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This Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Advent Year C, could be called “Mary Sunday.” Each year, the Church prepares for Christmas in this last week by looking to the Blessed Mother.
The readings this year stress just how extraordinary and unique Mary is — and just how ordinary and alike every other Christian she is at exactly the same time.
Key details from Sunday’s readings point to Mary’s greatness.
The Old Testament prophet Micah predicts Mary in the first reading, saying that “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.” All heaven and earth await that time, “when she who is to give birth has borne.”
The first line of the Gospel subtly explains just how grand Mary is. Luke says Mary “set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah,” and the words recall how David arose and went to the same region to retrieve the ark of the covenant, the throne of God. There are many parallels in the two stories:
This all recalls the vision of the ark of the covenant in Revelation when “God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, loud noises, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail” (Rev. 11:9)
And what did the ark look like? The ark looked like Mary: “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” who “brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations” (Rev. 12).
The celestial Ark of the Covenant is like Our Lady of Guadalupe appearing to all the angels of heaven.
Mary is truly extraordinary, but for one reason and one reason only: Her relationship to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In Luke’s Gospel, eight verses in a row each tell us why Mary is great.
From Luke 1:41-45, Luke tells us:
Those are all in Sunday’s Gospel; in Luke 1: 47-49 they are followed by several more affirmations of the same kind: We learn Mary’s “soul magnifies the Lord,” and that “all generations” will call her blessed because “he who is mighty has done great things for me.”
Mary is not great in herself. Her cooperation with God’s will makes her great.
Elizabeth recognizes the true greatness of Mary, and it is the true greatness of every Christian.
The Fathers of the Church saw all of this clearly. They knew that Mary was unique (Dave Armstrong collects the evidence here) but they also knew that we should be like her:
Elizabeth was “touched with the spirit of prophecy,” said St. Gregory the Great. “She knew that Mary had believed the promises of the Angel; she perceived when she gave her the name of mother, that Mary was carrying in her womb the Redeemer of mankind; and when she foretold that all things would be accomplished, she saw also what was as to follow in the future.”
And what was to follow in the future? The redemption of all of us, including Mary, by Christ born in the manger and sacrificed on the cross, for one thing. But for another, that moment in Christ’s public ministry when he would “Who is my mother?” and indicating his followers in the room with him, add, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister and mother.”
That means more than just Mary is his mother. Just as Elizabeth prophetically praised Mary as, “you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled,” Ambrose praised we Christians who would follow, saying:
“You are also blessed who have heard and believed,” he said. “For a soul that has believed has both conceived and bears the Word of God and declares his works. Let the soul of Mary be in each of you, so that it magnifies the Lord. Let the spirit of Mary be in each of you, so that it rejoices in God. She is the one mother of Christ according to the flesh, yet Christ is the Fruit of all according to faith. Every soul receives the Word of God, provided that, undefiled and unstained by vices, it guards its purity with inviolate modesty.”
So our mission for the final week of Advent is the same as Mary’s.
The Second Reading, from Hebrews, describes what is needed from Christ’s people:
“First he says, ‘Sacrifices and offerings and 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 you will. .. By this ‘will’ we have been consecrated through the offering of Jesus Christ once and for all.”
We are consecrated to Jesus Christ in baptism, where the Holy Spirit overshadows us and the Most High comes upon us, and we unite with his one offering when we receive him into our bodies at each Mass.
That makes our reception of Christ just like Mary’s, and it means that our ordinary Christian lives take on a cosmic dimension. She was great because she went to the hill country as the New Ark of the Covenant — but she was also great because she rushed to the hill country to help her cousin with daily household chores.
Our greatness will be revealed in the great celebration of Christ at Christmas — but also in the small acts of charity we do for others every day this week.
Image: samurijohnny Flickr