Thursday, December 17, 2009

12-20-2009: Fourth Sunday of Advent (C)

Fourth Sunday of Advent
Micah 5:1-4/ Psalm 80/ Hebrews 10:5-10/ Luke 1:39-45
The exhortation to keep Christ in Christmas has the ring of modernity about it. As if to say we, as a culture, have forgotten the real meaning of Christmas while indulging ourselves in all of its tangential concerns and pleasures. Reading between the lines in the gospel, though, might suggest that trying to keep Christ in Christmas has been a challenge from the very beginning.

In today’s gospel, what serves as John the Baptist’s unborn debut hints at a perhaps darker dilemma that the teenage Mary had to face. We are told that Mary arose and went with haste to the hill country to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth who, seemingly past childbearing age, was miraculously pregnant as well. Reading between the lines a more apt translation might be: throwing a few things together, Mary headed for the hills – with all the danger and intrigue such a phrase conjures.

It makes sense though, doesn’t it? Who could blame Mary’s parents if they tried their best to salvage what must have seemed a no-win situation, figuring out a way to get their pregnant and unwed teenager out of town before she began to show. Heading for the hills is the classic solution to this most perennial of problems. We might even surmise that, all things being equal, no one thought Elizabeth at her age would be able to carry her child to term and, if something should happen… well, kinship adoption would seem the perfect solution to a very thorny problem.

Up until fairly recently unwed mothers bore an inordinate amount of shame brought on by culture, religion and societal mores. When Ingrid Bergman became pregnant out of wedlock (playing Sister Mary Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary’s when she began to show), she was denounced from the floor of the United States Senate. Bergman then headed for the hills – of Europe, until her public forgave her with her performance in Anastasia. [It’s a bit uncanny that the name Anastasia, in Greek, literally means arise – the very word that opens today’s gospel account: Mary arose and travelled to the hill country…]

Perhaps it was the ugly way in which Bergman was shamed that caused another actress in the same predicament, Loretta Young, to head for the hills – of Italy. After she gave birth to her daughter in secret, Young returned to the U.S. claiming she had adopted the baby girl in Italy. Not only did she avoid the ugly denunciations of such a prestigious (and shameless) institution as the U.S. Senate, but was praised for her selflessness - saving the poor waif from a cruel fate. Young, noted for her devout Catholicism, no doubt had that burden to bear as well as she continued the lie for nearly three decades.

When my mother, unwed and living in Baltimore, became pregnant with me she also arose and headed for the hills – of Manhattan. It’s both comforting and unnerving to think that, if she had chosen to head to some other hills, how different my life would have been. While our genetic make-up certainly seems to be the dominant feature of who we are, the “accidents” of environment, twinged here or tweaked there, can determine to a great degree who we become.

Keeping Christ in Christmas has always been a challenge; Advent helps by bidding us arise and head for the hills. We need to get some distance, see things from a different and, perhaps, higher perspective; figure things out, make decisions, accept our destiny, and then return from the hills to embrace it.

For Mary, things didn’t work out the way they might have: Elizabeth carried to term and Mary returned home - very pregnant. The hills didn’t offer Mary an easy out, but strengthened her in her resolve to accept her situation as she promised she would when the angel had first come upon her. Keeping Christ in Christmas might be a challenge these days, but having kept Christ in that first Christmas was indeed a major miracle, made possible by God’s grace no doubt, but also by the resolve of a young mother who arose to accept her situation. Who knows: if Mary hadn’t first headed for the hills, she might not have been able to do just that.

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