4th Sunday of Advent
December 20, 2018 by
David Jackson in
Reflections on Sunday Gospels
Mary, first Disciple
Introduction: Mary is the person presented to us to reflect on today.
Homily: Many times I’ve heard the story of the visitation of Mary to her relative Elizabeth. Usually I have taken it to mean that Mary had a special experience of the Good news happen to her. She responded by going to be with her relative Elizabeth. The message for us is clearly that if we are people that have a special experience of God that will prompt us too to be people on the move and try to bring service and goodness to other people.
Some years ago in preparing for this Sunday I was reading a study done by a group of people in South Africa. Their study was focused on Mary and Elizabeth. These study observations were mostly contributed by women. They have given me some new insights into today’s Gospel.
In looking at Elizabeth they became aware of the situation of women in the time of Jesus. At that time women lived their lives under the control of men, mainly their fathers and their husbands. In Jewish religious and social law, women, slaves and minors were often placed in the same category. Bareness or infertility was a tremendously traumatic condition for the woman. It carried immense social stigma; the woman was often reviled and seen as being punished by God. Women who were unable to have children were at the mercy of their husbands. Infertility was sufficient grounds for divorce and the onus for proof of fertility lay with the woman. A husband could take another wife or concubines if his wife proved unsatisfactory. Luke speaking of Elizabeth and Zachary states (Lk. 1: 6,7) “Both were just in the eyes of God, blamelessly following all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord. They were childless, for Elizabeth was sterile; moreover, both were advanced in years.”
Today we know that a problem of infertility is explored for physical reasons in both the man and the woman. Elizabeth’s experience of bareness was a great suffering. She could be put away by Zachary. Her own family would have been ashamed that she did not have a child. Zachary’s family may have been very hostile toward her. They may have encouraged him to take another wife or concubine. In her own village she would have been an object of pity and sometimes scorn. Society stamped her as inadequate. When she became pregnant she is recorded to have said, “The Lord has taken away my disgrace among my people.” (Lk. 1:25) That nothing was impossible to God meant a complete change in Elizabeth’s life. Her mourning was turned into dancing.
In looking at Mary the South African women noted the following. When Mary became aware of being chosen to be the mother of Jesus, Luke tells us, “she was deeply troubled by his words.” The angel told her not to be afraid. She questions: “How can this be since I do not know man?” Matthew records for us how Joseph first greeted the news of his betrothed being pregnant: “When¼Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child¼Joseph her husband, an upright man, unwilling to expose her to the law, decided to divorce her quietly.” (Mt. 1:18ff). In this light is it not possible to interpret the journey to her kinswoman Elizabeth in a bit of a different light. Luke states: “¼Mary set out, proceeding in haste into the hill country to a town of Judah.” Mary leaves on a journey of about 80 miles. She goes alone, something unthinkable at that time. Is it possible that her family and that of Joseph were having difficulty with the fact that Mary was a pregnant unwed woman? It shocks our ideas of Mary. To see Mary as being sent off quickly to a relative, somewhat distant, is difficult for us to imagine. But to me it seems quite possible.
For us she is the “Blessed” virgin Mary. Why blessed? Because she believed that God would straighten out all her difficulties. She was a woman of great faith. She does become the mother of Jesus. But Luke later has Jesus praise his mother thus: “¼blest are they who hear the word of God and keep it.” She is the first among the faithful disciples.
It has been a concern of mine for many years that some people in their devotion to Mary get all concerned about extraordinary visitations or appearances. Our preoccupations with the extraordinary can be an escape from facing the ordinary. Mary certainly wouldn’t want that. The Virgin of Guadalupe offers a true vision of Mary. She takes the form of an Indian woman. She shows concern for the people whose life and culture is being destroyed by the invading Europeans. She fashions a new people out of the mixture of the Indian culture and the Christian faith. She uses an unlikely and somewhat reticent Juan Diego as her instrument. This is the Mary of Faith, the Mary of the Gospels.
The first reading today is from the Prophet Micah. In his famous passage of chapter 6, verse 8, the prophet announces: “You have been told what is good and what God requires of you. Act justly. Love tenderly and walk humbly with your God.” This is the kind of person I’m sure that Mary was. This is the kind of person we are to imitate. For this reason she is such a help in preparing for Christmas, preparing to receive Jesus every day.
Only women know the experience of having new life move within them as did Mary and Elizabeth. But all of us are called to know the experience of having something inside us shift and to know in our very bones that God is with us. Christmas is the reminder and the promise. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. Our challenge is to live so that we too may know the blessedness of the Blessed Virgin Mary.