The 4th Sunday of Advent
One commentator on today’s gospel imagines Mary as torn between conflicting desires at the time of her annunciation.
She feels deeply drawn to both motherhood and a life of solitary prayer. We might say she feels the pull between the generative and the contemplative.
In the moment of her annunciation, she grasps that her apparently conflicting desires were in fact one and that God’s will for her fulfills this desire beyond her highest hopes.
Not only her personal desire but that of her people. The child to be born to Mary will fulfill—a hundredfold, in an astonishing way— Israel’s dream of a restored Davidic kingship.
In almost the same moment that Mary realized God’s call to her was the fulfillment of her heart’s desire, and the resolution of her inner divisions, she would have grasped that her ‘yes’—which our commentator underlines was an expression of joy— opened the way to scandal.
As an unwed pregnant teenage girl, perhaps as young as 14, Mary faced the likelihood of censure, slander and even being stoned to death. At the very least she would be shamed and excluded.
She had to say ‘yes’ to God’s call in the face of hostile accusers, some envious villagers, no doubt, all the more eager to smear her reputation precisely because of her purity.
Jesus would have grown up in the shadow of this perceived scandal, painfully aware of rumors about his unusual birth. We can see here perhaps the deeply personal root of his sensitivity to the outcast, and his attacks on the censorious pharisees.
Mary finds courage to say ‘yes’ to the Lord despite the scandal and misunderstanding sure to follow because she is completely confident that God is with and for her: ‘God with us’ to the point of taking flesh and sharing our joys and sorrows.
Mary would suffer—rumors and worse in her village, living in the shadow of a brutal occupying empire, traveling while pregnant and giving birth in a stable, narrowly escaping Herod’s soldiers out to kill her son…and she can endure bravely because through it all she finds God fulfilling her heart’s desire “a hundredfold, with persecutions.”
These experiences prepare her for her greatest challenge.
Over the course of his ministry, Mary watched and pondered as Jesus encountered increasingly hostile and organized opposition. She understands that Jesus too is fulfilling a mission that both answers to the deepest longing of his heart—to share God’s mercy with the world— and demands immense courage and willingness to suffer.
All of this culminates on the cross. Mary stands by Jesus faithfully. But her anguish was immense and she must have been sorely tempted to despair. It must have seemed that all the promise of her annunciation, everything she suffered, and the great hope held out by Jesus’ life and ministry… had come to nothing.
Was all of it to end now in death and failure? Was God to be thwarted by human
wickedness? or was he unfaithful to his promise? was it all some kind of perverse dream?
Perhaps she recalled the ominous words of Simeon she had long pondered, the words about Jesus becoming a sign of contradiction, and a sword that would pierce her heart.
As at the time of her annunciation she held together two contradictory realities, her desire to become a mother and her attraction to God alone, so now she held together both the brutal degradation and death of Christ, and the great promise of his testimony.
She knew by experience, knew in her bones, that what is impossible for us is possible to God. She had seen him turn contradiction into joy and fruitfulness beyond imagining.
At the foot of the cross, I think a profound serenity must have somehow coincided in Mary’s heart, with the most unbearable suffering.
In our own calling, each of us in different ways, hold together a desire for God alone and a pull to communion with one another.
To pursue our call, to follow our deepest heart’s desire, to find it stretched and expanded again and again by that call, demands the willingness to undergo estrangement and misunderstanding, accusation and hostility.
Like Mary, we can say a joyful ‘yes’ to our call because God is with and for us…even to taking flesh to dwell among us, even to death on a cross.
Because God so loved the world, “A child is born for us, a son is given to us.” With Mary we can say not only ‘yes’ to God but a joyful yes, as we recognize in our vocation the
fulfillment of our heart’s desire and the way through all that divides us.
We can say with St Paul: If God is [with and] for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son but gave him up for all of us, how will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who
justifies. Who is to condemn?… There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God [made flesh] in Christ Jesus our Lord.