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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Fourth Sunday in Advent

December 23, 2012
Micah 5:1-4; Psalm 80; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45

Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is a favorite passage of many. The enchanted encounter of two mothers-to-be stirs the imagination with real human warmth. The passage is to be read as a literary and theological statement rather than an actual account of events. When people of prayer reflect upon the passage, they fill in the blank spaces with the rest of the story that makes sense for them. It is important for us to listen to what Luke is telling us because this is a story of two women who praise the God who is active in their lives.

If the accounts were accurate, we would seriously wonder why a fourteen-year-old virgin makes a treacherous four-day trip by herself to the hill country right after she become mysteriously pregnant. A single woman just does not travel alone, presumably by foot, because she would be harassed, threatened, robbed, or physically harmed. Her finance, Joseph, would not be satisfied with her decision to travel alone. He would provide necessary protection or would make sure she is traveling in a band.

Notice the silence that pervades this scene. Has Mary told Joseph yet that she is pregnant by divine intervention? This is difficult news to hear. Fortunately, the angel comes to Joseph to inform him. Do her parents know yet and when does she intend to tell them? If they know, they would probably not let her visit Elizabeth. Surely, when she returns three months pregnant, she will begin to show that she is carrying a child. We have to suspend these questions so we can share in the joy that the women feel as they greet one another and share their stories.

Speaking of silence, Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, is mute. He cannot share his joy and fears with his wife because he cannot speak. He cannot tell her how he is feeling as her surprising pregnancy advances. Zechariah is not punished for doubting the angel’s word, but he is silenced so that human beings can listen and see and acknowledge that God is faithful even in the face of human impossibility. Their son John’s name means, “Yahweh has shown favor.” Zechariah, a priest of the Temple, cannot speak and therefore he is unable to complete the liturgy he began. He cannot bless the people at the conclusion of their worship service. Worships is suspended. This prepares the way for people to see that Jesus replaces the Temple as a place of worship because fulfillment comes through his own person. John is to prepare the way for him. True Temple worship temporarily ceases as the unfolding of salvation history develops. The precursor of Jesus must be born first.

Mary’s song of praise follows this passage in which she praises God who is able to do what is humanly impossible. What else did the two talk women about? I’m sure Elizabeth shared her feelings about her pregnancy. It is a story that she cannot really share with her husband easily because he cannot speak and maybe he cannot hear. Every expectant mother wants to tell her own story and speak of her hopes and excitement.  Elizabeth tells all to Mary and then Mary has a chance to break her secret to someone. Quite possibly Elizabeth is the first person with whom Mary openly shares the details of her conception. Mary still might not be able to comprehend such mysterious events. When we are in a time of shock, we need to speak about what we experience and feel. Mary’s story is heard for the first time besides that of her finance, Joseph. Mary’s isolation ends. She can share all the joys of motherhood with someone who understands. This helps her face the uncertain world that awaits her in Nazareth.

The point of Mary’s visit is not to show her great charity and social concern for her aged, pregnant relative. If it were so, Mary would have stayed to witness the birth of John. After all, this is the time of Elizabeth greatest need. Experienced mothers and friends from the neighborhood would come to help her. Luke has Mary leaving just as Elizabeth is to give birth. This focuses the story on the three main characters. After John is born, Zechariah speaks John’s name, “Yahweh has shown favor” as praise of God. Zechariah is finally able to give the Temple blessing and complete the liturgy. He blesses God first. John’s future role will be to prepare the people for the one who will bring peace, a peace that is marked by wholeness, harmony, well-being, prosperity, and security. This peace brings the promise of salvation.

Mary returns home to marry Joseph to begin their life together. She waits patiently as her son develops and forms within her. As every mother does, she spends time in silence with her growing child. She nurtures him and sings to him and rubs her belly to assure him she is with him. One day, he will do the same for her – for he has come to show the world that he is Emmanuel – God is with us.

