Of all the weeks of Advent, the fourth is always the shortest. Perhaps there is some symbolism in this since meteorologically the days of this week are those with the least amount of light during the year. That the time is short makes the fourth week the most intense in our longing for the Messiah. We begin to shift from the journey to the destination; we move from the day-by-day traveling to the site of the manger. What is obvious, though, is the movement, however so slight it seems to be. We are following the star to Bethlehem, and we are in heightened awareness that the Holy One is about to be born in a stable with the angels and Mary’s dear husband, St. Joseph, in attendance. Every fiber of our spiritual being should be on alert for the awe and wonder of the moment which is nearly nigh. Our spiritual ears strain over the ‘baaing’ of the sheep on a starlit night to be ready for the songs of angels and the joy of Heaven. But we are not quite there yet, so we wait, working to make an empty space in our own hearts so that Jesus can fill it anew. We long for the moment when, as the Psalmist says, “Out of Zion’s perfect beauty He shines. Our God comes, He keeps silence no longer.” (Psalm 50:2-3)
The readings for the liturgies surrounding the fourth week of Advent point to one resounding truth: the impossible becomes possible. The first reading for Sunday (Micah 5:1-4a) begins with the prophet Micah pronouncing that Bethlehem-Ephrathah, too small to even be considered viable among the clans of Judah, is the locale from whence the Messiah will hail. Though He is a king, He will be born in humility to poor parents in this unlikely place. With sin and repentance in seemingly endless cycles, with the unfathomable love and mercy of God continuing to keep the people able to hope with gratitude, that for which humanity had longed was closer than ever. The greatness of Heaven would reside in Him, and the ‘totality’ of the incomprehensible God would reside in a fully human baby. As if that is not enough, Micah tells us: “He shall be peace.” In a world sorely in need of peace, this is truly the impossible becoming possible. If God can come into the world in the way Micah described, (and indeed He did), then we see that nothing is impossible, absolutely nothing, is impossible with God. He is peace and He is endless hope and mercy.
The second reading for Sunday from the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb. 10:5-10) tells us that the blood of animals given in holocausts really did not cleanse sin. Instead, these holocausts were prophetic in that they told of what was to come: the Messiah would come to do the will of the Father, offering His life as the once-for-all sacrifice of mercy and forgiveness. In other words, that which the blood of bulls could not cleanse because it was not possible to do, was made possible in the sacrifice of Jesus: the impossible becomes possible in Jesus the Lord. This tiny baby born in the manger would do what no one before Him was able to do because He alone is God. His death and resurrection defeated the power of sin once for all and the sacraments which He left bring us into this process. For this we long: when Jesus returns all will be brought to completion so that the impossible is made possible in God.
Finally, in the Gospel (Luke 1:39-45) we have the encounter of Mary and Elizabeth. To put it in context, Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth, was given a message which he really did not understand. He protested the angel’s meaning, given that as a priest it was outside that which he had been taught: there was no such thing as a messiah in his mind, so his son-to-come could not be a forerunner of said messiah. Zechariah was a good man, but he did not know that the impossible was possible. He had to be stretched a bit, but he believed enough to cooperate, and his wife Elizabeth became pregnant. Elizabeth did believe that the impossible was possible and therefore received the child (John) into her womb and began the difficult process of being pregnant while ‘in her old age.’ Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Elizabeth, her young cousin Mary was being told of her own ‘impossible’ pregnancy: she who would know no man was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and now was pregnant with God’s own Son.
Mary’s response to the impossible being done in her, having freely given herself into God’s complete care, was to enter fully into His mercy so much so that it propelled her outward to serve her older cousin. When Elizabeth heard Mary enter her home, she was so moved to be in the presence of God, though cognitively unknowing, she burst out in joy: “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.” Through the power of the Holy Spirit, she not only knew that Mary was pregnant, but she knew that it was with the Son of God. Furthermore, she knew that God had spoken to Mary and that Mary had believed and acted upon it. Elizabeth acknowledged that the impossible was made possible in Mary and rejoiced that Mary had responded with a ‘yes.’
