16 December 2015

Blessed Are You Who Believe

The visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to her relative, Elizabeth, in the final trimester of the older woman’s pregnancy, is at once the most profound Mystery and the most practical work of mercy.  And now the Son of God, St. Mary’s Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, visits us in this Word of His Gospel, no less so than He visited St. Elizabeth and the unborn John the Baptist in her womb.  Indeed, He visits you here in this place in much the same way that He visited them.

It was, in many ways, a very practical visit to begin with.  St. Mary was given the sign that barren Elizabeth had conceived a son in her old age, and so she went straightaway in accordance with that Word to see the fulfillment of that sign.  But she also went in love to help and serve her elderly relative — and in turn to learn and benefit from St. Elizabeth’s wisdom, to be strengthened in her faith and vocation by the witness of St. Elizabeth’s faithfulness and righteousness.  Thus, these two women, in some respects at opposite ends of the spectrum, yet bound together in faith and by their sons, love and serve and care for each other in mercy.

Consider what it would have been like for that dear old lady in her final months of pregnancy: Heavy with the weight of the child growing inside of her, weary from the work of it, her frail mortal flesh stretched and strained by that burden under the curse of sin and death, her bones no longer so resilient as they were in her teens and twenties.

We hear nothing of St. Elizabeth after the birth and circumcision of her son, but she likely did not live long, perhaps only a few more years in which to nurse and wean the boy.  It is no stretch to suppose that her pregnancy, her labor and delivery, might have broken her health and led to her decline and death.  Her child grew and became strong, but he lived in the deserts until his public appearance some thirty years later, dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey.  There is no indication that St. Elizabeth ever saw the Christ Child following His holy Nativity.

What she did see and receive was a welcome visit from her young relative, the Blessed Virgin Mary from Nazareth.  The dear young Mother of our Lord came and spent the final three months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with her.  And along with everything else going on in this beautiful story, her visit was no doubt a source of help and comfort.

For St. Mary, too, there was the blessing and benefit of being with and learning from the wise and faithful St. Elizabeth.  We know nothing from the Holy Scriptures concerning St. Mary’s father and mother, but it is possible that she may already have been orphaned, even at her young age.

She was probably in her early teens, old enough to be engaged by the standards of that culture, and her body able to conceive and bear a child.  But now she was pregnant before her wedding, before the consummation of her marriage.  Hence, the wonderful Word of God that she received in faith, by which the Lord was fulfilling all His promises and granting His tremendous blessings, was also throwing everything up into the air for St. Mary and putting her life into jeopardy and danger.

The Son within her womb was conceived miraculously by the Word and Spirit of God, and she herself remained a chaste and pure virgin, faithful and righteous by God’s grace.  But who was going to believe that?  What was Joseph going to think or say or do?  And what was she to do?

What she did was go with haste in the direction the Word of the Lord had pointed her, in the same faith with which she had prayed, “Let it be,” and in love for the Lord in her womb and for St. Elizabeth.  This was her vocation set before her, and just as she believed that the Lord’s Word to her would be fulfilled, so did she trust that He would care for her and provide for all her needs.  And as she believed, so was it done for her, one step at a time.

Zacharias the priest — and Elizabeth his bride, a daughter of Aaron, the mother of the Lord’s forerunner — they believed St. Mary’s story.  And they strengthened and sustained her faith in the days ahead, even as their own faith was strengthened and sustained by her confession and witness.

You should learn from this to seek out your brothers and sisters in Christ, not only your close relatives but your fellow members of the household and family of God, to love them in faith, and to be loved by them.  Resist the temptation to withdraw into ever narrowing circles and personal isolation.  Faith and love, body and soul are strengthened and sustained — and both you and your neighbor are comforted and helped — through fraternal fellowship and in the mutual conversation and consolation of those who are bound together by the Gospel in the one Body of Christ Jesus.

To be faithful by God’s grace, and to be righteous by such faith in Christ, does not mean that you will never be lonely or afraid, that you will never be confused or doubtful, that you will never be worried or anxious.  Even the Blessed Virgin Mary and Righteous Elizabeth bore the burdens of their mortal flesh, the frailty and weakness of their sinful hearts and minds, along with the bodily burden of their baby boys.  Righteous Zacharias, too, had doubted and questioned the Word of the Lord when it was first spoken to him by the Archangel Gabriel.

Do not suppose, then, that you shall simply stride forward in confident faith and never falter.  Nor despair when your mind balks, your heart quails, your body trembles, and your frail flesh falls short.  Rather, follow the example of St. Mary and St. Elizabeth in hearing and heeding the Word of the Lord, and proceed in faith upon the path that He lays before you.  You live and walk by faith, and not by sight, by the hearing of the Word of Christ.

