Advent 4c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.
It really is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and that is only to be expected since it’s just two days away — even closer if you count as the Jewish people did from sundown on the night before: Christmas will begin tomorrow at sundown, and we will welcome Christ’s coming with worship at 6 PM.
So it is no surprise the scriptures resound with such a Christmas spirit: that first reading today reminded us of the little town of Bethlehem — no doubt this was the Scripture that inspired Phillips Brooks to write that famous hymn; and it’s nice to know that that preacher, Phillips Brooks, himself once stood in this very pulpit when he preached at the wedding of the third rector of this church, with whom he had worked up in Boston.
However, lest we jump the gun and get too deeply into Christmas before it has actually arrived — even though it is awfully close — our gospel passage today forcefully puts us further into the sacred backstory, shortly after Mary had herself received the archangel’s greeting, “Hail, Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with you.” It has been a year since we heard that passage — on Advent Four last December; it has taken us a year to move from Gabriel greeting Mary to Elizabeth greeting Mary; from the Annunciation to the Visitation. John the Baptist, who will announce his Lord’s coming in the wilderness, even though he is still in Elizabeth’s womb, cannot suppress his excitement that his even more recently conceived Lord has come near — and he leaps up and moves in Elizabeth’s womb, and she is herself inspired, filled with the Holy Spirit, to call out that cry of joy and acclamation, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
You will of course immediately recognize that between the archangel’s greeting last year and Elizabeth’s greeting this year we have the entirety of that very ancient prayer, the Hail Mary, or Ave Maria. I say the whole of it, that is of the original version of that prayer before the Roman Catholic Church chose to add the additional words asking Mary to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” — that was a late addition from the stormy years of the Reformation, and one which, to be frank, has always struck me as a bit of a downer in the midst of the joy of those initial greetings of blessing and favor. As we did last year, we will conclude our worship this morning with the Angelus, a traditional way of reciting this beautiful scriptural prayer in its original form.
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But there is something far more important to note here than even the most beautiful prayer. And that is both the leaping up of the unborn John the Baptist and the affirmation that Elizabeth pronounces over Mary — that is, the reason she is blessed among women: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Mary is blessed in so many ways, from beginning to end: almost the first words the Archangel said to her affirmed that she was full of grace, or as some translations have it, “highly favored.” She is blessed in her obedience, in her willingness to accept the promise of the Lord and all of the embarrassment it might bring. She is blessed in having a husband like Joseph — a loving husband — a man who could have had her stoned to death when he discovered she was pregnant and not by him; a man who chose instead to heed the word of the Lord when it came to him as well, telling him not to take offense, but to accept the work of God, the working out of God’s purposes, that had been promised, promised for so many centuries, and yet were coming into reality even there and then.
Mary was blessed in having a cousin like Elizabeth, herself no small miracle, for she was, as our translation very politely puts it, “getting on in years,” and was considered barren, because she had never borne a child — and yet God’s same archangel Gabriel visited her husband Zechariah and assured him that his wife would bear a son who would be great, who would be the one to go before the Lord and announce his coming, to make ready a people prepared for coming of their Lord. The news struck Zechariah literally speechless, but for Elizabeth it was a blessing, a blessing that she shared with Mary when that child, so unexpected, moved for the first time, in her womb, leaped up for joy — beginning his ministry of announcing the Lord’s presence even before he was born.
And of course, Mary responded to that acclamation with her own song — the song we sang as our psalmody this morning, and in a metrical version as the Gospel hymn, that magnificent outpouring of thanksgiving known as the Magnificat: My soul magnifies the Lord.
In a way, that song is a culmination of all the blessings — blessings such as only a poor and humble person who is suddenly given incredible honors could possibly understand. It is the song of those who were cast down being raised up, the song of the hungry being fed, the song of rescue and release from captivity. These are the blessings that Mary knew in her heart of hearts, as she stored them all up.
And there is no doubt that she drew on that store — that store of blessing — and shared it with her child, Jesus, as he grew to maturity. She passed these things along to him — the one who would go on to preach release to the captives, to challenge the mighty on their thrones, to lift up the lowly by healing the sick and the suffering; by filling the hungry with bread from heaven; and by counseling the rich to give up all that they have, that their hands might be open to receive the true blessings that come from above, the blessings of life and salvation. It is easy to see that Jesus takes after his heavenly Father in his divine nature; but also very easy to see how he takes after his earthly mother in his human nature.
It is all about the blessing, you see, the blessing that came upon the one who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord. It was not just the fulfillment of her pregnancy and the miraculous birth. It was as well the fulfillment of the life of that child who lived out all of those promised blessings about which Mary sang.
It is a song we too can sing, not only with our lips but in our lives — to let our lives be canticles of thanksgiving, shouting blessings and multiplying them in the way that good things do when they are shared; for one good turn does not just deserve another — one good and gracious act can give rise to so many others; one act of kindness and generosity and grace can change someone’s life — and that life can become full of grace and yet more grace, abundant and amazing.
So let us give thanks for Mary the mother of our Lord, for Elizabeth her cousin, for John the Baptist and Zechariah, and for Joseph — this holy extended family who formed the loving and blessed environment into which the holy child was born, in which he grew to manhood, and through whom he fulfilled the purposes for which God had prepared a body for him — not just his own body, but the body of a faithful and loving and believing family, who trusted and believed in the fulfillment of what the Lord had promised. “Blessed is she — and all — who have believed that there would be fulfillment of what was spoken” and who do the will of God. Bless you all, my sisters and brothers , and may you — like them — be a blessing to others. We too can begin to look a lot like Christmas when we do God’s will.+