The liturgy of Advent makes present each year the ancient expectancy of the Messiah. “For God is leading Israel in joy/by the light of his glory, with his mercy and justice for company” (Bar 5,9). The Church invites us to enter into this spirit of expectancy so that we can prepare in a more fruitful way for the birth of Jesus.
In other words, the Church, especially through the Advent readings, warns us not to take Christmas for granted. Rather, we are encouraged to ponder the mysteries that surround the divine infancy. “For you are born for us,” sings Romanus the Melodist, “Little Child, God eternal.” God Advent observance remains fragmentary until we learn to welcome afresh the one who came among us as a little Child.
The Blessed Virgin Mary models this holy expectancy, as the Gospels make clear. First, we hear about the virginal conception at the Annunciation. “And the Word became flesh” (Jn 1, 14). Then the evangelist immediately continues: “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth” (Lk 1, 39-40). At the Visitation, Mary's “haste” demonstrates the urgency that should shape our Advent preparation.
The Visitation inaugurates the history of salvation: a new power at work in the world makes itself felt in the person of Elizabeth, who, although advanced in age, is already six months pregnant with John the Baptist. “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk 1, 41). The Fathers of the Church considered that this “leap” signals the sanctification of John. From such small beginnings, we are encouraged, then, to expect great things of God.
Elizabeth's contact with Mary begins the deliverance and consolation of Israel. Indeed, Elizabeth's barrenness and old age serve as important reminders of what we are like when left on our own. Apart from God , we are unable to pursue and develop a full and complete life. Our sins cause us to grow old and crabbed— whatever our chronological age. No matter how we rationalize it, sin can lead only to death, which is the woeful termination of all hopefulness, the ultimate numbing of all expectancy.
The mystery of the Visitation urges us to believe that God truly intends the Incarnation for each one of us. For in the person of the aged Elizabeth, Mary carries Jesus to each member of his Mystical Body. Gregory the Great even compares Mary with Eve: “Through the wonderful providence of God's goodness, a woman's lips brought the news of life because in Paradise a woman's lips had dealt death.” Mary is our real mother in the order of salvation. Even the holiness of her Immaculate Conception belongs to each one of us.
The Dominican tradition, it is important to note, has always rejected the view that the grace of the Immaculate Conception embodies a special prerogative for Mary. Why? Because our sinful human race needs both Jesus and the Immaculate Conception for its salvation. We need Jesus because there exists no other source of holiness other than what he provides. But we need Mary in order to overcome the blackmail of the devil that urges us to abandon all hope of ever being ready for the holiness of God. And so Mary gives birth in each of her children to a new expectancy, the hope for a new kind of life that surpasses the boldest human imaginations.
The mystery of the Visitation finds its fulfillment only when we live in the Immaculate Conception. As with Elizabeth of old, Mary hastens to bring us Jesus. Still. since the grace of the Immaculate Conception actually becomes ours only when we ask for it, Mary hastens to each one of us: “I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves” (Song 3, 2).
We are the ones whom her soul seeks. And then she waits for our greeting: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus.” Surely the Visitation directs us to invoke the holy name of Mary alongside the name of Jesus. And, what's more, we have to do this over and over again, even in the face of our own apparently hopeless attachment to sin. If the infant John could have spoken in Elizabeth's womb, he would have cried out: “Jesus, Mary!
The Visitation grounds our confidence in Mary's maternal mediation. What does the Gospel tell us about Elizabeth's reaction? “For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy” (Lk 1, 41). Because the Church acknowledges the indispensable role that Mary's maternity plays in our spiritual development, the Church invokes Mary as the “cause of our joy.” We can contemplate the blessed Mother and her maternity. Recall the practice of Eastern iconography to portray our Lady holding the Christ child close to her cheeks. We name these representations the Virgin of Tenderness. That is how God now wants us to image Mary: as a tender mother holding each one of us close to her cheek. Indeed, God has supplied no other remedy for us other than “tainted nature's solitary’ boast.” We take comfort from her presence and warmth.
Mary, then, remains our hope. So when you are sad or depressed, greet Mary as a tender mother. Join her in her concerns and her joys. Again, she provides our sweetness. Tell her as much. So when you find nothing else to sustain you, turn to Mary as a sure strength. That's what the saints have done. Mary even contains our life, the source of her privilege and our dignity. So when you experience yourself as dead on account of your sins, embrace Mary as the sweet refuge of sinners. Enshrine the Virgin of Tenderness in your hearts. Hail! Our life, our sweetness, and our hope. “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.”
In Mary, the expectancy of Israel is at last fulfilled. Now, we who are her spiritual children, can rejoice that God has so richly provided for us; and we can urge others who have either not yet heard about or long since forgotten the hope of Israel to join in the expectancy created by the approach of Christmas.
Father Cessario is a professor of systematic theology at St. John's Seminary, Brighton, Mass.