Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 23, 2012
Reflection by Randy Sachs, S.J.
As I am writing this reflection, I am still stunned, as we all are, by the incomprehensible tragedy of the killing of so many small children and their teachers in Newtown, CT. To enter into the rejoicing of Gaudete Sunday seems impossible now, as I see the newspaper photos of grief-stricken parents, and the terrified faces of the children who escaped unharmed. At the same time, I find myself begging Christ to open his heart, his ears, and his arms to all the people who are suffering such devastating loss. Be near to them, Lord. Show them that your heart is breaking, too. Hear their sobbing grief. Give them the strength and courage to trust that they, too, like the loved ones they have lost, will find themselves in your loving embrace. Let us all pray together for them, whose Advent longing for the coming of the Lord in their darkness now has such a specific sharpness.
This horrible event makes me look at last Sunday’s readings in a different light. The prophet Zephaniah proclaimed that the Lord is in your midst; he will rejoice over you with gladness and sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals! When the crowds asked John the Baptist what they should do, he told them to share their clothes and food with those who are going without. Now I see myself in that scene surrounded by my fellow citizens asking him what we should do, and I hear him saying, “Pass laws and do whatever else it takes to prohibit ordinary citizens from possessing assault weapons!” If we find the will and the courage to do that, maybe we will have found a way to believe Zephaniah’s words in these days.
This requires conversion. Can Christ’s coming move us and empower us to a change of heart? Do we believe God’s Spirit at work in us is this powerful? Perhaps the great figures of Advent can help us: Elizabeth, Zechariah, Joseph, and Mary, our ancestors in faith. Each of them played an important role in Christ’s coming into the world then, and they can reveal something to us about the mystery of God’s coming among us today. They remind us that God’s coming—then, as now—can be surprising, bewildering, troubling, and even fearful. At the same time, they remind us that God’s coming always means new life and hope, even when that seems impossible to see or even conceive. For God nothing is impossible.
In Chapter 1 of Luke’s Gospel, when Mary is told that she will conceive Jesus, she is troubled, but able to hear God’s word spoken by the angel and believe it immediately, placing all her trust and hope in it. (Much like Matthew’s Gospel portrays Joseph who, despite what seems a scandalous situation, believes the angel’s message that Mary has conceived by the Holy Spirit.) When the angel appears to Zechariah, fear falls upon him. And when told that his barren wife Elizabeth would conceive John the Baptist, the old priest seems too trapped in the past and the present to believe that even God can bring about a new future—trapped, perhaps, by too many disappointments or simply by the weariness of old age. Thank God for Zechariah! Perhaps you’re like me and find more of yourself in him than in Mary. Those of you who remember the story (why not get your Bible out and read it?) know that God found a way to reach him (and us!). Struck speechless, he was pulled out of the everyday life he was stuck in, and had plenty of time to contemplate in wonder, hope, and growing joy, what God’s powerful Spirit was doing in Elizabeth. Perhaps we can accept the silences in our lives as such opportunities, whether they are of our own choosing, like a walk at night under the stars, or whether they come unwanted, striking us speechless, like what happened in Newtown.
And now we come to today’s Gospel, Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45). Here, the main characters are two women, probably very close friends. The Gospel tells us that the moment Mary heard Elizabeth was pregnant, she traveled “to the hill country in haste” to stay with her. The moment she hears Mary’s greeting, she is filled with the Spirit and says to Mary,
“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? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:42-45).
And then (although we don’t hear it in today’s Gospel), Mary cries out,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1:46-55).
What a picture of the Lord’s coming! Two women, two friends, who are sharing with each other what is going on deep within them—in their wombs, in their hearts. Each of them sharing their faith, hope, and love with the other. Each helping the other to recognize and rejoice in what God is doing. For these two women, the everyday miracle of new life was anything but everyday. Somehow the everyday had been transformed, their own deepest, most human of hopes, desires and joy now seen and felt as yet another sign of God’s powerful coming and what it would bring.
Not only joy for them, but blessed hope for the whole people. For when God comes, impossible things somehow become possible. The rich, proud, and powerful will not prevail; darkness, evil, and suffering will not have the last word. These two friends share and grow in their faith in the power of God’s love and mercy to shine like light in the darkness. The Gospels remind us of how much darkness would enfold these women and their children, and how one of them was the light that the darkness could not overcome.
Elizabeth and Mary show us how the friendships in our lives can help us recognize and rejoice in the Lord’s coming, both in times of joy and sorrow. When we are willing to open ourselves up in friendship to others; when we risk being vulnerable; when we are willing to share our faith and hope as well as our doubt and despair, we might be surprised to find that Christ has indeed come. And, like Elizabeth and Mary, we might even find songs of gratitude on our lips.
Comments from Alumni and Friends
"Thank you for this wonderful reflection. Advent is my favorite season. Children always have a special place in our hearts.They do lots of jumping with joy as John did when he knew Jesus was near in Mary's womb. This tragedy we are all experiencing can teach us to jump with joy when we see so much compassion taking place and know we can honor these children and teachers by doing good to those still around us and allowing the Word to always dwell among us." ~ Carlotta Gilarde, csj
I agree that the unspeakable happened last Friday and, yes, we need to come together and make stricter gun laws but also we need to resurrect more help and more and better places for our mentally ill to go and get help. Pray God that there will never be another Sandy Hook." ~ Bev Driscoll Conway '59