Visitation, Nativity

Friday, December 23, 2016

Caeli enarrant

For Emily and Audra

Visitation, as a divine act, in several scenes. First, a miraculously expectant Mary hastens to Elizabeth, herself wonderfully pregnant and “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Elizabeth, St. Luke says, cries out with a loud voice: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” And her prophecy continues: “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:42-44). We may not think of this as a meeting of four persons — Elizabeth and Mary and their unborn sons, the incipient Baptist and Messiah — but it was: a certifiable quorum of world-formative concourse.

Mary responds in the words of the greatest hymn and memoir of the Church, the Magnificat, spoken (or sung?) from a personalist perspective: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” To repeat her words is to make her story our own, as Christians, East and West, have done in the Daily Office since St. Benedict. The hymn is ecclesial because it gathers together “all generations,” inscribing the faithfulness of God, his favor, might, holiness, and mercy, as gifts given to “those who fear him,” notwithstanding considerable odds and opposition from the proud, the powerful, and the rich (Luke 1:46-53). And it ascends to the figure of divine peoplehood, in which Jews and Christians gratefully share together, as a mystery of grace and election: “He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever” (1979 BCP, p. 50). Mary grasps the historical significance of the events at hand, and in this way Luke sets the stage for the next scene, centered on the Lord God’s own coming “to visit us in great humility” (Collect for Advent 1), as the very type of visitation, communion, and mission.

We meditate on movements of people and of God because we all meet on the divinely given road, as sojourners in the school of divine wisdom. The God-Man himself appears there, walking alongside to explain patiently, and he comes inside when we insist he “stay with us,” whereupon our eyes are opened in recognition (Luke 24:29). Indeed, to visit (visitare) someone or something is to go and see (visere; videre), which is spiritually significant. At the Lord’s visitation, we exclaim, Look, here is the Lamb of God! (John 1:36) because we know not only “what we have heard,” as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, but also and especially “what we have looked at and touched with our hands concerning the word of life” — which life, John emphasizes, “was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us: we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:1-4).

This joyful fellowship of communion with God and with one another must, because we are wayfarers, begin in transitory stations and impromptu get-togethers. The Lord finds us and we follow, having long since been looking. He sees us sitting under the fig tree. We want to know more — for instance, “Where are you staying?” That is, May we visit you? His reply is gracious: “Come and see.” So “they came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day” (John 1:38-39).

Within these figures lie all the signs of sacramental encounter, hospitality, and homecoming, on the way to “greater things,” like seeing “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:50-51).

Of course, St. Luke provides a second canticle in his first chapter, Zechariah’s Benedictus, writ as a foretaste of the messianic pledge by dint of the amazing events unfolding before his eyes. His son, John, is born and needs a name, upon the giving of which Zechariah’s tongue is loosed to praise God: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” As God looks, so he comes, as “a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,” as “promised to our ancestors.” John, for his part, “will be called the prophet of the Most High; for [he] will go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (Luke 1:68-69, 72, 76). The inevitability of pilgrimage converges with the fulfillment of the hopes of many generations, borne faithfully by God’s people and now manifest in the birth of children whose own itinerancy will reveal the difficult way of salvation for all peoples and nations. “For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt. 7:14).

How else to understand the child John’s growing “strong in spirit … in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel” (Luke 1:80) set alongside a proposed registration of “the world,” which occasions the transit of the Holy Family to Bethlehem (2:1)? Birth, as we know, is dicey business in the best of times, and all the more re-birth by “water and Spirit” (John 3:5). In Matthew’s agonized account of the Nativity, King Herod looms as the “frightened” pretender who would bend the wise men to his will (Matt. 2:3). When they disregard his instructions, leaving “for their own country by another road,” he flies into a murderous massacre of “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under” (2:16), commemorated as the Feast of the Holy Innocents or Childermas. Set within the octave of Christmas alongside the feasts of St. Stephen, Protomartyr, and St. John the Evangelist, the Church shows us what it means to love our own in the world to the end (see 20:22; cf. John 13:1). That is, we recall that Christ came — as he comes — “to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11-13).

To be born, therefore, of God, after the pattern of God’s own birth: obedient, alert, courageous. For “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory” (John 1:14). To go and see him, to live anew in him, is to testify with John that the Bridegroom came before us, and to “rejoice greatly” in his voice as itself a fulfillment. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (3:29-30).

Almighty God, give me grace that I may cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit me in great humility. Be born anew in me this day. And give me the courage to walk before thee in holiness and righteousness all the days of my life. Amen.

Christopher Wells

Image by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP/Flickr

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