Elizabeth’s question is what needs to be highlighted. Indeed she was filled with much joy because she was filled with knowledge that was so intimate that it could have only come from the Holy Spirit; even the baby in her womb responded. Yet, humbly she is filled with gratitude-laden awe asking how the mother of her Lord should come to her. It is a reflective question. The only answer is that God has chosen her for something special, which is as much about bearing John as it is about being chosen for an intimate encounter with the living God. As we approach the Feast of the Nativity we should be asking the same question, one which should bring us to our knees in amazement that the impossible is made possible for us, too.
The Mother of our Lord comes to us because her role is always to bring Jesus into our world. And truly, she did not choose us: God did. But we are not to sit back and watch this event unfold; rather, we are meant to participate in it. We must actively welcome Mary who comes with the One she bears in her womb with love beyond all telling. It is she who we join - (with Joseph, too) - as we travel those last grueling days to Bethlehem and follow her into the stable for the time when she will give birth. We are not to sit slack-jawed in bewilderment, but to move through that which is difficult so that we can arrive with open hearts for the little Child. She wants us to come into the stable, not desperate, but filled with hope, echoing the Psalmist with the cry of delight: “Out of Zion’s perfect beauty, He shines. Our God comes, He keeps silence no longer.”
Only if we are like Elizabeth, our hearts leaping with joy, but yet allowing Mary to help with that which needs to come to birth within us, can we continue on to Bethlehem. We need to let Mary lead us with joyful expectation into the most difficult and perilous part of the journey of our own lives during these last days of Advent. Just as the angel Gabriel said to Zechariah (and to Mary and Joseph at different times), he says to us: “Be not afraid.” We need to move out unafraid to the poor, the homeless, the traveler, the exile, the foreigner or stranger (in any way), the lonely, the ill, the angry, the betrayed, the suffering and those who are trying to alleviate the suffering of loved ones, and we need to attend to any areas in ourselves that are as such. Compassion and mercy are not just for the other; they are also for us to give to ourselves. We need to bring the impossible into the realm of possibility through our prayer, and ultimately through our trust in God. If we let them, Mary and Elizabeth will help us to prepare our hearts for the quiet of the stable on a starlit winter night. They will prepare us to sing with the Psalmist: “Out of Zion’s perfect beauty He shines. Our God comes, He keeps silence no longer.” Let us embrace the reality that with God nothing is impossible.
May we be able to pray: ‘How does this happen to me, that the Lord of the Universe should come to me? Blessed are we who believe that the promise of the Lord would be fulfilled!’ May we continue the journey of these last few days of Advent, difficult as they may be, trusting in the promise of God! May we open our hearts to all those who are in need of God’s healing touch! May we be filled with gratitude that we have been invited into this journey and into the stable! And may we know God’s presence, shining in perfect beauty, as the Word is spoken on that night for which we long! Let us meet in the stable! Come quickly Lord! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first image is an enlargement of one part of an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It is the Star of Bethlehem which is above the Holy Family in his icon The Holy Family for the Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem. It can be found with three different 'frames' at his webpage. I used this one, though the frame is not visible: http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-holy-family-for-the-holy-family-hospital-of-bethlehem-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
Next are the Advent candles, all lit, for this last week of Advent.
Third, is the work of Bl. Fra Angelico. It is another version of The Visitation, different than the one I used last week. This one is from the predella of the Annunciation Altarpiece (c.1430-32). http://www.repro-tableaux.com/a/fra-angelico/visitation-from-the-prede.html
The next two are icons of Mary by Fr. William Hart McNichols. The first is Mother of God Waiting in Adoration, found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/mother-of-god-waiting-in-adoration-248-william-hart-mcnichols.html
The second is called Mary of the Magnificat Mother of the Poor. It is found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/mary-of-the-magnificat-mother-of-the-poor-091-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Finally is one of my photos: a single rose, which I chose because I had the lyrics to the wonderful Advent hymn, Lo How a Rose Ere Blooming, in mind. Here are the lyrics:
For a wonderful rendition of this hymn, listen to the Moreau Seminary Schola (Priests and Brothers of Holy Cross) singing it at worship at Moreau Seminary in Indiana. Just stunning! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLEoTyGB9XM
Heart Speaks to Heart