The Fourth Sunday of Advent [C]
Micah 5:1-4 + Hebrews 10:5-10 + Luke 1:39-45
December 19, 2021
“‘… behold, I come to do your will, O God.’”
Sacrifice has long been the heart of religion. From pagan religions to the religion of the Old Testament to the religion of Jesus Christ, sacrifice stands front and center.
However, the object of sacrifice has differed greatly from one religion to another. That is to say, that which has been sacrificed to God has differed greatly from one religion to another.
At one end of the spectrum, the most horrific example of religious sacrifice is the ritual sacrifice of innocent human beings in an attempt to appease wrathful pagan gods. Other pagan religions made sacrificial offerings without violence. They offered sacrifices of material objects that were important to their livelihood. They sacrificed objects such as animals or grains that might instead have been needed to feed their families.
In this latter type of religious sacrifice, then, there would be a two-fold sacrifice. First, the object was destroyed through its being offered as a religious sacrifice to God. Consequently, that ritual sacrifice meant that the person sacrificing had to endure a sacrifice of well-being—a personal sacrifice—since he could not use the sacrificed object for his own need and comfort.
The Old Testament, in contrast to pagan religious sacrifices, bears witness to sacrifices ordered and directed by the Lord God Himself, often also demanding personal sacrifice. In the Book of Leviticus, for example, the Lord gives lengthy, detailed instructions about both the objects to be sacrificed to Him, and the manner in which each sacrifice is to be made.
In addition to the sacrifices offered ritually by Israel’s priests, other members of Israel made religious sacrifices. One example is Joseph and Mary, shortly after Jesus’ birth, travelling to the Temple where they make a sacrifice of two turtledoves [Lk 2:24].
That example evokes two other types of sacrifice that God often called for in the course of the Old Testament. These are not ritual sacrifices, but are deeply personal sacrifices. The first occurred when God called an individual to take a “leap of faith”, such as Abram leaving his settled life in Haran for an unknown land [Gn 12:1-4], or Moses leading the People of Israel forth from the Red Sea into the desert for a long, perilous journey [Ex 15:22]. The second occurred when God called an individual to confrontation against great odds, such as Moses confronting the Pharaoh [Ex 3:10-15], or the youthful David confronting Goliath [1 Sam 17:32-37].
This background of Old Testament sacrifices—ritual and personal—stands behind the Gospel Reading for this last Sunday of Advent. The passage focuses upon part of the Joyful Mystery of the Visitation. The latter half of this passage consists of Elizabeth, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” speaking about Mary.
The Blessed Virgin Mary reveals two dimensions of Christian sacrifice. First, what is the object of Mary’s sacrifice? She sacrifices her very self, not another person or an inanimate object or animal. Mary’s life becomes a literal “holocaust”: that is, a sacrificial offering entirely consumed by the will of the Lord, according to His Word.
This complete self-offering demands from her a “leap of faith” into an unknown future. Furthermore, that future will demand that Mary confront the fullness of evil, as foretold in the first book of the Bible after the fall of Adam and Eve, where the Lord speaks of her crushing the serpent [Gn 3:15], and as described in mystical terms in the last book of the Bible [Rev 12].
Nonetheless, all the gifts of Mary’s life—from her Immaculate Conception to her Coronation—and all that Mary herself accomplishes through her vocation are rooted in a second, more fundamental dimension of Christian sacrifice.
Not only does Mary offer her whole self in sacrifice. She bears Christ within her very self. It is Christ within that makes self-sacrifice—according to the will and Word of God—possible.
Consequently, through her self-offering, Mary offers the sacrifice of the Word made Flesh to God the Father. She bears Jesus so that she might offer Him as the object of her own self-sacrifice.
Yet despite the greatness of her vocation, Mary does not stand on a pedestal at a remove from you and me. She is the model for each of us who works at following Jesus. What Mary bore physically, each disciple bears through grace, most especially through the Eucharist. Each disciple sacramentally bears the Body of Christ within, to make possible the complete offering of one’s whole self to the will and Word of God.