The Visitation: The Old Testament Points to the New

 

            As our world is bursting with excitement this last day 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.  Perhaps 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 only 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.  What I would like to do today is focus in on each of these mothers.

 

            First, consider Elizabeth.  She was married into the heart of the Temple tradition.  One thousand years earlier, the great King David, the instrument of God and unifier of the people of Israel and Judah dreamed about building a Temple.  We read in the Second Book of Samuel: When King David was settled in his palace, and the LORD had given him rest from his enemies on every side, he said to Nathan the prophet, "Here I am living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God dwells in a tent!" Nathan answered the king, "Go, do whatever you have in mind, for the LORD is with you." Later on Nathan tells David not to build the Temple.  He’s shed too much blood, the prophet says.  More than this, the ancient Jews were divided about whether having a temple in Jerusalem would be taking on the pagan custom of trying to confine a god to a particular place. 

 

            By the time of Solomon, the religious leaders agreed that a temple would be an acceptable way of honoring God as long as it was clear that it was a focal place for his worship, a place that would point to God among his people.  And so the great Temple of Solomon was built.  It quickly became the center of the holy city, Jerusalem.  The Temple was added on to, rebuilt and restored throughout the following years, but always remained the heart of the worship of the people chosen by God.  Most, not all, but most of the Psalms were written for the Temple.  Then four hundred years later, around 580 BC, disaster struck as the people were taken off into Babylon and the Temple was deserted and neglected.  When the people returned fifty to sixty years later, they had expected to find the great center of their worship that their parents and grandparents told them about.  Instead, they found an abandoned city and a demolished Temple.  It took them twenty years to even get around to rebuilding the temple, and even then it was just a small and inadequate structure. 

 

            Over the years attempts were made to restore the Temple to its original beauty, after all it was the heart of the Jewish worship life.  Perhaps it was when the Temple was defiled by the Syrians in the century before the Lord, that the Jewish people once more focused on its meaning in their lives.  Just before Jesus and John were born, Herod, yes the same bad King who tried to kill the Lord, Herod began a reconstruction of a new Temple.  It would be magnificent.   The Temple that Zechariah entered was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  Years later the disciples of the Lord would  marvel at this Temple.  Jesus would weep.  He wept because the Temple was losing its meaning in pointing to the presence of God.  He also realized that the temple no longer had meaning now that he was among his people.  To end the story of the Temple, it was completely destroyed by the Romans in AD 73 and never rebuilt.  No matter.  Spiritually, this was not a loss, for the Temple was not needed anymore to point to the Lord. The Book of Revelation concludes scripture with the vision of the New Jerusalem: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb.”

 

            Now, back to Elizabeth.  She, in her pregnancy, represents the best of the ancient chosen people of God.  Like the Temple itself, a sign pointing to the presence of God among his people, Elizabeth’s 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 becomes the first of the Christian prophets pointing to the one he would later call the Lamb of God.  He emboides and brings to a conclusion the Temple Tradition of Israel, the tradition of reminding the people that God is among them.

 

            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 proclaimed the Magnificat to Elizabeth because she knew what the Lord was doing within her and for her.  He was raising her up from a lowly handmaiden 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 begins with Mary.  She was the woman of faith and the woman of courage who said “yes” to the Lord.  Perhaps, we have never considered it, but 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”.  Denise Levertov’s poem Annunciation highlights this so beautifully:

 

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished, almost always a lectern, a book: always a tall lily.

 

Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings, the 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

              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 iridescent wings.

 

                        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 those 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.