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.”
Last weekend, we got a chance to spend some time with our former pastor during a reunion for our pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In his homily, he greeted everyone by saying, “Merry Almost!” He reminded us that Advent is a season of “almost”, a season of anticipation and preparation.
So what is it we wait, and for what are we preparing ourselves? Christmas Day, certainly, as we celebrate it in the world. We spend lots of time shopping for others, preparing meals, all in anticipation of spending a little time with each other. That’s not unimportant and it’s not valueless; perhaps even more than ever, having these cultural touchstones of familial celebration are important to ground us in what really matters in our lives. Even with all of the stresses and conflicts these bring, they allow us to reconnect to our past, present, and future in ways that we just don’t experience much during the rest of the year.
That’s also true for Thanksgiving, though. What makes Christmas special? Our Gospel today makes that clear. We are not just anticipating presents or family time; we are anticipating joy in its must pure form. We prepare ourselves for the arrival of our Savior, the One who will bless us with eternal life in the love of the Lord.
In today’s beautiful description of the Visitation, we see this joy from both Elizabeth and her unborn child, who later becomes John the Baptist. Elizabeth is blessed enough to recognize the arrival of the Messiah before anyone else but Mary realizes she is pregnant. Elizabeth is serving the Lord with her pregnancy too, and is open to recognition of the Lord’s miracles.
But it’s not just Elizabeth who reacts with joy at Mary’s arrival. So does the child in her womb, who “leaped for joy,” as Elizabeth tells Mary. How would an unborn child know joy? How would an unborn child recognize the Savior?
Perhaps we can surmise that those touched by the Lord have a better recognition of His presence. Mary was a simple peasant girl whose main concerns of the day would have been subsistence living. Elizabeth, on the other hand, was a wife of the high priest — not wealthy, in those days, but probably not poor either. Mary was a teenager, while Elizabeth had long experience in the world. Yet both recognized their calls from the Lord and recognized it in each other. Other than being family members, their only connection was in their missions for the Lord.
But maybe we can look at it another way, too. John in the womb was the most innocent of the world of all three and yet he “leaped for joy” at the approach of Mary and Jesus. His was the most unbound reaction of all, a gesture of pure joy, untempered by concerns of the world. John instinctively understood the joy of living even near the presence of the Lord and leaped to come closer to Him.
It’s that joy and that reaction for which we prepare in Advent. It’s mirrored in our more secular and familial celebrations of Christmas, too, but it’s not sustained or sufficient. There are few memories of joy more vivid and clear from our childhood than of Christmases past. As parents (and now grandparents), we remember the joy of our children and their children on this day, too. But that joy fades and gets burdened with bills, stresses, and exhaustion. It gets burdened by the cares and toils of the world, of which we may not know much as children but become all the more aware as we grow older.
The lesson from today’s Gospel is that we can’t create that true joy for ourselves from this world, only echoes of it. Those echoes have value in themselves — truly! — but perhaps their greatest value is in their eventual exhaustion and how that points back to the Lord and His eternal love. We get a taste of joy in many celebrations of our lives, but it should make us hunger for the Lord, and leap for joy as He approaches.
So have yourselves a merry little Christmas, and may your hearts be bright, as the song goes. Absorb all the joy you can from your time with family and friends at this blessed time. Their love for you and your love for them is part of God’s love for all of us, too, and another sign that points to Him in the end. But when the exhaustion of the day comes and the joy ebbs back into worry and the ordinary cares of life, say to yourselves, “Merry Almost.” The best is yet to come, my brothers and sisters, so prepare for that leap of joy when we can all bask in the love of the Lord.
The front-page image is a detail from “Visitation,” a fresco at the Tornabuoni Chapel of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy, created by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1485-1490. 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. For previous Green Room entries, click here.