Father Donald Senior, CP

Dec. 23: Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 20, 2018

Nothing is impossible for God

Mi 5:1-4; Ps 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19; Heb 10:5-10; Lk 1:39-45

The Gospel for this last Sunday of Advent is Luke’s account of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. In no other Gospel passage do two women command the stage, and two pregnant women at that.

We know the story. Earlier in his infancy narrative, Luke had introduced Elizabeth and Zachary, an elderly priest and his wife, devout and faithful Jews, but who bore the shame of not having been able to bear a child, considered a great suffering in a traditional clan culture. Despite their barrenness, an “angel of the Lord” announces to Zachary that Elizabeth will bear a son — and what a son! John the Baptist, who will herald the coming of the Messiah. 

Luke has also told us of another unexpected pregnancy. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary of Nazareth, who is a virgin, and announces that she, too, will bear a child. She will have a son whose identity is even more astounding — “he will be called Son of the Most High” and will be the long awaited Messiah of Israel.

These two unanticipated conceptions set the stage for the scene we hear today: one to a woman too old to bear a child, and one to a woman young and not yet married. Astounding, yes, but as the angel Gabriel reminds Mary, “nothing will be impossible for God.”

These are the very words in Genesis that centuries ago a mysterious angelic visitor said to Sarah, the elderly wife of Abraham who could not imagine that she could give birth either.

Mary sets out to visit her cousin Elizabeth to help her during her pregnancy. The two kinswomen meet and, in a marvelous touch, Luke notes that John the Baptist, the infant in Elizabeth’s womb, “leaps for joy” at encountering Mary and her unborn son, Jesus. The joy of this encounter leads Mary to sing an ecstatic song — the Magnificat, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” 

Mary’s song echoes that of Hannah, the wife of Elkanah and the mother of the great prophet Samuel. She, too, had been barren and desolate but unexpectedly became pregnant and exalted at being freed from her shame.

In fact, the theme of barrenness runs throughout the Scriptures: famous couples such as Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Manoah and his wife (unnamed but later able to bear Samson, the great warrior). The prophet Isaiah compared the experience of barrenness to Israel itself languishing in exile. 

Its hopes dashed, its vital institutions — the temple, the priesthood, the monarchy, the land itself — shattered and lost. But the prophet summons his people to a new hope, based on trust in the power of God, who alone can fill barrenness with new life: “Raise a glad cry, you barren one who never bore a child, break forth in jubilant song, you who have never been in labor. … Though the mountains fall away and the hills be shaken, my love shall never fall away from you or my covenant of peace be shaken, says the Lord, who has mercy on you” (Is 54).

A few days ago I heard the testimony of a mother whose son was killed in a senseless act of gun violence, alongside the church where the young man sang in the choir. “I felt like I had lost my whole life,” she said.

Twice, she confessed, she was tempted to commit suicide so devastated she was by the loss of her beloved son. But as time went on, she began to find new life.

“Faith in God,” she said, “and devoting myself to service enabled me to live again.” She organized a group of mothers here in Chicago devoted to helping other parents who have lost children to violence find new life.

Here is the reality of Advent. In a world where we may experience barrenness — a feeling that our lives are empty — we are called to trust in God whose love will never fail us and to use whatever gifts God gives us to serve others. 



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