Second Preface of Advent (the long prayer that leads up to the “Holy, Holy, Holy”), which the Church uses between December 17 and Christmas, mentions only two saints by name: the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. Presenting them as living icons of the Advent season, the prayer recalls how “the Virgin Mother longed for him with love beyond all telling, John the Baptist sang of his coming and proclaimed his presence when he came.” In the Gospels of the last two Sundays, we already contemplated St. John the Baptist’s call to “prepare the way of the Lord,” and listened to him “sing” of the Lord’s coming with his self-denial. But in the Gospel of this fourth and final week of Advent, our gaze turns toward Mary. Outwardly, the transition from the stern “voice crying out in the wilderness” to the gentle virgin from Nazareth could hardly be more abrupt. But despite all the obvious differences in appearance and activity, Mary resembles John the Baptist in the one thing necessary: in intense longing for the advent of the Lord into her life and into the world. . She “longed for him,” as our Preface reminds us, “with a love beyond all telling.”
I’d like to make just one observation about our Gospel today that might help us to appreciate the quality of Mary’s longing. The observation concerns her famous response, “May it be done to me (γένοιτό μοι) according to your Word.” Though it’s a little hard to bring this out in English translation, the original sentence is actually what they call a “wish” formula. It doesn’t indicate only Mary’s reluctant acceptance of her destiny, or even her noble resignation to the angel’s proposal. It also indicates Mary’s positive desire, her deep longing to be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and to conceive the Son of the Most High.
This joyful reception of Gabriel’s message is all the more remarkable given the the fact, in Mary’s day, the law prescribed execution for women found pregnant out of wedlock (though it seems it was seldom applied). Her longing to receive her savior, in other words, was stronger than her desire for safety and security; her attachment to Lord’s will was stronger than that strongest of all human instincts: self-preservation. Within the heart of this young woman from Nazareth, popularly described as “gentle woman,” “peaceful dove,” and “mother mild,” beat the heart of a martyr. Surely this is what it means to say that she “longed for him with a love beyond all telling.”
The liturgy reinforces Scripture, then, when it places Mary and John the Baptist in parallel; for it turns out that Mary is made of very much the same stuff as her cousin-once-removed. Just as John the Baptist became so absorbed in preparing the bridegroom’s way that he didn’t shrink from denouncing Kings and from calling foreign soldiers to repentance, so was Mary absorbed in welcoming her Lord, even to that point of neglecting to fear for her own safety.
I don’t think I need to spend too much time pointing out that we too become “absorbed” in days leading up to Christmas, though not always in the right way and with the right persons. There are the pressures of office parties, and purchasing, and travel. We might simply ask, through Mary’s intercession, for the grace to be absorbed in the coming of Christ this week, and for the courage proper to those who “long for him with a love beyond all telling.”