Fourth Sunday in Advent – December 19, 2010 – St. John’s
I have a little book that reproduces beautiful works of art for all the major events and figures in the Gospels, works that nearly span the two thousand years of Christianity. In it I found a lovely painting of the Blessed Virgin late in her pregnancy; painted in northern Italy, it dates from the late 1300’s. This theme of the Virgin big with child was once popular enough but for some reason fell out of favor in recent centuries.
The painting shows Mary seated, very large indeed, holding a book in her hand, resting and reflecting. Usually in such a painting the book is open to the passage of the prophet Isaiah that we heard twice today in our readings: “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel, God with us.”
I sent the painting to a friend, and she replied that she found “something whimsical in her expression, that half-smile of knowing & well-being.” Mary’s very near to delivery, my friend says, with the rosy cheeks that often occur in women who are near full-term. “Very real,” she says, “and lovely indeed in her repose.”
We begin today our fourth week of Advent, which means that the time is near when the Christ-child shall be born to us. Is it too much to think that we might imagine this time of our expectation as similar to that of Mary as her term drew near? Twice St. Luke tells us that after the birth of Christ, Mary treasured all the things she had seen and heard, pondering them, turning them over, in her heart (Lk 2:19, 51). Well, if that was the case after Christ was born, can we not imagine her reflecting while she still bore him in her womb? Those of you who are parents know what those last months, weeks, days are like before the baby is born. Hoping the baby will be born healthy. Trying to understand how your own lives will be transformed by becoming a parent. Perhaps imagining what kind of future your child will have. A hundred different thoughts, turned over and over again as the day of delivery approaches.
Could we not take care that in these last days before Christmas we find some quiet time to think about the great gift that God has given us and is about to give us again in the birth of Christ? There is so much busy work that will occupy us, last-minute shopping, baking and cooking, and all the rest. A determined effort will have to be made to quiet ourselves down at least for a little while, and to think of the great gift God is about to give us, and what its consequences should be for our lives. The gift is so great that it should not leave us unchanged, which could happen if we do not take time to appreciate it and to respond to it in thankfulness. The twelve days of Christmas, until Epiphany, will provide us that opportunity, of course, but this last week could begin our quiet appropriation of this great mystery, in pregnant expectation.