Fourth Sunday in Advent: expecting Christ in the other

It is the fourth Sunday in Advent and Christmas is almost here. As my adult children return home and my family prepares to travel to see my mom, her husband, my brother and his family for the holidays, it is easy for me to get lost in the details of what “needs” to get done.  There is still laundry, packing, confirming flight times, baking that last chunk of gingerbread cookie dough sitting in the fridge, and oh yes, not forgetting to pick up a bottle of wine to bring to a party this weekend. Oh, and that last Christmas card to send to a cousin. I should probably make sure the upstairs bathroom is clean, too, so as to return to a clean house. And so the weekend can easily go…..

As important as these details are in the eyes of the world, they are not the essence of Advent preparation at all. Our second reading at Mass today says, “Sacrifices and offerings, holocausts and sin offerings, you neither desired nor delighted in,” and to these we could maybe add: “The Lord delights not in more freshly baked cookies to give to the neighbors, nor making sure everyone remembers to put the right shoes for church in the luggage”— at least not if it leads to stressed out relationships and days eaten up in practical details.

We are preparing for the arrival of the Christ child. We are preparing for Love Incarnate, a love that is enfleshed. What does it mean to meet Love, enfleshed?

The gospel reading tells us a bit about it. We witness Mary and Elizabeth encountering one another. When Mary, carrying the Christ child within her, meets her cousin, the infant leaps in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth who had struggled with barrenness for so long, discovers that there is life within, a life that is confirmed by this encounter with the infant Christ, still hidden in Mary. But what leads Elizabeth to cry out her words is not only the presence of Christ, but rather Christ in Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Likewise, Mary is also transformed by her encounter with Elizabeth and speaks the beautiful words of the Magnificat: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices…” Elizabeth and Mary feel joy and gratitude because they each encounter the presence of God in the other. Mary is carrying Jesus. Elizabeth is not carrying the Messiah, but she is still carrying a child who is the fruit of God’s work in her own life. Mary believed in the angel who came to her and promised that God was working through her life, no matter how surprising and unexpected it all appeared but it is Elizabeth that sees this in Mary. Likewise, Mary can see how God is alive and at work in Elizabeth.

Both these women believed in God’s promise of Love and both permitted God to work through their lives by being open to whatever God has planned. Yet the recognition of God’s presence came from seeing it in the Other. Mary proclaims her joy but it is a joy over how God is alive in her cousin’s life, and Elizabeth finds her most interior dream is, in fact, fulfilled through meeting God awake and alive in Mary.

This is also true for us: we encounter Christ not primarily through noticing Christ’s presence in ourselves in solitude, although like a pregnant woman who feels that gentle first kick in the womb, it is good to notice God’s action within and how God is present to us individually in prayer or experience. But the meaning of the incarnation goes beyond our one on one relationship with God and extends into our human relationships. We come to know Christ when we see Christ alive in one another, encounter one another, touch one another’s lives and say, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.”

How do we prepare so that we are ready?