Homily for December 23, 2012: 4th Sunday of Advent

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A few weeks ago, I saw an ad on the subway for Cole Haan shoes that was a little out of the ordinary: there were no shoes, no pictures of people wearing shoes.  There was just a phrase, printed on a dark background.  It said:

“No great story starts with: ‘It was cold, so I stayed in…’”

I’m not sure what that has to do with shoes. But it obviously made an impression.  It reminded me of something Joseph Campbell once said, in a very different context.

“Every hero’s story,” he explained, “really begins when he leaves home.”

Campbell was talking about Greek and Roman mythology. But I think he was also talking about life. Like Cole Haan’s message, he was saying: don’t be afraid of the cold. Take risks. Great things can happen when you step out of your comfort zone.

Today’s gospel is a vivid example of that.  Mary leaves the comfort of her home in Nazareth, setting out into the rugged hills of Judah. And with that, a great heroic story begins—in fact, the greatest ever.

It’s the heroic story of Christianity—the story of a blessed gift being offered to the world.

It was a story unfolding even before Christ was born.  And at the center of it were the two heroic women, Elizabeth and Mary.

Each in her way was fulfilling God’s plan, each was helping to bring forth the good news of our salvation — Mary, carrying Christ, the Word made flesh; and Elizabeth bearing John, the Voice who will be the herald of the Word.

Both of these holy women speak to us today.

There is Elizabeth, the saint of patience, the saint of eternal waiting, the saint of Advent.  She was a woman getting on in years, presumed to be barren, when God brought a child into her life.  In Luke’s gospel, she is the first person mentioned outside of Mary to encounter Christ.  Consider what that means.  Before there were disciples and apostles, before the blind saw and the lame walked, long before Cana or Capernaum, there was Elizabeth.  She was the first to welcome Jesus, by welcoming his mother.

And, like so many others in the centuries that followed, that encounter changed her.  Elizabeth felt the child in her womb leap – and, in a preview of Pentecost, she was filled with the Holy Spirit.

She sensed a miracle standing before her. And she was moved to ask the question that so many others would ask through history:

How does this happen to me? 

How does this gift happen to any of us?  How are we so blessed to receive God’s grace in our lives?

We can only wonder.

And wonder is the perfect sentiment for these last days of Advent.  The Incarnation, God becoming man, is the most wonder-filled act in human history. At midnight tomorrow, we will sing of it, and in the middle of a dark winter night, this church will be ablaze with light, overflowing with music and joy.

But here, in this gospel passage, it is already beginning.

And it is happening because of Mary—the other heroic woman in this scene.  Mary, the blessed, Mary the pure, Mary the trusting, Mary full of grace.  Mary, the one who had the courage to believe what was unbelievable – and who set out on that journey, the Visitation, a moment so full of meaning.   This gospel give us a foretaste of Bethlehem: it shows Mary bringing Jesus into the world.

Pope Benedict has called the Visitation the “first Eucharistic procession”— Mary as living tabernacle, carrying Christ to Elizabeth for adoration.

But there is also something else at work here.  With this visit Mary taught us something so fundamental to our faith: we are meant to bring Christ to others.  When Mary answered “yes” to the angel, she knew what she had to do. She had to share this, share him, with the world.  That was her great vocation.

That, too, is ours.  If you want to know the gospel mandate, here is where it begins.  Here is our calling.

We are called to be Elizabeth, welcoming Christ and looking for him in others.

But we are also called to be Mary, bringing Jesus to a waiting world—to the lonely, the forgotten, the homebound, the neglected, the poor.  Go and make disciples of all nations, the gospel tells us.  That is our charge, our mission.

And it comes with risks.  God calls us, as He called Mary, to set out in haste to the hill country of our own lives—the rugged terrain that can be hard to climb, that isn’t easy or comfortable or close.

The weather isn’t always agreeable, either.

But then: no great story ever starts with “It was cold, so I stayed in.”

God asks us to make the journey anyway, and to trust that He is with us.

In these last hours of Advent, as the weeks of waiting come to a close, we remember how God kept His promises –and we look East, to a rising star, to a new promise about to be fulfilled.  We journey on.

And we pray to make that journey the same way that Mary did: full of faith, full of hope, and full of joy.


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