Advent and Christmas celebrate the joy of a new life. Like an expectant mother, we wait, with bated breath, joyful anticipation and we brim over with excitement. For God is with us, He is soon to be born, Come, Come, Emmanuel!
The Visitation of Mary is a joyful visit between cousins but also an encounter between two babies in the womb. Upon encountering the living Christ within Mary, John announces Jesus’ presence with a great kick and leap of joy. This was God’s plan for John even in the womb—to proclaim to all the nations that our savior, our great King, the anointed one of God is with us! Though, unseen, the visit of Mary to Elizabeth lets a waiting world know that he is here. God is with us and his birth into this world will bring great joy.
Within the womb of Mary, the perfect image of the Father, the Son of God is in our midst. Like all babies, this innocent babe is growing, vulnerable, dependant upon his mother’s “yes” so that the world might come to know who God has “in secret intricately wrought as in the depths of the earth” (Ps 139). Every expectant mother participates in this joy, if she says “yes,” because every child in the womb is the very image of God. A mother’s “yes” to new life gives rise to a great celebration, for the child in the womb is, in the words of Pope Francis, “the most defenseless and innocent among us” and in his or her presence God is with us.
The joy of new life, nestled within the womb of so tender a mother, gives rise to great celebration, not just for family but for the whole world and for all of God’s creation. As Psalm 96 proclaims, “Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes.” The trees we decorate for Christmas make this joy visible—even the trees sing out in joy at a new life, the One who will win for us eternal life is here.
Scripture notes that it is primarily the poor and the vulnerable that recognize the Christ child for who He is and celebrate with great joy. The powerful (Herod) are blind. The rich and influential, those described as “the people in soft garments” (Mt 11:8) fail to perceive, in the words of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “the defenseless love of God, his humility, and his kindness” that has been made manifest in a child. Jesus is born to “teach us a new way of living and loving in this world” and it is historically the poor—Joseph and Mary, the shepherd, foreign magi—who welcome him, know him, and rejoice.
Ratzinger has written, “in the child Jesus … God comes without weapons, because he does not want to conquer from the outside but to win us over from within and to transform us from within. If anything can conquer the arrogance, the violence, and the greed of man, it is the utter vulnerability of a child: and God has taken on this vulnerability in order to conquer us in this manner and to lead us to himself.”
These poignant words from the future Pope about the vulnerable Jesus and our transformation through encountering him call to mind Pope Francis’ recent challenging exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, which we received just as we enter into Advent and Christmas. The two great themes of this work, it seems to me, are the joy of the Gospel and solidarity with and love of the poor.
Pope Francis emphasizes that we are called to be joyful missionaries filled with the very love of God and sent forth to evangelize “to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear.” Because we have “first been loved” we are called to be “missionary disciples” who are “actively engaged in evangelization.” The first Christmas is the context and cause for the joy of evangelization. This Advent and Christmas are for us an opportunity to enter into the mystery of the Incarnation of God’s Son for us. What a fitting time to respond to Pope Francis’ invitation: “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed encounter with Jesus Christ.”
Inspired by this encounter, we are called by Pope Francis to, “take on the ‘smell of the sheep’” and “be permanently in a state of mission.” Recognizing that Jesus precedes us by literally and figuratively being born amongst the sheep we are called to serve those on “the fringes of humanity,” who are no longer honored as a member of the human family, who are no longer recognized as the very image of God that brings us great cause for joy.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from a painting entitled “The Virgin and Child with St. Elizabeth and the Infant St. John the Baptist” by Peter Paul Rubens (1615).