When Mary who is a virgin, and Elizabeth, who has long been barren, meet in today’s gospel, and both are pregnant, what we are witnessing is the proclamation of salvation. God is doing what is impossible to human beings – he is bringing about fertility, fruitfulness, new life. We recall Jesus’ disciples’ question to Jesus: ”Who can be saved ?” and Jesus responds: ”For human beings it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible “ (Mark 26 – 27). Money cannot buy salvation and eternal life. Human effort or worth cannot achieve salvation. It has to be received from Jesus, as a free gift of God our Father.
We recall also Mary’s question, in response to the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she was to give birth to the Messiah and Son of God: ”How can this be, since I am a virgin?”, and the angel responds, ”Nothing is impossible to God”. New life, life to the full, eternal life, can only be given by God – it cannot be earned, it has to be received precisely as gift, in faith and obedience: ”Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to God’s word” Mary says (Luke 1 : 38).
And so Elizabeth greets Mary, her younger cousin, saying: ”Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord”. There is great irony here. If Zechariah , her husband, was standing beside her, I am sure that Elizabeth would have nudged him in the ribs with his elbow and muttered “unlike someone else, who we won’t mention!” Because Zechariah, a priest of the Lord, had also received a visit from the angel Gabriel, to tell him that his barren wife, Elizabeth, would soon give birth to a son. Now the Jewish scriptures are full of stories of God opening the wombs of barren women to make them fruitful: we think of Sarah, wife of Abraham, Hannah, mother of Samuel, Manoah, mother of Samson, and there are many more such stories. Each of the children born in such unpromising circumstances will have a key part to play in the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation for his people. So barrenness in the Old Testament becomes a symbol of man’s complete inability to do anything to save himself without God. And the barren womb becoming fertile becomes a symbol of God, in his gracious love and compassion, bestowing salvation on humankind.
So Zechariah, as a priest, who is well versed in the word of God, should have been quick to receive with faith the angel’s message that his barren wife is to give birth. But he doesn’t, he rebels against the angel’s proclamation, he rejects the gift of a son, and he is struck dumb as a result, until he finally gives in and accepts God’s gift. Elizabeth points out the irony of this mature, educated, anointed priest, being unable to believe and trust in God’s word, whereas this young , uneducated, untrained virgin, Mary, can accept so readily and totally, something even more miraculous than a birth from a barren womb – in her case, birth from a virgin womb.
You know, I always used to wonder why, in the stories of apparitions of Mary or Jesus, so many of them are to children or women – so few are to men or priests. Think of Fatima, or Lourdes, or Kibeho, or Medugorje. Now I realize that we men tend to be hard-headed and hard-hearted in the face of divine revelation, particularly if it threatens to interfere with our own plans for our lives. And we priests, for all our fine theological and biblical education, can so often lack a living faith in the works of God. We read about the miraculous events in the Bible, we preach about them, but when they come out of the pages of the Scripture, and become real in our own time and situation, we react by rejecting and doubting them. Is it any wonder that God so often has to go round us priests in order to achieve his plans?
Faith and obedience are so necessary for us to be able to receive and activate the miraculous works of God. If we seem not to be receiving answers to our prayers, if we fail to see God active in a real, tangible way in our lives, perhaps we can begin by looking at our own failings, rather than always blaming God. How strong is our own faith, and willingness to be obedient to God’s word when it comes to us? Jesus accomplished our salvation, not just because he was sinless, and the Son of God, but by especially becoming human and dying on the cross, all in faith-filled obedience to his heavenly Father’s will. This is the lesson of our second reading today, from Hebrews. In essence, the writer is saying that all the various sacrifices of the Jewish Law were ineffective to bring about salvation and forgiveness of sins for us, because they lacked from the priests, and from the people, a genuine obedient surrender of heart and will to God. Whereas, the offering by Jesus, our great high priest, of his own body as sacrifice for our sins, was effective for all time, because it was done in faithful and total obedience to God’s will. Adam and Eve had cursed the entire human race by their disobedience to God’s command. Jesus, the new Adam, and Mary, the New Eve, blessed us by their total faith-filled obedience to God’s word. “See, God, I have come to do your will, O God”.
