Christmas is almost upon us. When we gather to celebrate the fourth Sunday in Advent this year, Christmas will be at most a few hours away. The feast hurries towards us, as Mary once hastened through the hill country to greet her cousin Elizabeth, bearing the Good News within her.
It is easy to forget the young girl's haste. The many paintings of the Annunciation, the statues of the Madonna and child, have accustomed us to a still, calm, figure. St Luke presents us with a woman in a hurry. Mary's haste is the measure of her response to the angel's message: the Annunciation immediately precedes the Virgin's journey in this Gospel. Her haste shows how profoundly she has been moved by the Word she carries. To receive the divine Word is not to remain unchanged, but to carry that Word to others.
So we witness the alacrity with which Mary at once acts as a disciple. At the same time, what we see in this hurried journey is God's urgency to communicate His joy. It is the measure of how profoundly God desires our happiness. No wonder the child in Elizabeth's womb leaps for joy. That unborn child for a moment anticipates the lasting bliss promised to each of us in heaven. If behind the sudden events of the visitation stretch the long years when Israel waited in hope for the promised Messiah, we now see how decisively God acts in the fulness of time.
The same divine grace which impels the Virgin, and which stirs the unborn child in her cousin's womb, moves Elizabeth to sing Mary's praises: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." She is inspired to proclaim the place of Mother and Son in God's plan of salvation. Mary, Elizabeth and John are each quickened, animated, given new life and a new direction in life. They are together caught up in the drama of God's unfolding providence. God chooses them as his agents.
For Mary this will demand great courage. The Gospel for this Sunday suggests as much as it echoes episodes in the Old Testament. Elizabeth's greeting echoes that once spoken by the prophetess Deborah to Jael in the book of Judges: "Blessed be Jael among women." It echoes the words spoken to Judith: "Blessed are you, daughter ... among all women on earth." The Virgin Mother of God stands in the line of these earlier heroines, who laboured courageously for Israel's freedom from oppression.
The question is what kind of courage God now asks of her - and us. Jael and Judith used violence. Jael killed Sisera, the army warlord who governed and terrorised Israel for twenty years. She hammered a tent peg into Sisera's head. Judith freed Israel from Holofernes by cutting off his head. Mary will do no such thing. Her courage is to be located in her faith. As Elizabeth says: "Blessed is she who believed that the promise made to her by the Lord would be fulfilled."
Our courage likewise is to be located first and above all in the faith with which we dedicate ourselves to Christ, who did not take up arms, but endured our violence. Elizabeth's prophetic words then suggest an essential element of this courageous self-dedication. It takes courage for Christians to act and speak prophetically in their own society. We are given the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to do just this. We must tell the truth about this society, what it does to men and women made in God's image, what we do to each other. We must proclaim the advent in this society of the One who is able to free us from the evils of our own making, the Judge who will redeem the oppressed and give them justice.