Sunday, December 23, 2012

Advent 4

Readings: Micah 5:1-4a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45

Today, as we teeter on the brink of Christmas,
the Church offers for our consideration
the story of the Visitation:
the pregnant Mary’s visit
to her pregnant kinswoman Elizabeth.
This event might be familiar to some as the second joyful mystery
upon which one meditates when praying the rosary.
To others is might be more familiar as the subject matter
of great paintings by Giotto, Fra Angelico, Albertinelli, and Raphael.
Whether as a joyful mystery to be meditated upon
or as a subject depicted with great beauty by artists,
the story of the Visitation –
Elizabeth’s greeting of Mary as blessed
and the unborn John the Baptist leaping in her womb
in recognition of the Messiah whom Mary bears within her –
seems to be a fitting prelude to the joy and beauty of Christmas.

The poet Jessica Powers captures some of this joy and beauty
in the opening lines of her poem “The Visitation Journey,”
in which she meditates on Mary’s journey to Elizabeth:
The second bead: scene of the lovely journey
of Lady Mary, on whom artists confer
a blue silk gown, a day pouring out Springtime,
and birds singing and flowers bowing to her. 
But then Powers introduces a note of skepticism
about this picture she has painted.
If we consider the incredible news
that Mary had received from the Angel,
the news that she, a virgin, in some ways still a child,
would give birth to the Son of the Most High God,
then perhaps her journey to visit Elizabeth
was neither entirely joyful nor completely saturated in beauty.

Powers continues:
Rather, I see a girl upon a donkey
and her too held by what was said to mind
how the sky was or if the grass was growing.
I doubt the flowers; I doubt the road was kind. 
Rather than the calm and self-possessed Queen of Heaven
whom we might envision in our prayers
or see in great works of art,
Jessica Powers presents us with the image of a young girl,
her mind filled with all that had recently transpired,
preoccupied on her journey with trying to make sense
of how God had grabbed her life and shaken it,
overturning all that she had expected
and promising her something she could barely imagine.

It is still a joyful mystery, a beautiful mystery,
but its joy and beauty are of a sort
that can only be taken in slowly and with great effort.

Powers concludes her poem:
“Love hurried forth to serve,” I read, approving.
But also see, with thoughts blown past her youth,
a girl riding upon a jolting donkey and
riding further and further into the truth. 
Jessica Powers suggest to us that Mary’s visit to Elizabeth
was not unmarked by fear and perplexity.
But it was not only a journey of fear and perplexity.
Because of her faith, Mary knew
that despite her fear and perplexity
her journey was a journey further and further into the truth.
It was faith that allowed her to see this,
which is why Elizabeth says to her,
“Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.”

Teetering on the edge of the great mystery of Christ’s birth,
Mary was no doubt filled with fear and perplexity
but she was also filled with faith:
truly blessed was she who believed.

And we too, teetering on the edge of the Christmas feast,
have not been immune to fear and perplexity
as the past week has brought more and disturbing news
of the school killings in Connecticut.
And we can only try to imagine the fear and perplexity
of the families and friends of those who died.
What can Christmas mean for those whose lives
have been touched by such horror?
What does it means to celebrate Christmas
in the shadow of the cross?

Blessed are you who believe
that fear and perplexity
do not have the last word,
but that we are even now journeying
further and further into the truth.
Blessed are you who believe
that the horror and suffering
of a world awaiting redemption
cannot completely hide
the joy and beauty of Christmas.
Blessed are you who believe
that the Christ whom we expect,
whom we await
and in whom we rejoice
will visit us in his mercy
and heal our broken world.