December 1, 2006

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Let Mary be a down-to-earth model for us this Advent

Recently, I was given a book of homilies and reflections for the “C” cycle of the liturgical year which begins with the first Sunday of Advent (Lift Up Your Hearts, Wallace, Waznak, DeBona, Paulist Press).

Glancing through the book, my eye caught a charming story by Katherine Paterson (A Midnight Clear: Stories for the Christmas Season, Lodestar Books, New York, 1995).

“The Handmaid of the Lord” story captures the reality and the role of Mary in the Incarnation. I want to propose Mary, mother of God and mother of the Church, as an important and practical person for our reflection in the new season of Advent.

The story is about a girl named Rachel who was determined to get the part of Mary in the church play. However, another girl was picked, and Rachel was told that since she was intelligent she could be the understudy in case the other girl became ill. Nobody became ill, and Rachel was in the front pew as the Nativity play began.

Her time came. Baby Jesus began to cry—not just cry–—began to scream. The girl playing Mary forgot she was being Mary and panicked. She looked at Joseph. “Do something!” she whispered. Joseph turned bright red, but he didn’t move a muscle.

Rachel jumped up from her pew and ran up to the Nativity scene. She poked around under the baby Jesus until she found the pacifier. She put it into the baby’s mouth. He took to it at once, and the church was silent except for his noisy sucking. Rachel smiled down at him.

“Who do you think you are?” the girl playing Mary hissed loud enough that all could hear. Rachel straightened up and announced, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.”

As we begin the Advent season on our way to Christmas, I want to propose Mary, the handmaid of the Lord, as a down-to-earth model for us.

Mary was a simple maiden in Nazareth taken completely by surprise when the Angel Gabriel brought the startling announcement that she was with child and would be the Mother of God. She herself was not an angel, and she was not somehow divine.

Yet she could respond, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to your word.” And then, straightforward, the young handmaiden went off to the home of her cousin, Elizabeth, to help her friend, who was in the sixth month of her own pregnancy.

I want to suggest two points for our Advent reflection about Mary. First of all, she had to be alert in her faith in order to receive the message of the Archangel Gabriel and respond to it. We should not take our alertness in faith, that is, our openness and sense of God’s presence, for granted.

One is only alert in faith if one prays. And so I point to Mary as a young woman who was faithful in prayer. She was faithful in communicating with God, of being open to God’s presence.

Thus, she was able to receive and accept God’s incredible call for her to become the human instrument in bringing about the incarnation of the Son of God. She believed that with God nothing is impossible. She could believe because she was close to God.

And notice, from her prayer and her encounter with God’s messenger, the young maiden Mary was moved to an act of charity. She immediately left her home in order to assist her elder cousin, Elizabeth, in the last months of her own pregnancy.

From prayer and an encounter with God’s messenger, Mary is moved to practical charity. We cannot assume that this was an easy gesture on her part. Travel alone in Palestine of her day would have been primitive and rugged. Rather than allow herself to be preoccupied with the startling challenge that changed everything in her life, Mary’s heart went out to her cousin in need. She, the Handmaid of the Lord, became the same for Elizabeth.

The liturgical season of Advent summons us to new inspiration in our faith. It is an ideal time laden with an abundance of new grace to renew our practice of prayer: participation in the Eucharist and in solitary prayer as well. It is a time of new grace in which we can pay attention to inner nudgings of the heart to do extra works of charity. It is a time for us to intend new motives of humility that lead us to hands-on, practical charity.

The practice of charity in Advent doesn’t have to be complicated or dramatic. The handmaiden Mary’s simple instinct was to go to help her cousin. Her witness of practical charity can be an encouraging grace for us. †

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