Simbang Gabi Homilies: Day 7 with Fr. Luis David, SJ

Posted on December 22, 2011

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The evangelist Luke begins his record of the coming of Christ, the savior of the world… with the story of two women who, by all human standards, should never have had children.

The first story centers on Elizabeth, a woman in her 60s or 70s or even 80s. All her life, she had never been able to bear a child. She had been barren and – given her age at the time of the miracle – certainly not had possessed any childbearing capability. And yet together with Zechariah, her similarly aged husband, she had conceived a child – John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah.

The second story focuses on Mary, a girl about 14 years of age and a virgin. She had gotten pregnant, the angel Gabriel had assured her, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and therefore without a man involved at all.

So two pregnant women, two miracle mothers. The first, elderly, married for several decades, factually barren and childless. The second, very young, never before married, technicaly a virgin.

Moreover they were cousins who had been chosen by God to become his vessels of the birth of John the Baptist, prophet, and Jesus Christ, savior of the world.

There had not, at that time, within all of Israel a miracle reported in over 400 years. Nobody had ever heard from an angel… An angel did not simply show up. People had mostly stopped believing in miracles.

And then the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah in order to convey to him news that notwithstanding their age, he and his wife, Elizabeth, will conceive and have a son, and his mission would be to serve as a forerunner to the Messiah. Afterwards, he appeared to Mary, with the news that she would conceive a child by the power of the Holy Spirit, and this holy offspring would be the Son of God.

Now Elizabeth lived in the hill country of Judea, which is near Jerusalem in the town of Israel. Mary, on the other hand, lives in the region of Galilee, north of Israel, in the tiny town of Nazareth. These two places were about 120 kilometers distant from each other. Our two stories, therefore, are the stories of two women who are separated in terms of just how old they were and separated as well in terms of the distance between them.

The stories, however, are conjoined in the manner I proclaimed earlier. “This time, Mary arose and went with haste to the hill country, to the city of Judah, and entered the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth. And it came about that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled by the Holy Spirit, and she cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed be among women are you, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how has it happened to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me, for behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy, and blessed is she who believes that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.'”

The impression we get from that story is that Mary was eager… to visit her old relative Elizabeth, and that she had lost no time in so doing. And this… occasion is the fruition of many centuries of prophecy. When these two women embraced in greeting, they had not an inkling that down the ages, they would serve as unforgettable icons to billions of people…

Mary had only… accepted the message conveyed to her by the angel Gabriel, that she was to be the mother of the holy offspring conceived in her by God… and that through it all, she would remain a virgin. Now that, humanly speaking, was an absolute impossibility. It was mind-boggling, more than any person should be expected ever to comprehend. And yet Mary had accepted it, even if it meant trouble up ahead for her, trouble with her family, trouble with her small and closed-knit community, and trouble especially with Joseph, her betrothed, because sooner or later, she would show, she would show that the child is not Joseph’s. Clearly, Mary needed time to think – time to get away from the tongues of those who knew her, time to get away even from Joseph, her betrothed, time to get support and counsel.

Now the angel Gabriel had mentioned in his message to her, that Elizabeth, her much older cousin, was herself pregnant, although the angel had not explicitly said that they should meet. Mary’s meeting with Elizabeth was therefore Mary’s own idea. Maybe it was because she needed to tell somebody, and Elizabeth must have been the only person that she felt could understand, ’cause something mysterious had happened to her cousin as well, after all. For Elizabeth to be heavy with child at her age of 70 or 80 was not only strange. It was embarrassing… Together they embraced the joy and uncertainty of pregnancy. Together they celebrated their joy as a whole life growing within them. Together they shared their dreams for their children, for their families, as well as shared their fears at becoming mothers, their doubts, and (inaudible) from God through the Holy Spirit would guide them through this passage into motherhood, the circumstances that each found themselves.

And even if Mary had… a sufficiency of faith that enabled her to accept the angel Gabriel and his words, her faith, Mary knew, needed bolstering. Her mortal flesh needed strengthening as well, just so it would bear up under the emotional pressure of the immeasurable honor of bearing the Son of God in her womb.

So that in a sense, Mary and Elizabeth met in their womanly embrace because Mary needed affirmation as only Elizabeth could give, on the truth of the angel’s word.

For a moment let’s put Mary’s story in context. Let’s suppose that your 14-year-old daughter quietly informs you that she’s pregnant, and then goes on to say, “An angel hopped on my shoulder with the news that what has happened to me is an act of God, and it would make me the mother of our Redeemer.” Now this certainly sounds like a kind of a wild story that a teenager would come up with… something that nobody would be expected to believe. And we know that Joseph himself, who knew Mary as well as a betrothed would, had made the natural assumption when he found out that she was with child, that she had violated the betrothal vow to him.

