Editor’s note: This was supposed to be published back in the fourth week of December, but for various reasons, publishing was put off and off until now.
It‘s Advent: time of Coming, or waiting for Coming, expecting Coming. Expecting the second Coming of Christ and also expecting the commemoration of His first Coming, of Christmas. And it’s the fourth week of Advent, its very end. This year it’s a sudden end, with Christmas Eve just a day after fourth Sunday of Advent.
The Old Testament times when the people of Israel awaited the Coming of the Messiah could be seen as the first Advent, as the Advent of both people of Israel and all creation. There were lots of promises given by God to his people through Moses, David, various prophets and other human authors (co-authors with Holy Spirit), heroes, and maybe even anti-heroes of the Old Testament. Some were just not very clear, some were very hard to decipher and quite a few were almost impossible to recognize as messianic texts before Jesus gave us an authorized interpretation. Micah 5:2-5a is one of the clearest messianic prophecies in Bible:
Thus says the LORD: 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; whose origin is from of old, from ancient times. Therefore the Lord will give them up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne, and the rest of his kindred shall return to the children of Israel. He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the LORD, in the majestic name of the LORD, his God; and they shall remain, for now his greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; he shall be peace.
So the mainstream view of Messiah was as a great king who would renew the kingdom of Israel and make all the other nations its vassals, who would be a descendant of his ancestor David and who would be born in Bethlehem. We Christians know that it was in fact somewhat more complicated, but that’s sort of judging ex post. At that time virtually nobody was prepared for someone like Jesus, for a king whose kingdom is not from this world.
Out of all the world, Mary was probably the best prepared for the Coming of Christ. We know that she became mother of Jesus, and we Catholic and Orthodox Christians dare to say she was Mother of God. Her pregnancy is another Advent, another time we commemorate each Advent. This last short week of Advent could be seen as especially focused on this aspect. Nine months of Mary’s personal Advent may seem just as a small full stop in comparison to many centuries of the Advent of Israel, and although the ratio between the two periods couldn’t be maintained, the fourth week of Advent is a similar full stop, or better, a colon followed by quotation marks with the Word of God inside. With the living Word of God who became flesh and made His dwelling among us.
The Gospel reading of the last Sunday of Advent tells us about an event from the middle of Mary’s pregnancy: Mary’s visit to Elisabeth (Luke 1:39-45). But for those who haven’t attended Mass on the 8th of December (the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary) or just need to remember its Gospel reading it’s useful to start few verses earlier, in the beginning of Mary’s Advent (verses 26-38):
The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end.” But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
What did Mary think when the angel announced her that her son “will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end?” She must have known most (or even all) prophecies about the Messiah and their interpretations, so the question “how could a son of a poor girl like me become a king?” probably occurred to her, but she was always open for the mild, silent voice of Holy Spirit who slowly taught her about Father’s plans with her and her son. As a simple, humble soul she accepted God’s will without understanding it completely, but she strongly believed that she would understand whatever she should understand and whenever she should understand it (and that she wouldn’t understand what she shouldn’t understand, or before she should understand it). Her pondering is a good example of dealing with conflicts between faith and reason – believe first, but don’t stop pondering about it, and don’t stop trying to understand as much as you can while accepting your own disability to hold the whole truth.
Her attitude may seem too similar to Zachariah’s (even few verses earlier), but Mary tried to understand so that she could follow God’s will without confusion (does this mean that she should try to convince Joseph to marry her earlier? Or should she wait for the wedding, even if it took years? Or is there some other option? What exactly does God want?) while Zechariah just wanted some extra sign to appease his lack of faith.
Now we get to the Gospel reading of this Sunday:
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.”
The first thing Mary did after the strange visit from Gabriel was to pursue the best clue she found in the angel’s words – she visited her relative Elizabeth. I can’t believe that Mary was prepared for Elizabeth’s greeting like this, and even though her song (Luke 1:46-55) could be composed earlier (well, Bible critiques expect it was), Mary probably didn’t prepare it just for that occasion. I have experienced similar sudden reminding of some old song or Bible verse that just fits the moment many times and I’m sure that you experienced something similar too, so why couldn’t Mary?
The point is that Mary was probably almost as surprised as when Gabriel came to her a few days before, and that she found rather more questions to think about than any clear answers. A few verses later we read that Mary stayed at Elizabeth’s for half a year – did it take so much time until Mary understood God’s plans with her enough (but still not completely)?
There are basically two ways to handle our future. First is what the priests, Pharisees and scribes, simply the most spiritual leaders of Israel in those times, did: they considered what they knew, analyzed their sources and tried to make a plan as good as possible and then to follow it. There are variants of this approach, for example, to not to think about it and just grab someone else’s plan, or even to not care and assume that there would be no problem in the future. The scribes and the Pharisees just made very sophisticated and elaborate plans that left little room for God’s free will. We could sum it up as “expecting the expectable”. The second reading from the fourth Advent Sunday (Hebrews 10:5-10) can be read as a polemic with this approach:
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 most important part of the meaning of Old Testament liturgy served in the Temple was to point to the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. By coming and offering His body, Jesus made it obsolete – the prophecy God has written in temple liturgy was fulfilled. But who could know this is the God’s will in advance?
On the other hand, there is Mary’s approach – to expect the unexpectable. It’s not bad to try to understand God’s plans, but we should always prefer the blowing of the Holy spirit to our understanding of God’s plans.
A final note to another aspect of Advent, in waiting for the second coming of Christ (to the world, or just to me in the moment of my death): do I really expect the unexpectable? Am I ready to accept whatever will come and say to Jesus Christ: “I am the handmaid [or some male equivalent] of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word”? Or do I rely on some plan that would interfere with my faith if things happened slightly different in the end?
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