In our gospel, we read about Elizabeth greeting Mary with the words: ”Blessed are you among women”, and we are unaware of the deeper significance of those words. Only two other women are hailed in the Bible as “blessed among women”. They are Jael and Judith (see Judges 5:24, and Judith 13:23). Both these are women who, at great risk to themselves, kill the commanders of the armies of Israel’s enemies – in one case by crushing the head of the commander with a hammer (Jael), the other by beheading him with his own sword (Judith). So when Elizabeth uses the same title of praise of Mary that is used by others in commendation of Jael and Judith, she is telling us something wonderful about Mary. That this sweet, simple, fifteen or sixteen year old is really a warrior. She may not look it, but that is what she is deep down. Back in the garden of Eden, when Eve is deceived by Satan into eating fruit from the forbidden tree. God prophecies over Satan that, one day in the future, there will come a descendant of the first woman, who will crush his head with her foot. Ever since then, you had better believe that Satan lay in fearful expectation of the coming of that women who would defeat him, by giving birth to the One who would destroy him and all of his works. That woman is Mary, and the fruit of her womb is, of course, Jesus, our Savior.
St Louis Marie de Montfort once prophesied that God would raise up an end-time army who would be led by Jesus in the final battles to destroy the works of Satan. I believe that this end-time army is to include women. Time and again, I have seen women, in the face of supernatural threats to their family, their marriage and their life, discover huge reserves of passion, strength and determination within them that has led them to fight back against all the attempts of Satan to destroy them and what is most dear to them. Often those women were quite passive and timid before Satan made the mistake of riling them up by attacking their dearest affections. But, once they understood the true position and why all that bad luck was happening to them and their families, they became determined to fight back. They became warriors, fighters, using all the spiritual weapons of prayer, fasting and sacrifices that God had given them, to inflict blow upon blow on Satan and his kingdom.
I am speaking primarily now, to the women here today or on Livestream, and asking if you might not be called by Jesus as part of his end time army. If you and your family have been under a lot of persecution and tribulation of late, it may be that this is coming from Satan, who above all wants to destroy marriage and families. And this is your chance to teach him a painful lesson that, in dismissing you as no threat, he has made a fatal mistake – women will brave anything, dare anything, suffer anything in the defence of their family, especially their children. So often they are the ones who will make sure their children are brought up in the practice of the Catholic faith, will bring them to Mass, teach them their prayers, lead them through their sacramental preparation, turn them into true Catholic Christians. And women are, far and away, the most likely to attend church and to pray. We blame Eve for falling for Satan’s temptation to disobey God. We forget that, in the story, Adam has been there all along, presumably watching as his wife struggled under temptation, and did nothing to help her or defend her. He was totally passive throughout. We men need to throw off that cloak of passivity, apathy and lethargy that so often hangs around us and take our rightful positions as a shield around our wives and families, become men of real prayer and Christian witness, and say to Satan: ”Hey you! If you want to attack my wife and my family, you will have to go through me first.”
It is from the ranks of the little ones, the smallest and weakest clans of Judea, Bethlehem, that the prophet Micah proclaims the Savior of Israel will come. That one to come we know to be Jesus, and we are about to celebrate his birth in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago. But he is going to return again to earth at a time we don’t know. But when he comes, he wants to find a people waiting for him in faith and obedience. It is so often from amongst the poorest and weakest groups and sectors of society that God finds warriors for his army, and leaders who will emerge to lead their families and church communities through times of persecution and trial to victory and salvation. Brothers and sisters, may we be amongst those who Christ will find on his return, watching and waiting in faith and obedience for his coming.