Has anybody tried to be on their best behavior the last couple of weeks? Why might that be? Could it be because someone is coming to town in a few days? And he’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice? He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good. So be good for goodness sake! No one wants to end up on the naughty list. No one wants to get coal in their stocking. That’s a lot of pressure – living under the constant surveillance of the Elf on the Shelf and the threat of getting nothing for Christmas. So how easy is it to be good? If our motivation to be good is to get everything on our list – to look good for mom and dad – to get a reward or to avoid a punishment – that puts a big burden on us. We might be able to be good for some time, but it is really hard to keep it up. And then if we mess up, how can we make up for it? Can we really be “extra good”? If we get discouraged, after messing up, we always have the temptation to say “why even try to be good?” Maybe our attempts at being good are not rooted in the right thing – that is why we find it so difficult and repeatedly fail.
The Gospel account of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth is an example of genuine goodness and charity. Mary goes in haste to be with her elderly cousin Elizabeth who she just found out is 6 months pregnant. Mary will probably be doing all the chores and the housework for her cousin – not an easy job for a girl who is probably only 13 or 14 years old. So what has motivated this goodness and these good works on Mary’s part? It is what has happened just prior to today’s Gospel scene: the Annunciation. Through her “yes” to God’s proposal through the message of the Angel, Mary became the Mother of God. The Word of God takes flesh within her. She has found favor with God! God has blessed her with his presence. The Holy Spirit comes upon her and she now carries a life within her that is not her own.
Genuine charity and goodness are only possible and can only be sustained if they are a response to the marvelous work that God has done for us – if they flow from the awareness that I am favored, blessed, and chosen by God. Mary’s charity and goodness are not her work, but the response to God at work in her. What we see is the result of an overflow or superabundance of grace in her life. She is the handmaid of the Lord – his lowly servant. Everything she has comes from God – she is full of grace – so she is under no illusion that she can earn a reward or merit a prize based on her own actions or goodness.
Charity or goodness is born as a response to the love and goodness we have received. We are not “good” in order to be loved or to receive a gift. We are good because we have been loved and have been blessed and, in turn, we desire to share the gift, the love, and the blessing we have received. So if you want to be good in preparation for Christmas, take the time to count your blessings – allow yourself to be amazed at all the good that you have and the love you have received. We should say “yes” like Mary to what we are asked to do, not out of fear of punishment or out of hope for reward but because our parents who love us and have given us everything we have, have asked us to do it. Like Mary, even if we don’t understand, we will go in haste to see the blessing, the surprising “goodness” that the one who loves us has planned for us.
Jesus has come to town, and He continues to dwell among us today through his body the Church. He doesn’t want sacrifices and good deeds as tribute or to make up for our sins. He neither desires nor delights in that. We are not following a law. He has established a new way. He wants to dwell in the body prepared for him, and we let him in by saying “yes” to his will. Jesus doesn’t give us things.
He gives us his life – his body and blood – when we are not worthy. His love for us when we are sinners – his mercy – is what moves us to be good and should be what moves us to have mercy on others in there need. It is this unexpected chain of events – this sharing of mercy – that generates joy not only in the recipient of the gift, but in the giver as well. The truth of Christmas – the event of Christmas – the origin of Christmas is communicated in this exchange of mercy – that God has entered the world and touched my life. Elizabeth too is filled with wonder and awe – “How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” All this joy before Mary has lifted even a finger to do one chore for Elizabeth. The gift and the joy and the new life communicated to Elizabeth is because of the presence that Mary bears, a presence that fills and transforms even the sound of her voice. We are baptized. God dwells in us. We receive Him in the Eucharist. Can others recognize him in us by the tone of our voice or the joyful presence we bear? This is not something that we can generate, but it only comes by allowing ourselves to be moved with the grace we have been given.
If we are finding these weeks leading up to Christmas burdensome and filled with stress because we are trying to look good for others, we are missing the reason for the season – his presence that moves us to be good and that generates joy in us and in others. God doesn’t keep lists of who is naughty and nice. What we receive from God is not dependent on our goodness. I don’t think Santa Claus – who is a Saint by the way – operates by a different principle. Let’s ask Mary to help us to recognize God’s gifts in our lives so we can be good and joyful givers this Christmas.