Sunday reflection: Luke 1:39-45

“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.

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.”

Advent is a time of expectations, of waiting, of anticipation of fulfillment. Our readings today, not surprisingly, all relate to that anticipation — and all refer in one way or another in which the Lord fulfills those expectations not in our own worldly understanding, but through His will and wonder.

That’s one of the many reasons, I think, why the Christmas season resonates so well within our culture, and why it gets appropriated so easily by its secular nature. Almost everyone loves the anticipation of Christmas, even as kids, counting the days down to the great present-opening day. We make lists of things we want for family and friends to use for shopping, but the truly fun gifts usually are those which are surprises — items we have not considered but speak to us of a greater understanding than we knew from our friends and family members.

And it is more of a joy to give those gifts, especially as we get older. I’ve experienced that more as a parent and grandparent, an experience with which other readers can surely relate. As recently as yesterday, I was practically giddy from getting one particular gift, not because the person had it on his/her list, but because I just enjoyed buying it and knowing its purpose.

All of these are secular and materialist echoes of what Advent truly is. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t enjoy those aspects of Christmas, but we should remember the true origin of those echoes at the same time. That origin comes from the awesome and unexpected gift of the Messiah as salvation from our own sinful nature, and the way the love of God shines forth in the unexpected nature of the gift.

For instance, the passage from Paul’s letters to the Hebrews shows a surprising twist. The common understanding of the restoration of the kingdom was centered on the common practice of temple worship. Jesus himself warned more than once that this model would no longer suffice; Paul reminds his readers that Jesus made that clear:

When Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; in holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight. Then I said, ‘As is written of me in the scroll, behold, I come to do your will, O God.’”

First he says, “Sacrifices and offerings, holocausts and sin offerings, you neither desired nor delighted in.” These are offered according to the law. Then he says, “Behold, I come to do your will.” He takes away the first to establish the second. By this “will,” we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

The expectations of salvation, even after Christ’s resurrection, was of a restoration of a pure temple worship so that the Israelites could continue to offer sacrifices. Instead, Paul explains that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross takes away the first and replaces it with service to God’s will through his “offering of the body.” The salvation has taken place in an unexpected manner, and it’s more wonderful than could be imagined.

That’s not to say that the nature of the gift should have been completely unexpected. The Old Testament has a number of references to the humble origins of the Messiah, including today’s reading from Micah. “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,” the prophet instructs, which is the polar opposite of the way in which the Israelites would expect the restoration of the Davidic kingdom to occur. The anticipation of the Messiah remains, but the Israelites will look in the right place for the wrong kind of savior.

Today’s Gospel reading gives us a glimpse of the path salvation will take. A virgin becomes pregnant through the Holy Spirit, and goes to visit her older cousin who has conceived past her time in life. This takes place in the village of Ein Karem, an out-of-the-way community in the hills, where few would expect that the two children would change the world — John the Baptist with his preparation for Jesus, the Son of God and the savior of the world. Both men would die in their mission, but it is only in death in which this salvation can occur — in which death itself, the consequence of humanity’s inclination toward sin, can be defeated. Sin is the enemy which Jesus Christ conquers in order to free all humanity from its ultimate outcome, for those who choose to join in Christ’s sacrifice. It’s unexpected even while the Israelites grow weary from the anticipation of salvation.

Often, we try to anticipate too much. We let our own worldliness get in the way of our relationship with the Lord through Christ, but that’s akin to trying to guess what’s under the tree by gauging our own desires first. It’s a fool’s errand, and it leads us astray. We should enjoy the season of anticipation by embracing the gift from the Lord, who knows us far better than we know ourselves, and give ourselves over to the joy of living in His love. Enjoy the fun of Christmas, but know that for all of its fun and merriment, it is only a pale reminder of the true joy and fulfillment given us in the wonderful, awesome gift of Jesus Christ.

Statue of Mary greeting Elizabeth at the Church of the Visitation, Ein Karem, Israel. From my own collection. (Note: This is a relatively new church, having been built in the 1950s, but still a beautiful retreat in the hills of Ein Karem.)

Addendum: I still want a pony.