Oblate Brother Mickey McGrath, “Windsock Visitation” (CNS photo/Courtesy of Oblate Brother Mickey McGrath)

I took a trip to New York City this week from Los Angeles, and although it was a work trip I hoped that the cold weather and the promise of a holiday-decorated New York would put me in the Christmas state of mind. I also looked forward to seeing colleagues I hadn’t seen in person since the onset of the pandemic. This time of vaccinations and booster shots has created a sense of relief and hope. Although we can see that the pandemic is not over, we also know there are protections that were not available to us a year ago. We’ve been able to see our loved ones again, to socialize with friends, and to meet with colleagues, even if with some modifications.

There is, however, a downside to this. It is no secret that we are tired of the pandemic. In becoming reaccustomed to the freedom and flexibility of pre-pandemic life, we also run the risk of being less vigilant about the continued presence of COVID-19 and its variants. We also run the risk of being desensitized to the increasing number of deaths in the nation, which recently surpassed 800,000. 

Walking through New York’s Bryant Park Christmas Market and seeing the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree put me in the holiday spirit, but nagging thoughts about the Omicron variant kept entering my head like an unwelcome guest determined to take away this cheer. You can do your best to enjoy a night out, but you can’t help but be suspicious of the people who surround you. Someone in the crowd might be unvaccinated or infected; the varying degree of mask use makes you wonder if you are safe. It makes it difficult to accept Advent’s invitation to trust.

There is a great solace that comes from feeling enthusiastically greeted, understood, and respected.

On this fourth and final Sunday of Advent, the Gospel reading narrates Mary’s trip to visit Elizabeth, a woman who, like Mary, is witnessing miraculous acts of God in her own life and feeling the realities of pregnancy. They are both experiencing a form of joy in the middle of physical and emotional demands. Elizabeth proclaims the words we know well: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42). What we don’t read but I like to imagine happened is that Mary responded with the same sentiment. Elizabeth even goes on to question her worthiness when she says, “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43) The blessed mother’s tenderness should fill us with the expectation that she would respond to Elizabeth by expressing her own love for her. They each acknowledge the sacredness of the other.

I believe that one of the reasons the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth is filled with such revelation is because there is a great solace that comes from feeling enthusiastically greeted, understood, and respected. When you’re accompanied in this authentic way, you get the feeling that you are in the presence of someone who sees the value of your life and your potential to contribute to the world. Elizabeth meets us this final Sunday of Advent to prepare us for an authentic encounter not only with the newborn child, Jesus, but with the divine and the sacred in every person we meet. She reminds me that among the crowds, where there might be some percentage of people carrying this unfortunate virus with them, 100 percent of these people nevertheless live blessed lives, lives full of dignity and necessary for the kingdom of God. Knowing this gives me the impetus to keep going and to remain vigilant about health protocols in our collective effort to keep new cases of the virus down. It also shakes me out of the numbing effects of this prolonged pandemic and fills me with great sorrow over the loss of lives, making the expectation for the birth of the savior keener. 

The 79-foot Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center is a sight to see, but the Advent season’s invitation to renewal and recommitment to one another is the real source of lasting Christmas joy. The opportunity to catch up with my colleagues, to be enthusiastically greeted, understood, and respected, was the Advent preparation and Christmas spirit I was hoping to find on my trip. Every time we experience this with the people in our lives, we become more capable of doing the same with strangers. Covid may again end up affecting our Christmas plans, but the Advent season prepares us to see the celebration of the mystery of the incarnation as something that is celebrated every time we, filled with the Holy Spirit, praise God for the person before us.

This is the fourth and final installment in a series of 2021 Advent reflections. You can read the first one here, the second one here, and the third one here.

Claudia Avila Cosnahan is the Mission & Partnerships Director for Commonweal and an instructor and consultant for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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