4th Sunday of Advent 2011
What is the one thing that is absolutely necessary for us to celebrate Christmas with the same ecstatic joy the enveloped the angels and the shepherds in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, when the good news of Jesus’ birth was first announced to the world? The one thing we absolutely need is given to us in the Gospel today as our final preparation for Christmas. The one indispensable thing we need to celebrate Christmas with unspeakable joy is faith, the faith manifested to us by the Virgin-Mother herself, whose deep faith enabled her to receive the Word of God so totally that He not only dwelled fully in her soul, but took flesh in her womb as well.
It is the faith of the Virgin that is presented to us as the key to our Christmas celebration, our Christmas joy, for only if we approach Christmas imitating Mary’s faith, will we be able to experience the coming of Christ into our hearts as she experienced the coming of Christ into her womb, filled with wonder and a joy which is indescribable to anyone who does not share that same faith. Without faith like Mary’s, Christmas becomes, at best, a sentimental holiday for families to get together, at worst a crass, materialistic, spending binge that makes merchants happier than those whose celebration is reduced to helping to spark the recovery of our economy.
We know what faith in Christmas means in terms of content; that we truly believe, as Mary did, that the child conceived in her womb and marvelously born on Christmas day is not simply another human child, even though he shares our human nature completely. No, true faith recognizes this child as Emmanuel, God with us, God made man, sharing our human destiny even to the point of lowering himself to become a weak and defenseless child, just as we all were one day. Jesus is the fulfillment of all human hope expressed by Isaiah in the first reading today: The LORD also reveals to you that he will establish a house for you. . . . I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. Jesus is himself the house established by God, the temple of God’s glory, a house in which all nations are to be gathered together and come to know the Salvation of our God.
Yes, true Christian faith rejoices not only in the fact of God’s appearance in human form, but in the astounding truth that He has come into this world for us, pro nobis, for us, and for our salvation. Indeed our faith tells us what this salvation really entails, that God has become man, has lowered himself to share our humanity so that he might raise us up to share his Divinity, His divine Life forever. Just as he has become our human brother in the Incarnation, so he enables us to become His divine brothers and sisters forever.
This is what authentic Christian faith believes about Christmas, and it is a body of truth that overwhelms our minds and hearts if we truly believe it with all our mind and heart as Mary did. But how many Christians believe these things, without reservations of any sort, with the simplicity of a child of God, the simplicity of Mary who said without any reservation, “May it be done to me according to your word.”
Mary shows us the full meaning of faith, the perfection of faith, the complete surrender of her mind and heart, which means her total life, to the word of God. Only when our faith is imitating hers, only when it is moving toward a total faith, only then can we hold these truths in such a way that they give us the experience of the joy she felt when she conceived and then bore God’s son.
Notice the elements of the Gospel and how they teach us about faith. First, Mary is confused when she hears God’s word from the Angel, she does not understand it, and she is troubled simply by His greeting -full of grace and wondered what this meant. Mary is not unlike us in this at least, for she too is at first dazed by God’s word, and finds herself confused as to what it means. But unlike us, at least at times, she does not close herself off to this word, does not reject the message simply because she does not fully comprehend it, and so the angel expands his message. “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.”
As to these words, Mary understands what he is telling her, that she is to be the mother of the Chosen One, and she does not hesitate to believe. Mary does not question that it will happen, as the Angel says – she accepts its unconditional truth, that God intends her to a mother -but now she simply asks how she can fulfill this vocation since she has evidently vowed herself to virginity, even in her marriage: “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” Her unconditional surrender of her mind and whole person is made clear by the fact that she is not struck deaf for her question “how” like Zachary was for his questioning. Zachary’s “how” had been a skeptical question, a real doubt that it could happen to himself and Elizabeth in their old age. But Mary’s “how” is simply a request for guidance as to how she can accomplish this, whether she will have to surrender her vow of virginity?
The Angel then clarifies this matter of how, that she will not be required to surrender her vowed virginity, pledged to God, but will be overshadowed by the power of the Spirit who will bring about this miraculous conception with no cooperation of man. The clarification made, Mary immediately responds with total faith, the total surrender of her whole person, body and soul to God’s will: “May it be done to me according to your word.” The beauty of the message is completed by the beauty of her faith.
The wording of this full surrender of Mary in faith is akin to and the imitation of Jesus’ own words on the Cross, “Into your hands, Father I entrust my spirit.” Mary’s“May it be done to me” is the total surrender of her will, which means concretely the total surrender of her very life into the hands of the Father. For Mary these words literally put her life in the Father’s hands, for if a Jewish wife were found with child before she lived with her husband, the law said she could be stoned as an adulteress. Mary could hardly prove her innocence, there were no precedents of a virginal conception, but she nonetheless entrusts herself completely into the hands of the Lord God, whatever may happen to her as a result of her yes to this child.
That is what perfect faith entails; nothing less will satisfy the full interior demands of the act of faith itself: total surrender. Faith in us means imitating the surrender of ourselves into the Father’s hands, in imitation of the act by which we were redeemed, the “into your hands Father: of Jesus Our Redeemer. Mary’s faith was perfect because her surrender was the most perfect imitation of her son’s.
Our redemption then actually began with Mary’s act of faith, her surrender of faith, and it was fully accomplished by Jesus sacrifice, his free surrender on the Cross, and that redemption is effected in us by our free surrender to the Father in faith and baptism. Christian faith will understand all this, and that is why Christian faith is the absolutely necessary source of the true Christmas spirit, the unrivaled Christmas Joy. The more perfect the faith, the greater the joy.
During this final week of Advent, our final preparation for Christmas, let us sincerely ask our Mother Mary, the woman of faith, how to say yes to God this Christmas as completely as possible for each of us, so that we may know proportionately to our faith God’s joy, know it together with her, the joy of the Christmas that never ends, the Eternal Christmas, where Jesus is eternally begotten from the Father, as his holy ones marvel at his human birth which brought us salvation, Amen.