|Caravaggio – The Holy Family with the infant St. John the Baptist
It is easy to rush through Advent. With department store Christmas decorations appearing earlier and earlier each year it is quite easy to jump straight into Christmas mode after the Thanksgiving Day meal it seems. Why a time of waiting and anticipation? What is that all about? After all the big day is Christmas with its exchanging of gifts and (at least for the religiously minded) the beautiful liturgies and reflection on the birth of Christ. Who needs Advent?
Well, we do and Advent has its own gifts to share if we just take the time to appreciate and receive them. I can think of three gifts that Advent has to give (similar in number to the gifts of the Magi) and they are gifts brought to us by the key figures of the nativity story – St. Mary, St. John the Baptist and St. Joseph.
In the first chapter of Luke’s gospel we are told that the angel Gabriel was sent to Mary.
…he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will call him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” The angel said to her, “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 holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Much has been written of Mary’s “yes” to the angel and to God’s will for her. Saints have reflected upon how all heaven and creation waited in hushed silence for Mary’s response. Mary certainly knew the hopes and dreams of her people. She certainly knew and trusted how God acted throughout the history of Israel. That God could and would act in such a way would not necessarily be a surprise to her but where it would end and the sacrifice it would entail, Mary certainly had no way of knowing and the angel did not share much information in that regard. Mary did not know that her “yes” that day would lead to her standing at the foot of the cross – the epicenter of God and humanity’s sacrifice for death and sin. Mary did not know how it would all play out or even what it all meant but she said “yes”.
Mary brings us the gift of trust and she demonstrates to us that this gift is born out of a sure knowledge and belief of faith and how God has acted throughout history. In opposition to the primacy of fate lauded in the pagan world; Mary reveals providence. God is at work and continues to be at work in history and in our lives. The gift of Mary’s trust also reveals that God wants nothing but what is best for us. The God of Israel is a loving God and all things in God’s plan lead to fullness of life. Mary brings us the gift of trust.
Luke portrays John the Baptist as a relative of Mary and Jesus’. During the Sundays and weekdays of Advent we read the gospel accounts of John’s ministry. The gospels tell us that people from all over Judea and Jerusalem were coming to hear John preach and be baptized in his baptism of repentance. This popularity and esteem of the people is even confirmed by the Pharisees and Sadducees coming out to receive baptism, not because of true conversion but because it looked good before the people. John sees through this and denounces it. Not much escaped John the Baptist. It is in this context of expectation that Luke writes,
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
The power of the multitude is a great power. This is lesson 101 in the handbook of politicians, demagogues and tyrants throughout history. John knew the expectation of the people. He knew, probably more than any other person, how they were yearning for change. Probably, he alone at that time in Israel could have tapped into that power. He could have claimed it for his own and therefore claimed massive power but he did not. To the crowd and to their desire to proclaim him “messiah,” John simply and humbly said, “I am not he.” John had the authenticity to know who he was and who he was not. John the Baptist brings us the gift of humility.
It is a gift sorely needed in our world today. The message of our world today, in so many words, is, “Build yourself up. Claim all that you can. Focus on yourself, forget everyone else.” Our world exalts and glamorizes overweening pride. John, just as much today as in the story of the gospel, stands in contradistinction to this message. His poverty, simplicity of life, and reliance on the word of God gave birth to a humility and authenticity of personhood that the world cannot give. In Advent, John the Baptist brings us the gift of humility.
We have no direct words of St. Joseph. He is the silent saint but he speaks through his actions. Matthew, in the first chapter of his gospel, shares this about Joseph,
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit…”
Notice that even before the first angelic visitation in a dream (there were to be a total of four) Joseph had already decided that he would not expose Mary to public shame and would dismiss her quietly. This decision on Joseph’s part should not be passed over carelessly. It reflects his character. According to the laws and customs of the time, Joseph had every right to have Mary stoned and killed. Joseph could have acted out of vengeance and hurt pride but he chose not to. Joseph, at that moment, held the life of Mary and the incarnate Word in her womb in his hands. Just as Mary’s “yes” allowed the incarnation, Joseph’s “no” to violence and vengeance and “yes” to mercy allowed the incarnation to continue. Joseph brings us the gift of mercy.
Matthew writes that Joseph was a righteous man. Our Lord throughout his ministry and proclamation of the Kingdom of God will again and again proclaim that righteousness is not based on blind observance of the law but on mercy and love. It was simple human mercy and care that allowed the incarnation to continue. St. Joseph’s proclamation to us is the gift of mercy.
The three gifts of Advent: trust, humility and mercy. As Christians, we receive these gifts by living them out in our lives and extending them to one another.
Ss. Mary, John the Baptist and Joseph please pray for us.