A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for December 23, 2012, the Fourth Sunday of Advent | Carl E. Olson
Ps 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19
St. Augustine, in his treatise, “On Holy Virginity,” made
this profound, even startling, statement: “Thus also her nearness as a Mother
would have been of no profit to Mary, had she not borne Christ in her heart
after a more blessed manner than in her flesh.”
In that single line, the great Doctor anticipated the
objections voiced by many Protestants while also explaining the honor and love
shown by Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox) for the Theotokos, the Mother of God. I heard and repeated, while
growing up in a Protestant home of Fundamentalist persuasion, many of those
objections: “Mary was just an ordinary woman,” “Mary was not sinless,” and, of
course, “Catholics worship Mary!” People would sometimes go to extremes to
avoid any appearance of praise for Mary. A close relative once told me that
Mary had merely been a “biological vessel” for the baby Jesus!
Two things changed my mind: reading actual Catholic teaching about Mary and
re-reading Scripture. The first came from a sense of fairness toward what I
didn’t know; the second came from a growing (and hardly characteristic) humility about what I thought I
knew. Sure, I had read the opening chapters of the Gospel of Luke many times.
But I must have read it dozens of times before I began to slowly comprehend the
astonishment of the Annunciation, the wonder of Elizabeth’s ecstatic greeting,
the magnitude of the Magnificat.
Today’s Gospel reading follows the Annunciation and immediately
precedes the Canticle of Mary. The young Mary, told by Gabriel that she had
found favor with God and would bear a son, eventually sets out to see
Elizabeth, also pregnant with a son. Having already been confirmed by a
heavenly messenger of God, Mary was then confirmed by her own flesh and blood
in words heard and repeated by countless faithful through the centuries:
“Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
To be blessed is to have found favor with God, to be filled with the gracethe
supernatural lifeof God. It is to possess the kingdom by belonging to the King
(cf. Matt 5:3, 10). As mother of the King of kings, Mary bore the kingdom
within her. As mother of the Messiah, she is also the mother of the Church.
Pope John Paul II, in Redemptoris Mater (1987),
wrote that “in her new motherhood in the Spirit, Mary embraces each and every
one in the Church, and embraces each and every one through the Church” (par.
Mary and Elizabeth, bearing their sonsone a prophet, the
other the Son of Godprefigure the Church that would later be born from the
side of the crucified Lord and made manifest on Pentecost (see CCC 766, 1076).
Blessed by the Father, impregnated by the power of the Holy Spirit, and filled
with the Son, the Virgin brings joy and gladness into the dark, silent womb of
man’s deepest longing.
Like St. Augustine, John Paul II provided a profound reflection on the belief
and faith of Mary. In the expression “Blessed are you who believed,” he wrote,
“we can therefore rightly find a kind of ‘key’ which unlocks for us the
innermost reality of Mary, whom the angel hailed as ‘full of grace.’ If as
‘full of grace’ she has been eternally present in the mystery of Christ,
through faith she became a sharer in that mystery in every extension of her
earthly journey” (par. 19). The miracle of Mary’s pregnancy and Virgin birth go
hand in hand with the mystery of faith.
At Christmas we celebrate the birth of the Christ child
while recognizing that Christ always remains in the heart of Mary. Having given
birth to the Savior at one particular moment in time, Mary has continued to
give the Savior to the world ever since. It is her one desire, her unending
gift of joy and life to each of us. “And how does this happen to me,” we ask ourselves,
“that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the December 20, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)