15 December 2010

Blessed Is She

Beloved, God’s grace is greater than your need. His forgiveness is larger than all your sins. And His answers are bigger than your prayers.

But He gives you Himself and all of His biggest and best gifts in the smallest of packages, hidden under the meanest of wrappings.

Not by sight or sense, but only by the sound of His Voice do you recognize His Visitation, His coming to you and His presence. For He comes to you by the speaking of His Word, and His Word becomes flesh under the Law, under the Cross, in the womb of His Church. It is the ultra-sound of His Gospel that makes Him known, and reveals Him to your heart and mind, and opens your eyes of faith to perceive Him where He is and as He is.

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. Every year I marvel at this story, as often as it is set before us. For the Son of God, St. Mary’s Son, our Savior, 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. In truth, He here visits you in much the same way that He visited them.

It is first of all a very practical Word, and a very practical visit. St. Mary was given the sign that barren Elizabeth had conceived a son in her old age, and so she went straightway 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. 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 insider 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 a few more years to nurse and wean the boy. It is not a stretch to suppose that her pregnancy, her labor and delivery, broke 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, leastwise not with her own eyes in her life on earth.

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. Aside from everything else hidden within this Visitation was the help and comfort she brought.

And for St. Mary, too, there was the blessing and benefit of being with 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, the age of many of our young ladies here at Emmaus. She was old enough to be engaged, by the standards of that culture, and her body was able to conceive and bear a child, but now she was pregnant before her wedding, before the consummation of her marriage. The very wonderful Word of God that she received in faith, by which the Lord was fulfilling all His promises and granting such grace and every blessing, was also throwing everything up into the air for St. Mary and putting her entire life into jeopardy and danger.

Sure, 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?

She went 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 would believe dear Mary’s story. They would strengthen and sustain her faith, even as their own faith would be strengthened and sustained by her confession and witness.

You should learn from this, beloved, 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 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 proceeding in faith upon the path it sets before you. 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 beginning to fulfill his vocation and office as the forerunner. He kicks and leaps for joy inside his Momma 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 and preaches, as it were, because that is what his whole life is about. Here he is, Mom! Here He is! Here’s the Lamb of God! Here’s the Lord, in the flesh!

St. Elizabeth perceives the non-verbal preaching of her son, even 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 with her. By this double testimony of her Lord, the Christ — who, even as a Fetus in His Mommy’s belly, 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, with great joy she cries out with a loud voice, singing a priestly chant of praise in the presence of the Lord, her God.

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 the devil, 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; hence, she is the Mother of God, the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is both God and Man.

He comes 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 it 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 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.

He comes to visit you with all this grace and every blessing in great lowliness, wrapped up in weakness, 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. That is the once barren womb from which you have been born again to a new and living hope, by the water, Word and Spirit of His Holy Baptism.

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.

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. Blessed are you who believe, by His grace.

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 Bride, the 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. 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 upon your misery.

Blessed of the Lord, do not be afraid. He shall exalt you in the proper time. Behold, He is with you, 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.

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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