There was only one person on the face of the Earth who would have unconditionally accepted Mary’s story, and that was Elizabeth. Elizabeth, in her being, in her person, was the only living confirmation that God has performed the conception miracles.

The additional confirmation Mary got of the fact that he whom she bore in her womb was the Son of God, is mentioned in verse 41, and I quote: “And it came about that when Elizabeth Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb.” Those among you have never been married should know, the movement of a baby in his mother’s womb is not abnormal. I daresay that one of the greatest pleasures of childbearing is to be able to feel the unborn baby move in your womb. And as the unborn baby grows bigger and stronger, the form of his life would be revealed. And those of you who have been fathers, just think of the time that you put your hands on your partner’s womb in order to feel the unborn baby’s kicking and moving.

In our story, that new unborn infant was John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah. Even as (inaudible) in the womb of Elizabeth… he was (inaudible) the first announcement… the prophecy of the birth of the Messiah. As he was at that time, somewhere between nine and ten inches long, one and a half pounds heavy… through the little unborn infant kicking in his mother’s womb, God quite literally was giving confirmation to Mary of the favor that she had received from God. And Elizabeth’s own interpretation of that gift amounted to a hymn of blessing, a hymn of praise, blessings on Mary, blessings on the child of Mary, blessings on Elizabeth and herself, blessings on everybody who believes in God’s word, blessings in every direction.

In the Jewish world, a woman rose to her utmost stature in function of the greatness of the children that she bore. In Luke chapter 11, for example, as Jesus was speaking to the crowds, and I quote, “It came about that one of the women in the crowd yelled out saying, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breast at which you nursed.” In other words, a mother received honor in proportion to the greatness of her child. And so Elizabeth in effect was saying, “You are the most blessed because you have the greatest child.”

Notice, however, that what Elizabeth actually said, and I quote, is this. She says, “Blessed is she” – she does not address Mary directly; she doesn’t just say, “Blessed are you, Mary.” No, she says, “Blessed is she.” Anybody, in other words, who believes that there will be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord. Elizabeth is made to speak in the third person because the third person stands for everybody. Anybody who believes that God remains faithful to his promises is going to be blessed.

In just that sense, Mary serves as a tremendous example to all of us, and (inaudible) that we not relate to Mary as the Mother of God, that we not relate to her as the Queen of Heaven, but rather as a model believer who was blessed, not on account of unique privileges such as God’s choice of her to bear the Messiah. No, Mary was blessed because of what God did in relation to her, and account of her response to him. Mary was blessed because Mary believed. Contrast Mary with Zachary. Zechariah or Zachary heard what the angel had told him, and yet had not believed, and therefore was not blessed, and (inaudible) cursed, struck deaf and dumb. And so when Elizabeth in our story said, “Blessed is she who believed,” she must have taken a sideways glance at her husband: “If you want to be blessed, then believe.”

So really if the Gospel is saying anything to us, it is that Mary is a model of faith. Mary believed that the Lord would (inaudible) what He had spoken to her, and she pursued it, and went to Elizabeth to get confirmation. As our model of faith, Mary is not going to hear our prayers. Mary has never heard anybody’s prayers; she’s not up there for that purpose. Only God hears prayers. Mary sets an example for us, however. She knows how we, as believers, should respond. When God speaks, listen. When God speaks, believe. When God speaks, obey. And then explode forth in worship. Mary’s own worship, as you know, is the Magnificat, about which you ought to receive instruction tomorrow.

To end, then, Mary is a model believer. She heard, she believed, she obeyed, she worshiped. What else can we say? “And blessed is anybody, whoever she be or he be, who does exactly that.” Mary, however, is the best example of this behavior that we can show. She heard the truth from God. She believed it. She obeyed it. And she worshiped in response. We trust that we can sense, as Mary did, hearing the truth, believing the truth, obeying the truth, and worshiping in response to the truth.

We thank God this evening and all the days of our life for Mary’s example. We thank God that through Mary, God brought a Savior, Virgin-conceived, Virgin-born, who gave his life for his people of whom we have been made a part.

(Fr. Luis David, SJ, who teaches philosophy at the Ateneo de Manila University, delivered this homily during the Ateneo’s seventh Simbang Gabi at the Church of the Gesu this year. Transcript by The Wide Shot.)

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