4th Sunday of Advent
Dec. 20, 2015
Luke 1: 39-45
Renewal of Profession
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.
At this Saturday vigil Mass, in the presence of about 25 layfolk regularly attending and some of the local Christian Brothers, one of the student brothers from Africa renewed his temporary vows.
“At the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1: 44).
The Virgin Mary has just had her own visitation, the appearance of Archangel Gabriel to her to invite her to become mother of the savior. She’s declared herself the Lord’s humble handmaid, ready to do whatever he asks. The angel has given her a sign that the Lord’s Word is good; her elderly kinswoman Elizabeth is 6 months pregnant.
(Luke never tells us how old Elizabeth is, only [3x] that she’s “advanced in years.” In the 1st century, that may have meant she was in her mid- or late 40s. No reflection on present company—especially since I’m right up there with you!)
Immediately Mary goes to visit Elizabeth. She goes bearing her Son in her womb; she is already Theotokos—“God-bearer,” the beloved title of the Eastern Churches for her. Furthermore, the Son of God in her womb is already an active presence among humanity, recognized by both holy Elizabeth and her unborn son (who will be named John and nicknamed “the Baptist”).
Elizabeth responds to Mary’s presence with words of praise for both Mary and the One who will be named Jesus after his birth, and with wonderment that “the mother of my Lord should come to me” (1:43). Elizabeth has already experienced the wonder, the miracle, of a completely unexpected pregnancy, one beyond the normal course of nature. Now she marvels that her Lord should come directly to her.
The wonder of the incarnation of God’s only-begotten Son is that he should come to us at all. In no other religion is God so personal, so close, literally so down-to-earth! The book of Proverbs speaks of divine Wisdom’s “delight in the children of men” (8:31); Jesus, the Wisdom of God in person, delights to come to us, to share our humanity and restore us to the place in the heavenly household that we had forfeited by sin. God delights to be among us! Elizabeth was surprised, and perhaps we too are surprised. But after the incarnation and after the gift of the Holy Eucharist, how can we be surprised that God wants to be with us? Furthermore, isn’t another name for Jesus Emmanuel?
Unborn John the Baptist recognizes the presence of his unborn Lord in Mary’s womb and “leaps for joy.” God-with-us is cause for joy! The God who delights to be among us brings us joy, brings us pleasure in his company. The God who sings to us of his love for us in the Song of Songs invites our own loving response. The female persona, representing Israel, exclaims, “I sought him whom my heart loves” (3:1). The Song cites the mutual excitement of the lovers in such verses as: “Hark! my lover!—here he comes springing across the mountains, leaping across the hills” (Song 2:8)—a verse that may be in the back of Luke’s mind as he portrays Mary’s visit to the hill country of Judah; and “Let me see you, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and you are lovely” (3:14).
Advent is a season of joyful anticipation of God’s coming to be with us and thru his union with us to save us. Last Sunday was Gaudete Sunday: rejoice, for the Lord is near! In a few days we’ll be singing “Joy to the World.”
And in a few minutes we’ll have the joy of Bro. Paul’s renewing of his temporary vows as a Christian Brother; the joy of witnessing his response to God’s personal love for him thru a commitment to live for God and to love God and his neighbor in the special calling of being a brother.
I’m not familiar with the particulars of the Brothers’ Constitutions, of course. Our SDB Constitutions commit us to be “signs and bearers of God’s love for young people, especially those who are poor” (art. 2). I imagine that the Brothers have some similar ideal, whether it’s verbalized or not. In terms of today’s gospel reading, Bro. Paul is committing himself to be like the Virgin Mary, to bear Christ to the young or whomever the Congregation will send him to, and to be a living sign of God’s loving presence to them.
All of us, brothers, are signs of God’s love for his Church thru the way we live like the poor, chaste, and obedient Christ; thru our practice of Christ’s love for young people in our schools and other institutions, and Christ’s love for our brothers in community. We can’t carry Jesus in our wombs like Mary, but we can like her carry him in our hearts—that applies to all us here tonite, not just the religious. St. Augustine famously says that Mary conceived him in her heart before ever she conceived him in the womb; indeed, if she hadn’t had God in her heart, she couldn’t have said, “Be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). So, Paul, you will travel like Mary—perhaps not in haste, perhaps not into any hills—but certainly to the houses of God’s people, i.e., to the places where they dwell and are waiting for God to come to them. You will be God’s presence to them, incarnated in your words and actions and in your heart.
Whatever the particulars of your future mission might be—education or catechesis in some form, I suppose—it will be your mission to bring joy with you. You may not make people literally leap for joy like John in Elizabeth’s womb—altho I’ve heard something about African liturgies; but you must make their hearts and minds leap for joy, bring joyful smiles to their faces—not because they’ve met you but because they’ve met Jesus whom you carry with you.
“A sad saint is a sorry saint,” says St. Francis de Sales. Joyful Christianity is a hallmark of Pope Francis, one of the qualities that makes him so universally appealing. His 1st major message to the Church was the apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel.” The word joy appears in some form 107x in that message. If the Gospel doesn’t make us joyful, how can we expect people to be attracted to it? If we religious aren’t joyful in our vocation, how can we expect young people to want to join us in this way of following Jesus? If we aren’t filled with joy (even when life presents us with inevitable challenges in community, in the apostolate, in our health, in our relations with the wider world), then we’re in the wrong vocation—because God has created us for happiness. You, Paul, must be a witness to that among your brothers, among the young, among everyone wherever God will lead you.