Fourth Sunday of Advent
With Hearts Broken Open
By: Greg Rupik
December is an especially Marian month, for Catholics: On December 8th we celebrated Mary’s Immaculate Conception—our belief that Mary was conceived free from the stain of Original Sin. On December 12th, we remember Mary as Our Lady of Guadalupe and patroness of the Americas. It’s incredibly fitting that so many of our celebrations of Mary occur during Advent and Christmastide because of the example that Mary provides for us as someone who vigilantly waits for God in joyful hope.
To this young teenager in Nazareth—in the words of a famous Basque hymn—”the Angel Gabriel from heaven came, with wings as drifted snow, with eyes as flame.” Whereas her relative, the priest Zecchariah, was “overwhelmed with fear,” and “terrified” by Gabriel’s otherworldly appearance, Mary seems to make room for the angelic being, and listens as Gabriel announces the Good News: that God will keep his promises of bringing justice and peace to Israel through a child, an heir to King David’s throne, who God hopes Mary will bring into the world. And Mary agrees.
Mary is, in many ways, the season of Advent in person. She is vigilant, ready to welcome the divine when it surprises her. She is the straight path prepared for the Lord in the wilderness that John the Baptist preached about. And whereas John confessed to being unworthy even to untie the sandals of the Messiah, Mary not only bore that Messiah into the world, but would regularly have put little sandals on the toddler Jesus’ chubby feet, and untied them to take them off again. She, more than the Temple in Jerusalem, is the dwelling place on earth that God desires. Her immaculate heart is the Holy of Holies, the place on Earth overshadowed by God’s own spirit, the place where God makes unique contact with the human race, where Emmanuel—God-with-us—is conceived. Mary is the longing of Israel for deliverance, and her openness, her receptivity, is how Jesus, the light of the world, “gets in” to salvation history. Mary is Advent personified.
But what about our own advent? The necessary measures we are taking as a society to help protect our neighbours and defeat the coronavirus will make this Christmas we’re preparing for unlike any other. It has been an advent filled with confusion, with suffering, and with broken hearts. We are faced with the longing of our friends and relatives who want to be with us and celebrate with us. We are faced with the confusion or disappointment of our children, our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews. We are faced with tragic death, pain, and loss at scales that are hard to comprehend. Indeed, while Christmas has always been difficult for those of us who are unable to be with family—whether from distance, or exile, or sickness, or death—for many of us this advent, these realities will become real for us. It is an advent—a Christmas—of broken dreams, and broken hearts.
When faced with this pain, when faced with experiencing brokenheartedness, we might want to strengthen our hearts, to reinforce them, to keep them from breaking. We might look to someone like Mary, who seemed to have faith in God despite the pain and suffering in the world. Indeed, when I often imagine Immaculate Mary, whose praises we sing, I imagine her in just this way: standing, statuesque, unmoved by the pain in the world, piously fixated on God in the middle-distance. I confess that when faced with this image of Mary, I often feel discouraged, even hopeless. How can I imitate someone so perfect, so pure, so spotless, so strong?
But is this Mary? Is this the Mary who is Advent personified? If we are an advent people, like Lucinda and John reminded us a few weeks ago, we are meant to imitate Mary… but is this the Mary of our tradition, the Mary of the Gospels?
The context around the annunciation in Luke’s Gospel, I think, sheds some light on Mary’s openness, and perhaps gives us a way in, a way to understand her openness that draws her closer to us, and makes her an ideal that we can emulate, and lays out a path we can follow.
Immediately after the awesome presence of the angel departs from Mary, she leaves “with haste” to the Judean hill country to be with her cousin Elizabeth. Moreover, when she arrives, both she and Elizabeth are filled with the Holy Spirit upon encountering one another, and Mary is inspired to song—her Magnificat. She sings that her soul magnifies God, because God’s nearness to her demonstrates his nearness to those in need. She proclaims that God has set aside and decentred the rich and powerful, and instead has “lifted up the lowly,” “filled the hungry with good things” because he has kept the promises he has made to his people, Israel, the promises he made to Abraham, and to David among others. (Lk 1: 46-55).
We don’t know much about Mary’s early life, but what we see and hear in these scenes is a young woman who is profoundly aware of the pain and the needs of the poor, the hungry, and the lowly—and the injustices imposed upon them by the powerful. Mary’s young heart had already broken for those around her who had less, and by breaking it became larger and more capacious. No sooner had the angel Gabriel told Mary that her elderly cousin Elizabeth was pregnant than Mary’s heart broke for her, and inspired Mary to offer Elizabeth whatever care and assistance she could. Mary’s heart was not a heart of stone, but a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).
Sr. Simone Campbell, in her recent book Hunger for Hope, describes how her own social activism in the United States has been animated and inspired by encounters with those suffering on the margins. She writes: “By hearing the stories of those in pain around us, our hearts are broken open. When our hearts are open, we then have room for everyone. No one can be left out of our care” (Ch. 5).
Mary’s heart was not merely broken by her encounters with the pain of the world, it was broken open. Within her heart, she had room for everyone. It would welcome an angel from the realms of glory. And it would welcome, and care for, the very needs of God-made-flesh.
Mary was not a stranger to the pain, the suffering, and the needs of others, and it was her willingness to be moved by these earthly realities that allowed her to open her heart, and her life, to the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ, on Christmas Day.
In his most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis reminds us that this is precisely what the Gospels mean by being a neighbour. He writes:
“We cannot be indifferent to suffering; we cannot allow anyone to go through life as an outcast. Instead, we should feel indignant, challenged to emerge from our comfortable isolation and to be changed by our contact with human suffering. Now there are only two kinds of people: those who care for someone who is hurting and those who pass by; those who bend down to help and those who look the other way and hurry off. Here, all our distinctions, labels and masks fall away: it is the moment of truth. Will we bend down to touch and heal the wounds of others? Will we bend down and help another to get up?” (Fratelli Tutti, §68)
So to imitate Mary, Advent Personified, in these final days before Christmas, we shouldn’t imitate a statue of Mary, unmoved by the pain of the world, staring blankly towards the heavens. Rather, we should imitate the Mary of the Annunciation, the Mary of the Magnificat, unafraid to enter into the “intimacy of caring” that’s only possible when we allow our hearts to be broken open, together (Hunger for Hope, Ch. 6). When we open our hearts to the least of our sisters and brothers and care for them the best way we know how, we open our hearts to Christ, on Christmas Day or any other time of the year (Mt. 25:40).
Nativita by Sr. Elena Manganelli OSA