Elizabeth proceeds to a multi-layered revelation. She proclaims of Mary, “Blessed are you among women!” This proclamation carries echoes of Old Testament women-heroes who saved and preserved God’s people from destruction just as Mary will do by her consent to become the mother of the Savior.

One of these women-heroes is Jael in Judges 4. Of her the Israelites sang in Judges 5:24, “Most blessed of women is Jael.” The other is Judith. This blessing was pronounced upon her in Judith 13:18, “May you be blessed by God Most High, beyond all women on earth….” Thus Luke’s theology, through the mouth of Elizabeth, proclaims Mary equal to the ancient heroines of Israel. As is customary in Old and New Testaments, God favors those whom men consider the weaker element of human nature to bring about his saving acts. Mary’s mission is not just to one people as was the mission of Jael and Judith, but to all people. Thus Luke proclaims in the prophetic oracle of old Simeon speaking about the child he held in his arms, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people.” Elizabeth continues, “…and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” This revelation proclaims Mary the representative of all Israel, upon whom this blessing was proclaimed in Deuteronomy 28:4, “Blessed be the fruit of your womb.”

The third and fourth layers of revelation through Elizabeth’s oracle now follow. “How is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Elizabeth is the first in Luke’s Gospel to recognize Mary’s right to a title which the Church would officially bestow on her at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. “Mother of my Lord,” is the equivalent of “Mother of God.” Only through the Holy Spirit brought to Elizabeth by Mary and permeating both these women of God could Elizabeth (or Luke) proclaim this profound revelation. Finally Luke, through Elizabeth, proclaims Mary more blessed because of her faith in the promises made by God than because of her biological motherhood of the Son of God. Amazing! So amazing that Luke feels compelled to repeat this revelation in Luke 11:27-28. An unknown woman cries out while Jesus is preaching, “Blessed is the womb that gave birth to you and the breast that nursed you.” The Lucan Jesus replies, “More blessed those who hear the word of God and do it!” Mary was the first to hear and the first to do, when she said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word.”

— Father Donald Dilger