One of the greatest joys a family can experience is the birth of a baby. In those months of pregnancy, everyone in the family - grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles - excitedly counts down the weeks. The anticipation plays itself out through baby showers and frequent visits. Everyone in the family wants to help out and be a part of the blessed event.
As followers of Christ, we are called to live these weeks of Advent with the same excitement and anticipation - especially in this last week with Christmas only a few days away and the candles of the Advent wreath nearly burned down. The joy should be evident in our faces and in our voices as we sing. Our Lord is near! Our hearts leap with gladness!
This sense of jubilation runs deeply through today's gospel reading. Mary, upon learning that her cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant, goes into the country to pay her a visit. Saint Luke tells us that she traveled "in haste". She was anxious to share her joy with her cousin and to celebrate with her all that God had done. Elizabeth and the child in her womb both are overjoyed by the thought that the mother of their Lord was paying them a visit. They recognized that it was God himself growing in Mary's womb. She was bringing the Almighty Lord into their home and sanctifying them by her visit. They could not contain their awe and wonder at what God was doing in their midst.
It is said that friendship divides our sorrow and multiplies our joy. When we have good news, it is impossible for us to keep it to ourselves. We have to call all our family and friends to tell them about our good fortune so that they can celebrate with us. Joy is not meant to be kept hidden away. Rather it is meant for us to share with others so that it can grow, infecting others and enveloping us with its light.
Each of us would be quick to share the news of a promotion at work, of a pregnancy in the family or if we won the lottery. But are we just as eager to share with others what God has done? Are we willing to tell others the insights we receive in meditation or how God has answered a prayer for us? Do we invite others to share the joy we receive because of our intimate friendship with Jesus? Or is it something we keep to ourselves, something we consider private? If so, we are missing out on a tremendous opportunity to spread the joy of the gospel to others and on the opportunity to let our enthusiasm for our faith take over our souls.
Mary and Elizabeth could not help but share with each other and celebrate together the wonders God worked in their lives. We should not allow fear, self-consciousness or concern about what others may think to keep us from doing the same.
Of course, all this presupposes that we are living our faith in the fullest way possible through the grace of God.
It happens perhaps more frequently than we like to admit that our faith becomes a matter of going through the motions. We try to meet our obligations - going to Mass on Sunday, contributing to the Church - but our heart is not fully given over to Christ. It is not that we are doing anything wrong, it is just that we are not investing ourselves fully into our faith. When that happens, when our faith is only on display on Sundays, we are not experiencing the fullness of joy that Jesus came to bring us. When we are merely following the rules and not following Christ, we are witnessing to others that religion is burdensome and lifeless. It is a far cry from the enthusiasm and spirit which filled Mary and Elizabeth. This last week leading up to our celebration of Jesus' birth is a good opportunity for us to recommit to our faith, to make a heartfelt decision to put God at the center of our lives and to make his word the guiding principle of our homes. Then we will be filled with a new fervor to celebrate the birth of Jesus because his presence will have become real and active in our lives once again.
The other obstacle keeping us from experiencing fully the joy of our faith is sin. When we fail to repent of our sins, they cut us off from God and his life which are the source of our strength and happiness. That is why we call serious sin, "mortal", because it is a fatal wound to our soul. But, by the grace of God, there is a sure remedy - the Sacrament of Reconciliation. When we confess our sins, we receive healing for the wounds those sins left on our soul and are given the strength to live our faith not just on Sundays but during the week. Our shame is taken away from us and joy floods our heart. We become radiant again with the peace that comes from being reconciled to God.
There are still a few days left before Christmas. If you have not yet taken the opportunity to go to confession, I urge you to make it a priority for yourself. Put it at the top of your "to do" list for this week. If you do so, you will find that this Christmas season will be unlike any other you have ever celebrated because you will experience in a new and deeper way the peace and friendship with God that Jesus came to bring.
Mary is blessed among women because she believed that God's word to her would be fulfilled. Elizabeth was blessed because she received the mother of her Lord into her home. We are blessed also because we have put our faith in God's word and we rejoice that Jesus is among us in a real way through the gift of the Eucharist, his body and blood which we are about to receive.
Our joy over such incomparable blessings should know no bounds. We should be running through the streets making it known to everyone we meet. Then the joy of this season - a joy which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit - will be alive in our hearts, and we will know the real meaning and power of Christ's birth.