In Catholic Digest some years ago, storyteller Maula Powers related an old German folktale about a creature called the Advent Devil, who tries to keep people so busy in rushing about that they lose sight of the real meaning of Advent and Christmas. The Advent Devil doesn’t want people to have time to really prepare to experience the rebirth of Christ within themselves. The temptations of the Advent Devil are diabolically clever. The Advent Devil’s business is to keep us so busy with the flow of the secular holiday hustle and bustle and holiday obligations that we forego daily prayer, reading the Scriptures, and Church services. Some of us have been fighting the Advent Devil this year. Just a couple more days! I hope you are in a position to use the little bit of time that’s left to focus on the real meaning of it all.
In our Gospel reading, Mary gives us the counter-example, the antidote, to the Advent devil. As soon as Mary had received the Good News that she would conceive and bear the Messiah, the Son of God, and that her relative Elizabeth, even in her old age, was in her sixth-month of her own pregnancy, it says, Mary “went with haste.” Not in haste in the sense of frantically or recklessly rushing, but in the sense of being focused on what she most needed to do: to visit Elizabeth, to minister her in her time of need, and to see that the sign that the angel had given her was true. She went with haste.
In the canticle of the Purgatorio, the second part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, those souls in purgatory who suffered the vice of sloth, or lukewarmness, distraction by earthly concerns, these souls spent their time in purgatory running the path around their level of the mountain repeating the refrain, “She went with haste.” It was to heal them of their distractions and to focus them, as Mary was focused on the one thing necessary. For Mary, it was the angelic message that God’s promise and the time of the messianic expectation was fulfilled, and that she had been prepared and chosen to be the mother of the Son of God and Son of Man, the Son of David, the light in the darkness, the long awaited Messiah.
Dr. Tony Esolen, in his commentary on Purgatory in the Divine Comedy, in speaking about sloth, quotes St. Thomas Aquinas in calling it “the sin against the Sabbath,” the sin against the joyful, feastful rest; the Sabbath not as a day of inactivity, but of the restful, peaceful, joyful activity of worship. He mentions the 20th century Catholic philosopher Joseph Pieper, who said that sloth is the characteristic sin of our world today, this hamster-treadmill society of constant work, but scant religious zeal. Dr. Esolen then quotes from Dante, describing the band of souls racing past them:
“Straightaway past us on the ring they swept,
for that great throng of spirits ever raced,
and the front runners shouted as they wept,
‘Mary ran to the hill country in haste!”
Nazareth, the home of Mary, is in Galilee, in the low-lying farm-land of the north. Elizabeth lives in the mountainous hill country of Judea, in the south. It took a week or so for Mary to make the journey, where she stayed for three months. This means that when these two holy children encountered each other—the unborn infant John, in his mother Elizabeth’s womb, and the unborn Lord Jesus, the fruit of his mother Mary’s womb—John was about 24 weeks old, and Jesus was barely more than 10-14 days old—neither of whom are considered persons with the dignity of human life by our own country’s laws. But we’re not going in that direction today… that’s a homily for later.
An interesting dynamic of this encounter of the Visitation is that while the specialness of Mary always relies entirely on Jesus her son, Mary here serves as the intercessor, or mediatrix, of her son’s blessings. It is not when Mary approaches Elizabeth that John leaps—it’s not his response to the Lord’s presence or proximity—but the moment Mary’s voice reached Elizabeth’s ears. Mary is the one who mediates the Lord’s presence to them. It’s a beautiful image of the role that Mary plays and the dignity of Mary. It’s Mary’s greeting that leads Elizabeth here to respond.
Although we often say those words of Elizabeth in the prayer of the Hail Mary, Luke is clear that Elizabeth doesn’t just say, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” She shouts it! “Inspired by the Holy Spirit she exclaimed with a loud cry.” So Elizabeth and her unborn son are overcome with joy when she hears the words of Mary.
Elizabeth says, “Why is it granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Again, note the emphasis on Mary. It doesn’t take away from Jesus, but, sometimes people might say Elizabeth is humbled by the fact that Christ comes into her presence. And that’s true, but it isn’t just Christ. It’s the mother of Christ as well. Now that expression, “mother of my Lord,” is important.
For one, the Greek word there is kyrios, which is the standard Greek term for a king or gentleman. But the majority of its use in the Greek Old Testament is as a translation of the Hebrew name of God, as it was revealed to Moses. By the First century, kyrios in the Greek scriptures, almost exclusively meant God, who of course is the true king, of Israel, and of the world, the king of kings. So Elizabeth cries out, “Why is it granted to me that the mother of my kyrios should come to me?”—the mother of my king, my God! In human flesh! In your womb! Here! It’s hard to imagine her excitement—and humility!
And secondly, Mary was the younger relative, so she was lower in esteem than Elizabeth. It normally would have been Mary deferring and honoring Elizabeth. But not only does Luke have this unexpected reversal, where Elizabeth exclaims the honor of Mary, but the older unborn infant, John, honors his younger unborn relative, Jesus. So again, we as Catholics can take some heat from non-Catholics about the honor we give to Mary, but it’s completely based in Scripture. After all, it says “Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice.” So shouting the praise of Mary as the Mother of the divine king, the mother of our Lord: that’s from the Holy Spirit.
At the end of our gospel reading, we have Elizabeth blessing Mary a second time, saying, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Mary is the one who lives a constant “Yes” to the will of God, with all her mind, all her heart, all her soul, and all her strength. She gives us the example of the life of the beatitudes, which are based on the life of her son. She is the first Christian: the first in time, in that she was the first to receive and accept the the Good News of the Messiah; and the first in priority, in that she lived out her Christian vocation perfectly, without sin, without any imperfection in following God’s plan in Christ.
She not only complied, but did so with joy, and with urgency. With alacrity and foresight. In these last few days of the Advent season, let’s make sure that we are not falling victim to the Advent devil, getting distracted and stressed, and missing the real meaning of this time of preparing to receive our king and our God. Let us make some time to also be collected and quiet, with prayer, peace, and gratitude. Mary gives us our example. She was focused. She obeyed the Holy Spirit. “And she went with haste.”