Let’s spend these last days before Christmas pondering the ways Christ continues to develop within us. Let’s spend the time nurturing him, singing to him, assuring him we are with him. Tell him the wonders of your day. Tell him your sorrows. Let yourself be seen, and heard, and known to him. May your heart be like John’s, which leaped for joy when he recognized the Lord in his midst. Praise be to God.

Themes for this Week’s Masses

First Reading: On Christmas Eve day, David pines to build the Lord a suitable house as he realizes he is in a place of splendor and comfort. Meanwhile, Nathan the prophet is telling David that his house will endure forever. On Christmas day, the angels rejoice because God has given to us a child who will become our savior. The first martyr, Stephen, gives up his life in witness to the risen Lord. The grace of Christmas gives way to the harsh realities of the world. On the feast of John the Evangelist, we hear from his first letter explaining that we have seen and experienced the Word of Life and we testify to his goodness. We have to live truthfully if we are to be a disciple. We cannot testify to the light if our moral actions are deceitful. Keeping his commandments will prove that we live in the love of Christ.

Gospel: The Canticle of Zechariah is sung. The father of John the Baptist sings his song of praise as he realizes his son will become the prophet of the Most High. On Christmas Day, John’s Prologue is read to show that Jesus was the Word of God who eternally existed, but came down from heaven to dwell among us even though he is to be rejected. On the Memorial of Stephen, Jesus tells his disciples to beware of men who will hand you over to the courts and scourge you because they testify on his behalf. On the feast of John the Evangelist, he is identified as the disciple who ran to the tomb first and came to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. On the feast of the Holy Innocents, Herod realized he was tricked by the magi and became furious. He ordered the massacre of all boy infants in Bethlehem and the vicinity because he feared the rise of an opposing king. After the days of purification were complete, Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the temple to be presented to the Lord. They met Simeon who said he could now gracefully depart from this life because he saw the salvation of Israel.

Saints of the Week

Saints are not celebrated during the octave leading up to Christmas.

December 23 - O Emmanuel, our king and giver of the Law: come to save us, Lord our God.

December 25: The Nativity of Our Lord

December 26: Stephen, the first Martyr (d. 35), was one of the seven original deacons chose to minister to the Greek-speaking Christians. The Jews accused him of blasphemy. Though he was eloquent in his defense, Saul of Tarsus condoned his death sentence.

December 27: John, Apostle and Evangelist (d. 100), was the brother of James and one of the three disciples to be in the inner circle. He left fishing to follow Jesus and was with him at the major events: the transfiguration, raising of Jairus' daughter, and the agony in the garden. He is also thought to be the author of the fourth gospel, three letters, and the Book of Revelation.

December 28: The Holy Innocents (d. 2), were the boys of Bethlehem who were under two years old to be killed by King Herod in an attempt to eliminate the rise of the newborn king as foretold by the astronomers from the east. This event is similar to the rescue of Moses from the Nile by the slaughter of the infant boys by the pharaoh.

December 29: Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr (1118-1170), was the lord chancellor and archbishop of Canterbury in England during the time of King Henry II. When he disagreed with the King over the autonomy of the church and state, he was exiled to France. When he returned, he clashed again with the king who had him murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. 

This Week in Jesuit History

·      Dec 23, 1549. Francis Xavier was appointed provincial of the newly-erected Indian Province.
·      Dec 24, 1587. Fr. Claude Matthe died at Ancona. He was a Frenchman of humble birth, highly esteemed by King Henry III and the Duke of Guise. He foretold that Fr. Acquaviva would be General and hold that office for a long period.
·      Dec 25, 1545. Isabel Roser pronounced her vows as a Jesuit together with Lucrezia di Brandine and Francisca Cruyllas in the presence of Ignatius at the church of Sta. Maria della Strada in Rome.
·      Dec 26, 1978. The assassination of Gerhard Pieper, a librarian, who was shot to death in Zimbabwe.
·      Dec 27, 1618. Henry Morse entered the English College at Rome.
·      Dec 28, 1802. Pope Pius VII allowed Father General Gruber to affiliate the English Jesuits to the Society of Jesus in Russia.
·      Dec 29, 1886. Publication of the beatification decree of the English martyrs.

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