The many surprises of Advent: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 1:39–45:

Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “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.”

Do you like surprises? Some people enjoy them immensely, while others find themselves greatly perturbed. Christmas tends to separate the two pretty well, as do birthdays and anniversaries. Those who enjoy surprises watch the growing pile of wrapped packages under the tree with anticipation. The rest negotiate terms ahead of time, such as “here’s what you’re buying me for Christmas, honey.”

To be fair, that also could be a sign that more than one surprise has gone awry in the past.

Today’s readings in our fourth Sunday in Advent involve surprises of a sort, and what the source of our own joy should be as it unfolds. It doesn’t have much to do with the gifts under the tree, although those can certainly be fun for both givers and recipients. The joy we have should be within us, an internal dwelling of the Lord as we see here in the Visitation.

First, though, let’s start with our reading from the prophet Micah, written just before the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians and never returned from exile. Micah followed Isaiah, one of the greatest prophets in terms of explaining the nature of the coming Messiah, but the book of Micah begins with a prophecy of Israel’s destruction for its sins. Its kings have failed the Lord and will be brought low and the land ravaged.

However, like Isaiah before him and Jeremiah after him, Micah offers this kernel of hope for salvation and rescue. A new king will arise, but from a very surprising corner of the Promised Land:

You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; whose origin is from of old, from ancient times. Therefore the Lord will give them up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne, and the rest of his kindred shall return to the children of Israel. He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the LORD, in the majestic name of the LORD, his God; and they shall remain, for now his greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; he shall be peace.

This is a heads-up to the Israelites: Get ready to be surprised. The next king of Israel would not come from powerful houses (at least not as perceived at the time), nor would he come from the centers of the kingdoms, Samaria and Jerusalem. This would be a king of humility, a surprise to the world, whose power would be peace itself. It would require the Israelites and their leadership to rethink the entire idea of their nationhood, and indeed the arc of salvation in the Lord.

We see this dynamic at play in the Visitation. When young Mary comes to visit her older cousin Elizabeth, the latter might have been surprised that Mary was pregnant at all, being betrothed but not yet married to Joseph. Mary was indeed a humble young woman from the humble village of Nazareth, an origin that would later have Israelites discounting Jesus’ ministry. However, Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah was a member of the temple authority, a high priest as Luke writes in his Gospel:

1:5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

In the Visitation, we get a meeting of two women in different stations within Judea and the temple power structure. Mary doesn’t just meet her cousin (although that’s clearly her desire), but she brings Jesus to the temple authority in her own way. When that happens, Elizabeth doesn’t necessarily recognize it — but the child in her womb does, and leaps for joy. Reacting to this, Elizabeth grasps the import immediately and offers Mary a greeting fitting for the highest echelons of society, while humbling herself before her younger cousin.

This is a practical demonstration of Jesus’ later teachings: The first shall be last. Bethlehem will end up exalted while Samaria and Jerusalem fall. The poor and humble before God become honored while the powerful pay homage.

But even more important and surprising — in its way — is how this is a model of love for all. Elizabeth may humble herself, but she is not humiliated. Instead, she overflows with love for her cousin and for the child in Mary’s womb. Mary may have been poor and humble, but she does not use this as a way to balance the equation in any worldly sense. Rather than accept that glory for herself, Mary gives the glory to God in the Magnificat, one of the most splendid discourses in the Gospels.

This is precisely what the Lord wants of us. He doesn’t just plan to reorder the world in an upside-down or backwards-forwards manner. That is merely the mechanics of the transformation. The full intent is to allow this to remove all the barriers to true self-giving love for one another, through Christ.

How does this inform our own Advent anticipation and participation? For one thing, we might need to ask ourselves what holds us back from leaping for joy at the Word. The surprises may be gone for some, but the promises of salvation and redemption are still life-changing. In Advent, Mary comes to us in the way that she came to Elizabeth — with the fruit of her womb calling out to us to embrace hope and love, and to prepare ourselves for the salvation of the world. We should be at least as joyful as John was in Elizabeth’s womb, and as lovingly humble in our reception of Christ as Elizabeth.

And maybe take a pass on buying the vacuum cleaner as a Christmas gift. That’s one surprise everyone can do without. Just saying.

The front-page image is “The Visitation” by David Teniers (after Jacopo Palma il Vecchio), c. 1655-6. On display at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  

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