Fourth Sunday of Advent: The Visitation
As our world is bursting with excitement these last days before Christmas, the Church presents us with two expectant mothers, bursting with the excitement of their pregnancies. We refer to the scene as the Visitation. Spiritual writers have often said that Mary’s first act as the mother of the Savior is to bring his love and kindness to her kinswoman, Elizabeth, the Visitation being an act of charity. There is far more to this meeting than that. After all, Elizabeth was the wife of Zechariah, a Temple priest whose rank was so high that he was chosen that year to be the priest to enter the innermost chamber of the Temple, the Holy of Holies. Certainly there were plenty of women around Elizabeth to help her through her pregnancy and childbirth.
This meeting of the two expectant mothers has a deeper significance than just being an example of charity. It is the Old Testament pointing to the New Testament. It is John within Elizabeth, leaping for joy, pointing to Jesus within Mary.
What I would like to do today is focus on each of these mothers.
First, consider Elizabeth. She was married into the heart of the Temple tradition. She, in her pregnancy, represents the best of the ancient chosen people of God. The Temple was a sign pointing to God. The ancient Hebrews struggled with the concept of constructing a Temple. Pagans constructed temples and limited their gods to their buildings. The Hebrews knew that God could not be limited to one place. But they wanted a place to honor God. They wanted a place that would hold a special presence of the One whom the universe could not contain.
Elizabeth’s body was like that ancient Temple. Her body contained the one who would point out the Lord to the world. John the Baptist, within Elizabeth, leapt for joy in the presence of Jesus within Mary. John, the last of the ancient Israelite prophets became the first of the Christian prophets pointing to the one he would later call the Lamb of God. He embodied and brought to a conclusion the Temple Tradition of Israel, the tradition of reminding the people that God is among them.
When Jesus died on the cross, the curtain in the Temple that separated the Holy of Holies was torn in two. Now everyone, not just the high priests like Zechariah but everyone could experience the deepest presence of God. The Temple is no longer needed to point to the Lord. The Lord is among us. Our homes, our families, our parishes, our lives have been transformed into the new Temples of the Lord. We must keep our homes sacred and holy, for they are the dwelling places of the Lord. We must keep our bodies and our lives sacred and holy, for the they also are dwelling places of the Lord. The Lord is not just among us, he is within us as he was within Mary that beautiful day when Elizabeth met her cousin.
Mary, the expectant young girl, was bursting with joy, not just for Elizabeth, but for the life within her. Mary did not just put up with the pregnancy. It wasn’t as though she had no choice but to deal with being pregnant. Like all good mothers she loved being pregnant. But more than any other mother, she enjoyed a unique possession of the Word of God within her. Mary proclaimed the Magnificat to Elizabeth, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” Mary knew what the Lord was doing within her and for her. He was raising her up from being one of many young women to the one whom all ages would call blessed. “The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” She is the Blessed Virgin. The Mother of the Lord. “Whom am I, that the Mother of our Lord should come to me?” asks Elizabeth.
God’s plan for the redemption of the world began with Mary. She was the woman of faith and the woman of courage who said “yes” to the Lord. Let’s go back to that moment when Mary agreed to become the mother of the Lord. It is the moment when the annunciation, the angel Gabriel’s message, was transformed into the incarnation, God took on flesh within Mary. Mary could have said “No.” She could have given a million reasons why she could not make this sacrifice, just as we give a million reasons why this or that sacrifice is too much for us. But Mary said, “Yes”.
I love Denise Levertov’s poem Annunciation. It embodies the hope of the world waiting for an answer from a young virgin.
We know the scene: the room, variously furnished, almost always a lectern, a book: always a tall lily and an angelic ambassador, standing or hovering, whom she acknowledges, a guest.
We are told of meek obedience. No one mentions the courage.
The engendering spirit did not enter her without consent. God waited.
She was free to accept or refuse, choice integral to humanness.
Aren’t there annunciations of one sort or another in most lives?
Some unwillingly undertake great destinies, enact them in sullen pride, uncomprehending.
More often these moments,
when roads of light and storm open from darkness in a man or woman,
these moments are turned away from in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue. God does not smite them. But the gates close; the pathways vanish.
She did not wail, she only asked, ‘how can this be?” and gravely, courteously, took to heart the angel’s reply, perceiving instantly the ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry in hidden, finite inwardness nine months of Eternity; to contain in the slender vase of being the sum of power--in narrow flesh, the sum of light.
Then to bring to birth, push out into air, a Man-child needing like any other, milk and love--but who was God.
This was the minute no one speaks of, when she could still refuse.
A breath unbreathed, Spirit suspended, waiting.
She did not cry, “I cannot, I am not worthy.” nor, “I have not the strength.” She did not submit with gritted teeth, raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans, consent illumined her. The room filled with its light, the lily glowed in it, and the wings of the angel became irridescent.
Consent, courage unparalleled, opened her utterly.
And we have been saved because Mary trusted in God. We understand the importance of Elizabeth’s words to Mary, “Blessed is she who trusted that the Lord’s word to her will be fulfilled.”
The meeting of Elizabeth and Mary is the pointing of the Old Testament to the New, the revelation of the Messiah to the people longing for a transformation, the message that we who have been chosen to make the Lord present in the world must, like Mary, say yes to God’s plans. For God works his wonders in those who trust in him.
Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.