GSC 23 December 2018
Today we are very close to the Nativity – we have been looking forward and preparing for over three weeks to celebrating the Saviour`s birth and today our readings show Our Lady, Mary the Mother of God as the living Ark of the Covenant for just as the Ark of the Old Testament was seen as the presence of God with His People so we now see Mary as that living Ark carrying the Holy Child within her womb as she goes to visit her much older cousin Elizabeth.
We are seeing the fulfilment of the prophecy of Micah quoting the Lord as saying: `You, Bethlehem Ephratha, the least of the clans of Judah, out of you will be born for me the one who is to rule over Israel; his origin goes back to the distant past, to the days of old.` Again, the writer to the Hebrews quotes what Christ said, on coming into the world: “You who wanted no sacrifice or oblation, prepared a body for me. You took no pleasure in holocausts or sacrifices for sin; then I said, just as I was commanded in the scroll of the book, `God, here I am! I am coming to obey your will.`”
Between the two, as it were, we find in Chapter 1 verses 39-44 of St. Luke`s Gospel the wonderful story of Our Lady Mary`s Visitation to her older cousin Elizabeth the wife of Zechariah who was herself pregnant with John the Baptist. Mary goes to Elizabeth to give her the Good News that she is herself pregnant but not only to give her the good news but to be of practical help for the last three months of Elizabeth`s pregnancy. The double miracle becomes plain – Elizabeth pregnant against all odds because of her great age and Mary, a virgin pregnant at the desire of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. Not only do Mary and Elizabeth greet each other in Zechariah`s House at Ein Karem but we are told that John the Baptist leapt in the womb of Elizabeth and she was filled with the Holy Spirit and cried out: `Of all women you are the most blessed. And blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord ?` When we think about it the statement is quite extraordinary. Elizabeth, as the elder cousin, the wife of a priest of the Temple, would logically be given the greater honour but no, it is the younger cousin Mary who is already newly-pregnant as she was who is honoured by the elder cousin: `Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of My Lord ?` telling how the child – John the Baptist had leapt for joy in her womb! John`s ministry of preparing the way of the Lord was already taking place before he was born. And Elizabeth goes on to say, `Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.` Yet what we find is a woman, who had obediently accepted Gabriel`s invitation from God to bear His only-begotten Son with all the implications that such obedience would mean – possible scorning from the local community of Nazareth and the initial questioning by Joseph who was minded to divorce her. Having taken all this on board we find her to be so loving that she makes the journey to Ein Karem to be with her elder cousin and to roll up her sleeves and get on with the work of assisting her through some three months of her pregnancy before returning home to Nazareth. Even the journey was a hard one and would have taken about a week by foot or donkey from Nazareth in Upper Galilee to the environs of Jerusalem. Perhaps we should remind ourselves too that Zechariah, Elizabeth`s husband, had been struck dumb for not believing what Gabriel had said to him in the Temple so Mary in her months of service to her cousin would have had to cope with this too. However, it seems that Mary was not present at the birth of John the Baptism for she had already returned home.
When we read the story of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth we find, continuing from where this morning`s Gospel reading finished, Mary`s response in verses 46 to 55 here great hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God which we call the Magnificat: `My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…` This song has been said or sung by Christians daily at Evening Prayer from earliest times. But that is a subject for a sermon on its own at another time.
Of course, the leaping of John the Baptist in the womb of Elizabeth, causing her, by the grace of the Holy Spirit to recognise that Mary is carrying the Saviour in her womb. There is a prefigurement of this in Genesis 25:22 where we read of the story of Isaac and Rebekah when she was pregnant with Esau and Jacob. Similarly Mary`s Magnificat of Praise is prefigured by the Song of Hannah following the birth of Samuel after the weaning of whom she presented the child to the Lord through Eli which story we find in 1 Samuel 1 and 2.