holy cross sermon for advent 4, year c, december 23 2012 – the visitation

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Christmas is upon us. And today, the final Sunday before the feast, the final Sunday of our preparations, Mother Church holds before her children the story from Luke’s Gospel of the Visitation, when our Lady, St. Mary, pregnant with the Incarnate Word, went to visit her cousin, Elizabeth: “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechari’ah and greeted Elizabeth,” (Luke 1.39-40).

This story comes right on the heals of the story of the Annunciation, when the Angel of the Lord announced unto Mary that she would conceive by the Holy Ghost, and bear the long-awaited Messiah. And after her wonder at the announcement, Mary declares herself to be the handmaid of the Lord, and asks the angel that it may be to her according to his word. And the Word was made flesh in her womb. Eternity entered the domain of the temporal. The Creator of heaven and earth, whom the world cannot contain, became a human embryo and rested beneath the heart of the Virgin Mary.

In the story of the Annunciation, the disobedience of Adam and Eve is overturned, and Mary’s “Yes” to God opens the doorway for the salvation of mankind. In his recent book on the Gospel’s infancy narratives, Pope Benedict says,

“After the error of our first parents, the whole world was shrouded in darkness, under the dominion of death. Now God seeks to enter the world anew. He knocks at Mary’s door. he needs human freedom. The only way he can redeem man, who was created free, is by means of a free ‘yes’ to his will. In creating freedom, he made himself in a certain sense dependent upon man. His power is tied to the unenforceable ‘yes’ of a human being…. This is the crucial moment when, from [Mary’s] lips, from her heart, the answer comes: ‘Let it be to be according to your word.’ It is the moment of free, humble yet magnanimous obedience in which the loftiest choice of human freedom is made.” (p. 36)

At the Annunciation, which we commemorate after each mass in the Angelus, which we pray at her shrine, Mary gives herself to this most wonderful and most unique of all missions. She declares herself to be the Lord’s handmaid – literally, in Greek, the Lord’s slave-maid. And here again is a divine paradox: that in this act of giving herself entirely to the Lord, such that Mary becomes his slave, “the loftiest choice of human freedom” is enacted. So our part of the Church has received this paradox in the second Collect at the office of daily Morning Prayer, where we acknowledge God to be the one “in whose service is perfect freedom.”

We pick up today’s Gospel reading being told what Mary did, having become the Lord’s handmaid through her total assent to his will. It says that “in those days” – in other words, at that time, after giving herself freely and completely to God and having become his servant –  in THOSE days, “Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country.”

She gets up and she goes. There is no hesitation. She acts determinedly, confidently, and without delay – because she is the handmaid of the Lord and she is on a mission. Her “haste” is borne of her faith, of her having conceived God’s Word within herself. And this is how it is for the Lord’s people. For us as well, when we, with Mary, say “Yes,” to God, and conceive his Word within us. There is nothing left to do but to rise and go with haste, to be about God’s purposes. It is Mary’s faith in God, borne of her love for God, that impels her, that gives her this determination, indeed this fearlessness. And remember that the angel had said to her, “Do not be afraid,” (Luke 1.30). Even her fearless haste is subsumed under the paradox of her queenly humility. Even here she is obedient to God’s word.

Mary enters the house of Zechariah, and greets Elizabeth, her cousin, herself pregnant with the baby that will grow up to be John the Baptist. And the text says that “when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb,” (Luke 1.41). Here we see how it is that the destiny, the purpose and mission of Mary is inextricably linked to that of her divine Son. As someone once said, the Gospel is not about Mary, but Mary is ALL about the Gospel. And so at the sound of her voice, the unborn Baptist leaps for joy, and his aged mother, Elizabeth, is

“filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.’” (Luke 1.42-45)

Here we have the completion of the first half of the “Hail, Mary” prayer, the first part of which had been spoken to Mary by the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” And now, inspired by the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth cries out, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” What a privilege it is for us, twenty centuries on, to join the archangel and Elizabeth in this inspired salutation of our Lord’s mother. Her faith in God, borne of her love for God, her assent to his will, her single-mindedness in her mission, all of which opened the doorway for our salvation, makes her truly “blessed among women.”

We see too, in Elizabeth’s exclamation, the truly heroic faith of Mary, a faith that exceeds even that of Abraham, her otherwise peerless father in faith, and ours. Elizabeth says, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Blessed is she who BELIEVED.

The saints, beginning with Mary’s own cousin, Elizabeth, and the unborn Baptist, bear witness to Mary’s unsurpassed blessedness. And Mary herself, responding to Elizabeth, in the great canticle Magnificat, echoing the voice of Hanna, the mother of Samuel – Mary gives glory to God, crying out, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden; for behold from henceforth ALL GENERATIONS will call me blessed!” (Luke 1.46-48).

And this is a primary facet of our expectant joy, as we approach the great mystery of Christmas itself: proclaiming with the angels and saints the blessedness of our Lord’s mother, and giving thanks to God for exalting her lowliness; and asking God, through the merits and prayers of this, his exalted handmaiden, that we may be made like her – trusting in the promises of God and the “good things” (v. 53) that he is even now about to give to us. Let us rise, too, with Mary and go with haste about the business to which the conception of God’s word within our own hearts impels us. And above all else, let us prepare with hopeful and prayerful expectation to greet our coming King.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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