This is the Fourth Sunday in Advent and also Christmas Eve. In this season when the earth sleeps, Heaven is drawing nearer to us in our liturgies, our work, our prayer. We would like more time to hold in prayer what we are sensing, to let it grow and blossom within us. But, as always, we take what we are given and work with it.
The readings for today are familiar. We listen as David promises to build the Creator of all things a House, and God replies, “Why should you build me a house to dwell in? Rather I will establish your house. I will raise up an heir of your body, and through him your kingdom will last forever.” How often do we go to God in prayer and say, “Lord, bless the great plans I have made in your service!” And God says, “No; look rather at what I have planned for you.”
The Gospel reading from Luke shows again that God does not always go along with our little plans. We have already encountered this story on the Feasts of the Annunciation and Immaculate Conception, and on this past Wednesday. Now today we hear again about Mary, a girl barely out of childhood, who with her impoverished family lives in a small village under the occupation of the Roman Empire. Theirs is a level of poverty that requires a household to consider how each child can best contribute to its economy. For a daughter, that usually means an early marriage to a man who can support her and her children. And so Mary has been engaged to Joseph, the village carpenter. This isn’t a love story, not yet, but a contractual arrangement in which Mary probably has little say. During the engagement, the first part of a Hebrew marriage, she is to remain with her family for a year and continue working in the home.
And while she waits in quiet obscurity and gets used to the idea of becoming a wife and mother, God breaks into her life through a messenger, who tells her that God has greater plans for her and Joseph. “You are favored by God,” Gabriel says. I think “Favored by God” is code for, “Your life is about to get interesting.” Look at the story of Abraham: God told him, “I will bless you, and make your name great,” and Abraham’s life went from obscure and tranquil to … interesting.
Mary was born without original sin. Whatever hardship she has experienced has had no power over the essence of her soul. She remains God-centered and obedient, a kind of fallow ground in which the Holy Spirit can work the divine will.
What do I mean by ‘fallow ground’? When I was young, Dad dug up most of the back yard to make a vegetable garden. Every fall, he would harvest the last of the Brussels sprouts and winter squash, and then he would dig in compost to replace the nutrients lost to the summer’s growth. Finally he buried the earth in fall leaves. It rested all winter under its blanket, its microbial life working away as the repeated frosts and thaws worked the soil and made it ready to plant in the spring. That is what Dad called his garden’s ‘fallow’ season, though more properly the term is used for soil that remains unplanted over a growing season. He couldn’t afford that; there were a lot of us kids to feed.
The qualities of a fallow earth are that of a soul who waits patiently on the Lord. In earth, the microscopic life is always working in silence to break down plant debris into humus to nourish new growth. ‘Humus’ and ‘humility’ share the same Latin root: humilis, which means “of the earth”. A humble person knows who she is and what her capabilities are. We say a humble person is grounded in reality.
Fallow ground is patient, accepting, fertile, and cooperative. It waits until the time is right. It doesn’t decide what it will grow but instead works in partnership with the gardener. It takes into itself whatever seed the gardener sows and quickens it into germination, working towards their mutual goal of bringing forth new life. When Gabriel tells Mary, “Behold, you will conceive and bear a son, Jesus. He will be the Son of the Most High, and will rule over the house of Jacob forever,” Mary’s response is, “And how will this happen? What should I do?” And then, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be done to me according to God’s will.” She takes the Word of God into herself, becomes a willing partner in God’s plan, and brings forth a new kind of life: God in human form.
In the Gospel of Matthew from last Monday, we see Mary’s intended spouse stunned to discover that his wife-to-be is pregnant. He is grieving for the Mary he thought he knew: honest, pure, and holy; and then the messenger comes to reassure him. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. Her son will save his people from their sins.”
Just as Mary did, he says goodbye to a normal life and accepts God’s will. The rabbi marries them early, and Joseph brings Mary into his home. A scandal, certainly, for their neighbors, who have probably seen other hasty marriages and shake their heads over the supposed affair. We can imagine how Joseph is feeling: the humiliation of an upright man who is wrongly convicted in the public eye of serious sin. “At times like this,” Pope Francis says, “we need a desperate faith that says Yes in the midst of trial.”
It is only normal that, as their neighbors draw away from them, Mary and Joseph would draw closer to each other in friendship and – yes – love that would last beyond death. They share the faith inGood’s word and know that, to paraphrase Mary’s Cousin Elizabeth, “Blessed are they who believe that the Lord will fulfill his promises to them!” Together they will travel the rough roads to Bethlehem to be counted in the Roman census, and there Joseph will help Mary as she gives birth in the straw of a stable with sheep surrounding her and a star lighting her labor and delivery. It is only the beginning of an interesting and worthwhile life.
It all comes down to this: in the long unwinding of human history, a girl is visited by an angel of light and says Yes to whatever God asks, without asking the cost. Her husband joins her in that Yes, and God is born into human flesh and lives among us today. Tomorrow’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans sums it up: “This is all part of the way the eternal God wants things to be.”
We are all pregnant with the presence of God, and if we have the courage and the humility to say Yes without first counting the cost, our lives will be transformed into something beyond imagining. May God bless us all with interesting lives.