A Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” from the Gospel according to St. Luke, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
You cannot help but marvel at the Blessed Virgin Mary’s humility in our Gospel lesson this morning, can you? After all, as we encounter our Lady this morning she is the most favored creature in all of history. She has been chosen by God to share her very human nature with the King of the Universe. It boggles the mind. The highest of angels cannot boast of a more intimate communion with their Creator than Mary experienced as she walked through the hill country of Judea on her way to visit her cousin. Mary has a unique fellowship with God, and she has been changed by it. In fact, the Virgin so radiates the holiness of her unborn Child that the infant John the Baptist leaps for joy in his mother’s womb just because Mary is nearby. St. Elizabeth expresses wonder that she has been deemed worthy of a visit from the “mother of [her] Lord,” and prophesies in the power of the Spirit that Mary truly is “blessed among women.”
But the Blessed Virgin responds to her cousin’s awestruck greeting by turning the attention away from herself and toward “God her Savior,” who “has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden” and “done great things” for her. Even when Mary acknowledges in her song that “all generations” will call her blessed, she takes no credit for herself. “Pay no attention to me,” she seems to say, “Look to the One who ‘exalts those of low degree,’ the Savior God of Israel.” Any blessedness Mary possesses is strictly His gracious gift—a gift that she will soon pass along to the entire human race in a stable at Bethlehem.
But while the soul of the Virgin magnified the God of her Fathers, within her body the plan of salvation history ordained by God at the dawn of creation was coming to fruition. From the very moment when Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden and the human race was cut off from the Tree of Life, the Advent of Mary’s blessed Son had been foretold. Even as the first Eve hung her head in shame before her Creator in Eden, the Lord had warned that ancient Serpent, the Devil: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; you shall bruise his heel and he shall crush your head.” The whole created order would groan under the weight of humanity’s Fall as it awaited the promised seed of a new and faithful Eve, the divine Son of Man who would crush the power of sin and death by the strength of His arm even as He endured the venom of Hades on behalf of His kindred.
God’s promise of redemption had been renewed again and again over the centuries. The Holy Spirit prompted many great prophets to remind Israel of their coming Deliverer, though few had ears to heed the message. The prophet Micah, for example, had foreseen the days “when she who is in labor has brought forth” in Bethlehem of Judah and the “one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” … “shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD.” We can only imagine what Micah’s original audience made of those mysterious words, but as our Lady chanted her praises to God she knew what they meant.
Mary knew that God’s “mercy is upon those who fear Him in every generation.” She knew that the old world--the world where mighty powers of darkness were perched upon pretended thrones, where the proud and the rich were great in their own imaginations and the poor and the hungry were despised—Mary knew that world was coming to an end. For the Virgin Mother knew the holy Child she carried within her was nothing less than the Son of God, who would save His people from their sins, and whose righteous kingdom would have no end.
The reason for the Virgin’s great hymn of praise is, of course, this great thing God has done for her, and all His people, in the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus. But, ironically, St. Mary never directly mentions the expected birth of her Son in her prayer. It was only natural, therefore, that Christian monks a few centuries later would want to make the connection between the Magnificat and the birth of the infant Christ more explicit in the days just before Christmas. These early monks created the so-called “O Antiphons,” as series of short lines of music sung in the monk’s daily prayers along with the Magnificat in the eight days before the feast of the Nativity.
Each of these ancient antiphons focuses one of seven Scriptural titles for the Messiah: Emmanuel (or “God-with-Us”), Wisdom, Lord, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring (or “Dawn”) from on high, and King of the Nations. If those Messianic titles sound especially familiar, it is because we sing them in the beloved Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” That hymn is a paraphrase of the O Antiphons. Hence it is perfectly paired this morning with the Blessed Virgin’s Magnificat, a marvelous way to bring Advent to a close.
Our Lady’s praises in today’s Gospel lesson focus on the divine justice and righteousness that is just about to explode into world with coming birth of her Son. Her focus is on what God is doing right then and there. The O Antiphons, on the other hand, put this event in the board context of salvation history. Some of Christ’s titles in the Antiphons reach back before the dawn of time—Dayspring and Wisdom. These are titles in the Old Testament for the pre-existent Son, the Word of God, the divine agent of creation “without whom nothing was made that was made.” Other titles in the Antiphons place the saving work of God in Christ in Israel’s historical context. For Jesus Christ is the Root of Jesse and the Key of David, the One who will sit on upon the throne of His father David for ever and drive all pretenders to divine Sovereignty from the field. These Israelite titles remind us that our Redeemer is not a myth. Salvation does not happen “once upon a time” in a fairy tale. The salvation Christ wrought has been worked out in time and space just as you and I experience them. God’s coming to us in Christ is REAL and concrete.
The Antiphons’ final two titles of Christ remind us of the enduring and limitless character of our salvation—Emmanuel, God-with-Us, and Rex Gentium, the King of the Nations. God’s presence with us in Christ was not a passing thing. He remains with us “even to the End of the Age” in the abiding presence of the Spirit of Christ, the Comforter, God the Holy Spirit by whom we were sealed at our baptism. He still speaks with us today in the words of Holy Scripture. And above all, God still gives Himself for us and to us the Blessed Sacrament of the most precious Body and Blood of Christ.
Finally, let us remember the words of Micah: “when she who is in labor has brought forth, then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.” With His birth all Christ’s kindred--all the banished sons and daughters of that first Eve—are meant to come home to God. Christ is King, not only of Israel, but of ALL the Nations. Everyone on the face of the earth needs to know that God their Savior was born in the flesh for them. Everyone needs to know that He died on the cross for them, and that He conquered death and rose again from the grave to win them eternal life. And every human soul needs to know that He will return and be their Judge. For those who repent of their sin and believe the Good News, turning to Christ in love and faithfulness, this is a message of unspeakable joy. For in truth, all of us are meant to have the kind of intimate communion with God our Savior that the Blessed Virgin Mary knew--and knows now. In surrendering herself completely to the divine will Mary gave God a body. And when we likewise yield ourselves up to His will God Incarnate makes us a part of that same glorious Body by offering Himself for us and to us completely.
As you and I gaze upon the Babe of Bethlehem laying the manger tonight, let us remember that, like Mary, we too are bone of Christ’s bone and flesh of His flesh. You and I have a share in Mary’s exquisite fellowship with God through her Son and we, too, have been changed, “for the almighty has done great things for [us], and holy is His name.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.