FRIDAY HOMILY: The Visitation - It's Not About Me
After receiving her news from the angel that she would give birth to the Messiah, Mary traveled, as the Gospel account reports, "in haste" to the house of her cousin Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah. The elderly kinswoman has a surprise as well. She was also with child. What an amazing meeting as the mother of the Messiah approaches the mother of the Forerunner. At the very moment Mary's greeting was heard, John leaped in Elizabeth's womb.
WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - Communication is so fast now! A dear friend of ours recently got engaged and she had to work hard to keep the information from spreading like wildfire through social media, so the people closest to her could hear first. Then, with the click of a Facebook button, the announcement was broadcast worldwide.
Not so in Mary's day; where messages were delivered personally unless, like God, you had angels at your beck and call.
After receiving her news from the angel that she would give birth to the Messiah, Mary traveled, as the Gospel account reports, "in haste" to the house of her cousin Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah. The elderly kinswoman has a surprise as well. She was also with child.
What an amazing meeting as the mother of the Messiah approaches the mother of the Forerunner. At the very moment Mary's greeting was heard, John leaped in Elizabeth's womb. As the Catechism states, John was "filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb" by Christ himself, whom the Virgin Mary had just conceived by the Holy Spirit. Mary's visitation to Elizabeth thus became a visit from God to his people. (CCC 717)
As Luke shares of the encounter of the two women, we are left with two beautiful passages, one of which forms a part of our "Hail Mary" and the other, the "Magnficat." In Holy Scripture, whether we are looking at the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Wedding in Cana or other events, Mary says little, but her words are packed full of meaning. The one thing that underscores all of her communication is that, in God's salvation history, it's not about her, it's about Him.
Daily, I pray the Magnificat as a part of Evening Prayer. It seems each time this Gospel Canticle is uttered it deepens and is enriched in its meaning. Like a diamond, different facets seem to glisten on different days, given the hymn a new slant.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.
Through this song of praise, Mary's heart rejoices in what God has done in her, a lowly servant. She also delights in the way that this miraculous conception (please note I didn't say Immaculate Conception - even some of my CCD students still get confused on this term) will become a wellspring of divine mercy and Kingdom justice.
The Blessedness of Mary
In today's Gospel, the word "blessed" is used four times to describe Mary. From our English translation, we really are not able to see a shade of meaning that changes what we read.
Upon hearing Mary's greeting, John leaped in her womb and she spoke, "filled with the Holy Spirit." Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
The word there for "blessed" is "eulogeo," which means "to praise" in the sense of "to speak well of" someone. It's the same word where we get "eulogy."
Elizabeth, in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was giving praise to Mary for who she was in the greater company of all women. Interestingly, this blessedness is the result of her blessedness! Here is what I mean.
Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled. She placed complete faith in the word given. As Benedict XVI, our Pope-emeritus, stated on this Feast in 2008, Going beyond the surface, Mary "sees" the work of God in history with the eyes of faith. This is why she is blessed, because she believed. By faith, in fact, she accepted the Word of the Lord and conceived the Incarnate Word. Her faith has shown her that the thrones of the powerful of this world are temporary, while God's throne is the only rock that does not change or fall.
This is Elizabeth's reason why people will speak well of her - she is blessed but not in the sense of praise but in her sense of being fully satisfied. The term here for "blessed" is different, it's makarios, which means "the bliss of," or "the satisfaction of." She was stating that Mary's praise comes from the fact that she stands as one who is fully satisfied by God alone.
This is the same word used for "blessed" in the beatitudes and Mary, herself, uses the same term during her Magnificat - From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
The blessed Mother of God is making sure that everyone understands that any praise lavished upon her is not based on who she is but whose she is. Her life was one consumed by God at all points. This began long before her "fiat" and extends eternally in her place as the Queen Mother of Heaven.
Longing for praise and notice is a typical human condition. We all enjoy the notoriety. Many of us may dream for fame, fortune and the attention it brings based on personal success or accomplishments. This was not so with our Blessed Mother.
Her only desire was to be known as a lowly servant - a handmaid, if you will - of God. She wanted nothing more and would settle for nothing less that total surrender to Him.
This is the same heart the Apostle Paul talks about in Romans 12 when he calls out to the Church, saying, "I beseech you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service of worship." (Rom. 12:1)
Jesus also invited us to "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven." (Matt. 5:16) The light that he wants to see shining in us and through us is not of ourselves. It is God's light.
Over the years of pastoral ministry, I have seen people either leave the local church or back off to the point of merely being a "pew sitter" simply because their name was left out of the bulletin, they didn't get a specific position of leadership or someone forgot to thank them for their work. They, however, forgot Mary's lesson: It's not about me!
God's Faithfulness through Mary
In the second half of the Magnificat, the language is saturated with covenant meaning. God initiated multiple covenants beginning with Adam and Eve but particularly we see his covenant leading toward salvation at the time of Abraham. He established a covenant with the Father of Many Nations.
A covenant is much more than a contract and demands permanence by both parties. This faithfulness extends generationally to endless generations. God's commitment to Abraham, therefore, is being fulfilled through the child in Mary's womb. He is the Messiah, the one who would come and save his people. While many expected the savior to deliver the nation from political oppression, Jesus would come as a greater deliverer, providing forgiveness for our sins and new hope - hope for eternal life with God.
The Mother of God, as she stood in Elizabeth's home, was the beginning of a new covenant. As Jesus said, "A new covenant in my blood." While Abraham was still to be the father of nations, Mary - as Theotokos - would be the mother of generations. Throughout history, she would continually be remembered as the one through whom salvation history would come to its fruition.
Years ago, while still serving as an archbishop in an Anglican jurisdiction, one of my parishioners came to me and said, "Bishop, you just returned from a meetings of all the bishops. Can you tell us. what's the big picture?"
Almost without hesitation I said, "We are! What we are doing in faithfully sharing Christ and living out our life of faith. We are the big picture."
All too often, we think that God is only about the big things, those things most public and powerful. Yet, truly, the greatness of his covenant is found when we see penitent sinners faithfully living out their everyday lives. Following the waters of baptism, they continue to live out the Gospel through participation in a sacramental life and service.
As Mary said, "he has remembered his promise of mercy." As children of Abraham - children of the covenant - we continue to receive his mercy.
At the end of his 2008 address on the Feast of the Visitation, Pope Benedict closed with these words:
Dear brothers and sisters, let us return home with the Magnificat in our heart. Let us bring the same sentiments of praise and thanksgiving of Mary to the Lord, her faith and her hope, her docile abandonment in the hands of Divine Providence.
May we imitate her example of readiness and generosity in the service of our brethren. Indeed, only by accepting God's love and making of our existence a selfless and generous service to our neighbour, can we joyfully lift a song of praise to the Lord.
May the Blessed Mother, who invites us this evening to find refuge in her Immaculate Heart, obtain this grace for us.
Father Randy Sly is the Associate Editor of Catholic Online and a priest with the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter (http://usordinariate.org) established by the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, through the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. He is currently the chaplain of the St. John Fisher Ordinariate Community, a priest in residence at Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church and Director of Pro-Life Activities for the Ordinariate. He is a popular speaker for parishes, apostolates and organizations.
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