The Fourth Sunday of Advent (C)
Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace
Dear brothers and sisters,
Last weekend, Bishop Silva opened the Holy Door here at this Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace. He did so in accord with the wishes of His Holiness Pope Francis that the Jubilee indulgence might be available to the faithful throughout the world. In his Bull of Indiction for the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, the Holy Father wrote: “It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.” Though he did not explicitly say so, we can be certain that Pope Francis does not want us simply to reflect on the works of mercy, but to put them into action so that our love – and the love of Christ – might be known.
It is within this context, within this moment in the life of the Church, that we hear today of the second joyful mystery of the rosary, the visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Saint Elizabeth (cf. Luke 1:39-56). Saint Luke tells us that 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” (Luke 1:39-40). The village to which she traveled in haste is Ein Karem, which remains a small village even today. It is located a few miles southwest of Jerusalem and means “Spring of the Vineyard.”
|The Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem|
For modern pilgrims traveling from Nazareth to Ein Karem on a chartered bus, the journey takes a little over two hours and pilgrims are surprised to find that the hill country of Judah resembles more a mountainous terrain than it does a hilly countryside. Even with the assistance of Saint Joseph, the journey Mary undertook to visit her kinswoman would have been a difficult one, even if she were not pregnant. Why, then, did she set out in haste?
Before we answer this question, we must remember that the Church has always looked to Our Lady as the model of what the Church is to be, both as the entire People of God and as individual members of the faithful. In other words, whatever Mary does serves as an example of what we, too, should do. Let us, then, return to our question: Why did she set out in haste, pregnant and through mountainous terrain? She set out, I think, to fulfill the works of mercy.
It is true that Mary did not do all of the corporal works of mercy as we usually conceive of them, that is, to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to welcome the stranger, to heal the sick, to the visit the imprisoned, and to bury the dead. We usually think of the corporal works of mercy as extending aid to the destitute. Zechariah and Elizabeth were not destitute, but still they were in need of help.
Nor did Mary set out to perform all of the spiritual works of mercy, to counsel the doubtful, to instruct the ignorant, to admonish sinners, to comfort the afflicted, to forgive offenses, to bear patiently those who do us ill, and to pray for the living and the dead. The Archangel Gabriel already did most of these works following Zechariah’s questioning of the Divine plan.
Nevertheless, in her selfless haste, Mary went to stay with Zechariah and Elizabeth for three months to be of help to the elderly Elizabeth until, it seems, after she gave birth to Saint John the Baptist (cf. Luke 1:36 and 56). During her stay in Ein Karem, Mary not only performed some of the works of mercy as she attended to the daily needs of Elizabeth and Zechariah, she gave herself to them in one great act of loving mercy, in imitation of the Child in her womb. Not considering her own needs, she gave herself over to the needs of others as if in anticipation of the words of her Son: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
In this way, Mary carried out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy as she awaited the First Coming of her Son, that is, until she gave Birth to him and placed him in the manger in Bethlehem. What model, then, what example, is Mary giving to us in her visitation to Elizabeth? She teaches us that we, too, should perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy as we await not only the celebrations of the Birth of Jesus at Christmas, but – above all – his Second Coming when he will come to judge the living and dead. Those who say to the Lord, “Behold, I come to do your will,” follow Mary’s example selflessly by carrying out the works of mercy and they will find on that day that the Lord Jesus will indeed be their peace (Hebrews 10:9; cf. Micah 5:1).
We like to make any number of excuses for not fulfilling the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. We think others are unworthy of our help and wonder why they do not simply take care of themselves. We worry about our own health or safety. We say we do not know the faith well enough or that it is not our place to tell someone else how to live his or life and think others are unworthy of our friendship.
Even in these days leading up to Christmas, we make excuses for not carrying out the works of mercy. We have too much to do and not enough time to do it, we say. But Mary was not concerned with any of these excuses. She saw that Elizabeth was in need and went to give whatever assistance she could, even when Mary could have rightly insisted upon the help of others. She was, after all, carrying the King of kings and the Lord of lords in her womb (cf. Revelation 19:16). If we compare our excuses to the situation of Our Lady, I do not think ours carry much water.
The other day, I heard someone say that it was difficult to find “the spirit of Christmas” this year. We hear such sentiments with greater frequency. Maybe you have even said it yourself. But what is the Christmas spirit? We never seem to define it. Is it not the selflessness we see exemplified in Mary? Is the spirit of Christmas not that of giving without counting the cost or asking if someone can return the favor?
In his classic novel A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens wrote that Ebenezer Scrooge, after his encounter with the spirits of Christmas past, present and future, “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” What, then, did Mr. Scrooge do? Dickens, of course, gives us the answer:
He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
Is this not just another way to say that he became selfless?
As we attend to our final preparations to approach the manger of Our Lord, we see what happened when the Shepherd of Israel heard our pleas, roused his power, and came to save us: he took on our humanity and was born as a helpless infant to suffer on the Cross and die for the forgiveness of sins (Psalm 80:2-3). In the Incarnation, he who alone is truly great and strong, made himself small and weak for us who are small and weak and, yes, sinful. Such is the selflessness of God.
It is this same selflessness that Mary imitated. It is this same selflessness that Father Damien and Mother Marianne imitated. It is this same selflessness that you are I must imitate.
By hastening to give of ourselves in service to others without counting the cost, may the joy of the Lord’s Birth and the wonder of his mercy fill our hearts! By imitating him and contemplating his love, may our hearts laugh and may that be enough for us. Amen.