[Homily. Fourth Sunday of Advent. Simbanggabi. Dec. 20, 1915)
We are celebrating the fourth Sunday in Advent. Our Christmas stress has heightened. The Christmas shopping is still not done. Those gifts for the kids have yet to be purchased; those festive foods and groceries for the family need to be acquired. The stores are busy with shoppers, the lines are longer than ever. The streets are more and more clogged.
So we are happy that we can get away from it all – at least for a while! – at our Simbanggabi Masses. Simbanggabi may not help us with our shopping and our gift giving. But it may help us to enter the mystery of the season more fully. We come to Mass in the darkness of night. We worship longing for the dawn.
The symbols and cyphers of our Gospel readings are very simple. But the overall message is overpowering. Ultimately, Life conquers death. Light dispels the darkness. The dawn vanquishes the night.
Yesterday, we heard the story of how John the Baptist was to be born. It involved an elderly high priest, Zechariah, and his barren wife, Elisabeth. Both had suffered in her being unable to bear a child; this was a cause for deep personal shame for them, especially for Elisabeth; being barren was often regarded as a punishment from God. But the gospel assures us that Zechariah and Elisabeth were righteous. Her being barren, apparently, had nothing to do with punishment and everything to do with the mysterious way God deals with us. As Zechariah was about to offer incense in the Holy of Holies, he is given a message from on high that Elisabeth in her old age will give birth to a child who would be a source of joy and gladness for all, and whose name would be John. One can sympathize with Zechariah in his incredulity. Basically his response was: “I’ve dealt with Elisabeth’s barrenness over many years. It’s been a cause of disappointment and pain for us. I don’t believe you; I can’t believe you. Sarah is barren. We’ve tried many times. Now, she is too old; so am I. We can’t have children. Your impossible news may hurt her.” His incredulity was offensive to the messenger of God, and harmful to himself. As a punishment, he was struck dumb until what had been foretold would come true.
Today, we should have heard the parallel Simbanggabi proclamation of how Jesus was to be born. We didn’t, because today is Sunday, and we take the readings from the schedule of Sunday readings, not of Simbanggabi. But that story of the Annunciation is important background for our Gospel for today, the Visitation. The Angel Gabriel also announces to Mary how Jesus would be born. “Hail, full of grace the Lord is with you. … You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.” Like Zechariah, Mary too must question the angel. But unlike Zechariah, her questions were not from incredulity and cynicism, but from her faith sincerely seeking understanding. “How can this be? I have no relations with a man.” The angel replied: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elisabeth, your relative has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who had been called barren; for nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1:36-37)
Our gospel for today takes place some months after the annunciation. Elisabeth, the barren one, and Mary, the virgin, are both pregnant, Elisabeth six months more advanced than Mary. Thinking that she could be of assistance to her elderly cousin as the birth of John neared, she made the journey to Elisabeth’s home in the hill country. When Mary had greeted Elisabeth and Zechariah, Elisabeth responded, “Most 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 the moment your greeting reached my ear, the infant in my womb leaped” (Lk1: 42-45) The Visitation was not only of Mary to Elisabeth, but John the Baptist’s recognition of Jesus in the womb of Mary. Later, it would be John the Baptist who points Jesus out to the people, “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29).
Mary then responds to Elisabeth with her Magnificat:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. / My spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness. / Behold from now on all generations will call me blessed…
The Magnificat praises God who had lavished so many blessings on her as she consented to cooperate in his work of salvation:
The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him (Lk 46-50).
As we know, eventually Zechariah accepted the truth of the Angel’s message, named his child John, and blessed the Lord for his awesome work of redemption.
For God nothing is impossible. God works with an old, barren women, and from her raises a Prophet. God works with a lowly virgin, and makes her the Mother of the Messiah. Nothing is impossible. God works to save the universe, but makes his entire project contingent on the consent of a virgin. That consent given, he shows the might of his arm, disperses the arrogant of mind and heart, pulls down rulers from their thrones, lifts up the lowly. The hungry he fills with good things, the rich he sends away empty (cf Lk 51-53). God continues to ask this consent of us as Christmas approaches, that his gifts may be more fully lavished on the world: that the deaf may hear, the blind see, the lame walk, that the conflicted and quarreling, come to peace. God works, so that the impossible become possible, that selfishness and avarice be overcome, that social justice be done in the common good, and that those who have life, may “have life in abundance, life to the full” (Jn:10:10). But not without seeking the consent of those with whom he lived and worked, not by keeping them in darkness, not without their consenting faith, “Let it be done to me according to your word (Lk 1:39).
“In the tender compassion of our God,“ Zechariah eventually proclaims, “the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and guide our feet in the way of peace” (Lk 1:78-79).