Rejoice.… The Lord is in your midst. Zephaniah 3:14–15
16 December 2018, 3rd Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14–18, Isaiah 12, Philippians 4:4–7, Luke 3:10–18
Today is Gaudete Sunday—meaning “to rejoice”. As Advent draws to an end, the Church calls us to rejoice because the birth of our Saviour is now very near. Yet, even as we rejoice, it is a challenging call and reminder to be attentive to use the time left wisely, and to prepare ourselves for his coming.
Our Advent preparation is primarily spiritual: the conforming of our mind, heart and soul to God by allowing his grace to work within us. First and foremost, this means a commitment and fidelity to daily prayer and meditation—to generously “waste time with God” in his presence. Secondly, a good Confession, as we place ourselves in the merciful heart of the Saviour who came to forgive and redeem us. Thirdly, nurturing our love and devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament by our worthy reception of him in Holy Communion at Mass. Fourthly, by heeding Jesus’ answer to those who asked him in today’s Gospel, “What must we do?” to which he replied simply to be faithful to the life and vocation God has given you. So simple, yet so hard to put into practice! But, with faith in God and our sincere efforts, everything is possible.
If our spiritual preparation is authentic, it will lead naturally to good works of charity (love) and mercy (forgiveness) towards others. We could even say that this is a litmus test, because if this does not happen, then there is a contradiction between what we say and what we do.
Mary, Mother of the Word made Flesh and Help of Christians, pray for us, your children. Lord Jesus, help me by your grace to become more and more like you each day and to walk always in the path you have laid out for me. Amen.
Fr Christopher G Sarkis
The Visitation: Mary visits Elizabeth – Master M+S (c. 1506)
“The Visitation: Mary visits Elizabeth”, c. 1506. Tempera on panel, 140cm × 94.5cm. Hungarian National Museum, Budapest, Hungary. Public Domain.
We are looking at a most beautiful painting shrouded in mystery because of the debate over its author. It hangs now in the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest and is believed to have once been part of an altarpiece. The unknown Hungarian or German artist simply signed his work with a monogram: M+S.
Elizabeth is making homage to her cousin by raising her right hand to kiss her. Both are dressed in costumes typical to time and place—the artist using this crutch to “inculturate” the Gospel. The pretty scene of a castle and gardens in the background may have been familiar to the first onlookers, perhaps an image of heaven, but this goal can only be reached by participation in Christ’s Passion—symbolised subtly by the bare rocks and twisted trees, and the iris, peonies, and strawberries in the foreground.
The Scriptures are sprinkled with resolute women who, by their belief and their actions, actually changed the course of salvation history. This painting brings us two: Elizabeth and Mary, both believing in the physically impossible. St Luke tells us that Elizabeth and her husband were “righteous” people—that is, right with God. They are part of a little group faithful to the Covenant and providing an “atmosphere” of readiness to accept the promised Saviour. Saintly though they were, they carried the stigma of childlessness. Elizabeth’s pain is obvious in the words with which she thanks God for having taken away her “humiliation”.
There are so many thoroughly good people who have to live with pain—the loneliness of childlessness, a child with intellectual disabilities, the premature death of their children, the challenge of teenage rebellion. Virtuous living is no shield against reality. While Elizabeth and Zachary—people of faith—had come to terms with their situation, they were also open to the utterly unexpected and were prepared to let God be God. Because of this, Elizabeth was able to discern God’s action, not only in her own life, but above all, in Mary’s.
It is necessary to set aside—still prevalent—images of Mary that diminish not only her, but the role and status of all women. The Gospel does not present Mary as wholly passive. Rather, we are given a picture of a levelheaded, practical woman. Popular piety has endowed Mary with extraordinary gifts nowhere witnessed in the Bible. Elizabeth gives us the correct clue: “Blessed is she who believed” (Luke 1:45). Faith is not an easy virtue. “Full of grace” gave many the wrong impression that Mary was enlightened from the first as to the nature and destiny of her Son. But, “full of grace” is actually a mistranslation of the Greek meaning “favoured one”. Mary is one of us. We are all favoured by God from the beginning as St Paul would tell us—it doesn’t make life easy. If the Son is like us in all things, then the same must be true of the Mother.
Mary’s sinlessness does not make her any less human. It makes her more human. It is sin that makes us less human. And, being human involves the limitations of humanness. Mary lived by faith. So must we, for only faith can guarantee “the existence of realities that at present remain unseen” (Hebrews 11:1).
Mary’s strength of character is shown in her prayer, the Magnificat, sung by the Church every evening. The themes are not original, but they show Mary’s knowledge of Scripture—a knowledge she would have gained during the time she spent at the Temple school in Jerusalem. Tradition tells us that Joachim and Anne took her there when she was three.
The Magnificat can be seen as the first proclamation of the Gospel. In her prophetic role as Mother of the Church, Mary declares that her Son’s, and his Church’s, teaching will be countercultural—that God is to overturn the commonly accepted social status of the world. As one of the poor herself, Mary emphasises God’s preferential option for the poor. This woman preaches a subversive message. It will be echoed by her Son in the Sermon on the Mount.
St Gregory the Great said that Scripture “grows through reading”. This is very true of the Magnificat. We cannot pray this prayer without savouring the truth it contains and putting the contents into practice. In his commentary on the Magnificat, Martin Luther wrote: “Every day we see that all men aim too high—at positions of honour, power, wealth, a more comfortable life, at anything which gives them importance. No one wants to look down where there is poverty, disgrace, need, affliction and anguish. Rather, we turn our eyes away from such things.”
Mary says that God does the opposite—he keeps the proud distant and raises to himself the humble and unimportant. With maternal tenderness, Mary exhorts us to imitate God and to make his choice ours. The Magnificat is a school of wisdom; of continuous conversion.
The New Testament says little of Mary, but it says more than has always been recognised. It is by acknowledging her whole and wholesome womanhood that she can help the cause of her sisters, rather than be set against them.
Monsignor Graham Schmitzer
With thanks to the of Diocese of Wollongong who have supplied the weekly Advent and Christmas 2018 reflections from their publication, Saviour—Daily Advent and Christmas Reflections 2018. You can read the reflections as they are published here.