If the 25th of Dec were to fall on this coming Thursday, it would make this Sunday less of a useless wedge in between last Sunday and Christmas. Whilst the 4th Sunday of Advent does appear pointless, since Christmas eve is tomorrow, I suspect this is because we are no longer accustomed to waiting for the right moment to arrive before we begin to celebrate. Considering we have been enjoying already, it feels like we need to find work for this Sunday so close to Christmas.
However, the Gospel begs to differ. Whether Christmas is tomorrow Monday or this coming Friday, the Gospel has the right focus because it shifts the spotlight from John the Baptist to Mary, the key player pivotal to the panoramic picture of Christmas. Indeed, the 2nd Joyful Mystery—the Visitation—is played out for us in the Gospel.
What light can Mary shed for us?
Mary stands as a beacon of faith especially when our faculty to believe is challenged. What to believe in is not as problematic as the ability to believe. There is a lot out there to believe in. The propaganda called “Fake News” is evidence of this “a lot out there” and the question for us is what we should believe in and whom do we trust.
For many of us, our trust, like Thomas the Apostle, rest on the testimony of our eyes and hand. Basically, we need concrete evidence to believe. Not a bad criterion. In a way, we are a product of the scientific revolution whereby our beliefs must be authenticated by the experience of others—the more people experience a phenomenon, the better is its objectivity. It is as if one person’s personal experience cannot be true. It needs to be validated by others before it can be considered worthy of belief by all. Since we cannot reproduce the experience of the Devil in the laboratory, is it a wonder why he does not exist for many people?
Here I am not suggesting that everything is to be believed in. The early Church Fathers were right. They pointed to the paradox that seeing is not always believing. Instead, St Anselm of Canterbury coined the precept of “Credo ut intelligam”. We believe in order that our understanding may be deepened. In the matter of the Devil’s existence, the Creed or the Credo provides for it by affirming that God is the creator of things visible and invisible. In believing, we begin to understand his malevolent significance in our world, whether in the physical, psychological or spiritual realm. But, if the devil does not exist, our faith in God is no more than a security blanket. For that, Blaise Pascal wagered that many believe only because He is useful—If He exists well and good. If He does not, we have not lost much.
Moving along this “Credo ut intelligam”, we do hear people complaining that Mass is boring. Why is that so? Why is Mass boring? It is too easy to dismiss the “Mass is boring” congregation as entertainment seekers. When faith is hinged on seeing or built on sensory perception, it definitely reduces the Mass to such a chore because the entertainment value of the Mass is next to nothing. Call it what you want, “a meal” or “a fellowship”, the Mass is also “a sacrifice” and there is nothing entertaining about sacrificing oneself to and for God. Sadly, we have been socialised into expecting more to be better—movies with more spills, more chills and more thrills are supposedly more entertaining. Do you ever wonder why we speak of trying to “attract young people to Mass” as if God Himself is not attractive enough.
The need to make God more attractive is indicative that we have lost the plot, a symptom not of a lack in belief but rather the inability to believe. In that way, Mary believed a lot more than we can appreciate and we believe a lot less than we dare to admit. Believing is not a cop out of reason. Faith is not an excuse for reason to stop functioning. Instead, faith is a deeply reasonable response. The first reading is a good example. God has provided for a Saviour to redeem His people. It stands to reason that if God had been faithful in the past, He will be faithful in the present. He can be trusted. Sadly, our scale for God’s “usefulness” is narrowly material as in in the elevation of material misery. In general, we mostly God for health, wealth and happiness. In short, our relationship with God is restricted to His fulfilment of our material comfort.
If we follow credo ut intelligam, believing opens up our mind and makes us see things differently. Mary’s faith gave her the ability to see beyond the present. And that kind faith is not the special preserve of Mary. We recognise that in some people who seem calm when all around are panicking, who appear assured whist we feel insecure and even in the face of persecution or death, the person is undaunted. In the case of Mary, her faith was not lived in a vacuum. Everything surrounding the conception and the birth of Jesus was fraught with the perils of living in a culture that has no place for a woman conceiving out of wedlock. If Joseph had not taken her in and if the fact of her pregnancy was known publicly, she would have been stoned to death. Despite such danger, without fear, she found time to go out to visit her cousin, an elderly woman who, like her, was also pregnant.
Faith did not shield Mary her from the rough and tumble of life. It does not make pain less painful. It does not remove us from danger. In other words when we believe, what we do not like or are fearful of may even be amplified or magnified. The more we believe, the more painful life can be. For this reason, Mary is titled as the Mother of Sorrow. She did not resort to drugs to protect her from the realities of believing nor did she have to turn to entertainment to dull her suffering and sorrow like we do. We frequently drink away our pains, eat away our sorrows and party away our sadness. In fact, you can say that to believe can even endanger one’s life as many martyrs will attest to that. Faith will always take us out our comfort zones. Perhaps it explains why we are unable to believe.
This Sunday is not pointless. It is pregnant with meaning because the Visitation is faith in action or if you like, actionable intelligence. Thus, it is truly Mary’s Sunday because faith is central to her entire being. Her faith in God makes Christmas shine bright for us. It is not the making of Christmas bright and brilliant that we come to believe. It is rather as she conceived Him in her heart before she conceived Him in her womb, so it must be for us to believe in order that Christ is not just born but that He may be born too in our hearts and in our actions. He came 2000 years ago, that is objectively or historically speaking. But He needs to come alive in our hearts and actions, subjectively or personally speaking. Faith is therefore the key that opens the door for the Child Saviour who knocks and awaits our response. How will Christmas be for you?