Hidden in the womb of his mother, St. John the Baptist is already filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to fulfill his vocation and office as the forerunner.  He kicks and leaps for joy inside his Mama at the presence of the Christ, the little Lord Jesus, deeply hidden in the womb of His own Mother, and therefore doubly hidden from John!  But little John points to Mary’s little Lamb and proclaims that He is the Coming One, because that is what St. John’s whole life is all about.

St. Elizabeth heeds the non-verbal preaching of her son, as she hears the verbal confession of the young Maid Miriam, that is, her beautiful song, the Magnificat, which the Bride of Christ continues to sing to this day.  By this double testimony of her Lord, the Christ — who, even as a Fetus in His Mother’s womb, is nothing less and no one else than Yahweh in the flesh — by His gracious Visitation, St. Elizabeth too is filled with the Holy Spirit.  In faith and love and with great joy she cries out with a loud voice, singing a priestly chant of praise in the presence of the Lord.

Here the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh Sabaoth comes home to a city of Judah.  Great David’s greater Son has come to save His people from their sins, to set them free from all their enemies, from death, and from the devil, and to establish the House of His God and Father forever in the midst of His true Jerusalem, with peace and rest and perpetual felicity.  For the body of St. Mary bears the very Son of God, and the Church rightly confesses that she is the Mother of God.

He thus comes in and with a body of His own, of the same flesh and blood as St. Mary and as all of you, in order to bear your sin and be your Savior.  He bears all of your iniquity, guilt, and shame in His Body to the Cross, where He sacrifices Himself once for all — the Lamb of God, indeed, who takes away the sin of the world.  So does He shed His holy and precious blood to atone for all your sins, to make propitiation for you and the whole world, to cleanse your conscience and to seal His Covenant with you.  So does He also feed you with His flesh, to strengthen and sustain you in body and soul as He leads you out of Egypt, through the desert, into Paradise.  For He is the living and life-giving Bread from heaven, the very Word of God made Flesh for you.

With all this grace and every blessing, He comes to visit you in great lowliness and meekness, wrapped up in frailty, and hidden in deep humility.  You cannot see Him with your eyes, nor do you discern the glory of His Resurrection in the present experience of your body and life on earth under the Cross.  You share His lowliness, His weakness and humility.  Or else, when you presume to exalt yourself, He scatters your pride, empties your hands, and brings you down from your high horse.  He calls you to repentance.  He closes your mouth and shuts your lips, until He shall open them to confess, to pray, and to show forth His praises by His Word.

He does all of this in remembrance of His mercy toward you.  He does not forget you, even when you have forgotten Him.  He remains faithful even when you are not.  Therefore, He humbles you, in order to exalt you in Himself, in His own Resurrection from the dead.

His promises to you, His gifts and benefits, His life and salvation for you, are no less miraculous, no less amazing and remarkable than the pregnancies of a very old woman and a young virgin teen.  Nor are they any less true, but just as sure and certain as Christ Himself is the Truth incarnate.

What has been spoken to you by the Lord has been fulfilled for you, already in Christ Jesus, the Son of Mary, and it shall be fulfilled in you, in your heart and mind, body and soul, just as He has promised.  For by your Holy Baptism into His Cross and Resurrection, you have been born again to a new and living hope.  Blessed are you who thus, by His grace, believe His Word and promises.

Here He has brought you to His House by His Word and Spirit.  And as soon as you hear the sound of His greeting, the proclamation and confession of His grace, mercy, and peace, you also are filled with His Spirit, with the great joy and gladness of His Gospel.  So do you sing and chant and pray and confess in the confidence of Christ the Lord, in the presence of His holy Ark and Altar.

From this Altar, in this place, by His Word and with His Spirit, hidden in the womb of His Church, the dear Lord Jesus Christ visits you with His own flesh and blood.  He feeds your mortal body with His own Body, conceived and born of Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, dead and buried, risen and ascended.  And by this gracious Visitation, He feeds you and He fills you with good things, His mercy rests upon you, and He is borne in you unto the life everlasting of your body and soul.  For He has done great things for you, even by the nailing of His strong hands and outstretched arms upon the Cross.  His mighty deeds of salvation are manifested and given to you in His deep compassion for you, in His tender mercy and kind pity on your misery.

Blessed of the Lord, do not be afraid.  He shall exalt you at the proper time.  Behold, He is with you even now, and you have found favor in His sight.  Surely, He will help you at all times and in all places, for He will never leave you nor forsake you.  Just as He has spoken, so shall it be done.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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