Immensity

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4th Sunday of Advent, Year C: Dec. 19-20, 2009
Mic 5:1-4; Ps 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19; Heb 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-40

It was just an ordinary April day, back in the 1st century, in the hill country of Judah—that day that Mary arrived at the house of her relative Elizabeth, after she had journeyed south from Nazareth. To an outside observer, there was nothing particularly unusual about this act of kindness—this young woman going to help her older relative through the last trimester of her pregnancy. There was nothing unusual about the way that they fondly greeted each other when she arrived. Surely it was the sort of thing that happened every day.

But this outside observer would have been completely wrong. Because there was nothing ordinary about this Visitation.

There were five people present that day. The first was Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband—who was a priest and an older man. We don’t hear much from him in this story. Maybe he was a man of few words. Of course, Zechariah had been a man of no words at all for the previous 6 months, ever since the archangel Gabriel had visited him while he was offering sacrifice in the Temple. The angel had started out by telling him—as angels always do in the Scriptures—not to be afraid. And maybe Zechariah took that in a little too deeply, and became a little too casual, and forgot that it’s never a good idea to mouth off to an archangel. He asked for proof of Gabriel’s words; and Gabriel told him that his proof was that he wasn’t going to mouth off to anybody, or be able to speak at all, for the next 9 months.

Which probably made the second person in this story, Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth, a very happy woman. After all, if Zechariah talked that way to an archangel, what kinds of things must he have said to his wife regularly! But Elizabeth had plenty of other reason to be happy, because Gabriel’s message had been that they would have a son—this couple, who were both older, and had never been able to have a child. We know that this is a very difficult thing, even in our time; and in their culture it was especially hard. And so, when the angel’s words proved true and Elizabeth conceived, she was overjoyed, as she said, that the Lord had chosen to take away her disgrace before others. And even that wasn’t all. The angel had said that their son would be great in the sight of the Lord … filled with the Holy Spirit; and that he would go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.

That son, John the Baptist, is the third person present; and in this story he gets an early start to his career. He’s not even born yet! No, it’s not that his mother decides to play “Baby Einstein” right up close where he can listen—even though, at only 26 weeks into the pregnancy, and only weighing 2 pounds, his hearing is fully developed. And so, when his mother Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, so did he; and he leaped in her womb. Now, a baby moving and kicking in the uterus is nothing special; but this was the very first time that John the Baptist—not even born yet!—was declaring that the Messiah, who the People of Israel had waited for, for so long, had just walked into his parents’ house.

And it was even something more than that. The theologians tell us that, at that moment, John was filled with the Holy Spirit right there in his mother’s womb; and so, at that moment, he was cleansed from original sin. Remember, this was before anyone in the world had been cleansed from original sin through baptism. Everyone in the world was stained with original sin—except for exactly three people. John the Baptist had become the third one, right then—because the other two had just walked into the room.

Mary had just arrived from her journey in haste from Nazareth, and so she had become the fourth person in the room. That outside observer would have had no way of knowing that she was even pregnant. It had been, perhaps, only about a week since the archangel Gabriel had visited her, too; since he had hailed her as “full of grace”; since he had told her that, without loss of her virginity, she would conceive in her womb and bear a son, and he would be called the Son of the Most High, the Son of God the Father himself; and of his kingdom there would be no end. It had been only a week since she had said Yes, “Let it be done to me according to your word”; since the power of the Most High had overshadowed her, and since she had conceived—

—the fifth person in that room, our Lord Jesus Christ. At just 7 days since he was conceived in her virgin womb, he was still smaller than the head of a pin. He wouldn’t have even implanted in her uterine wall yet. No pregnancy test could have detected him yet; no outside observer could have seen that he was there. But he was there; and his conception had changed the entire cosmos. God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, eternally begotten of the Father, had taken on human nature and been conceived as man in the womb of the Virgin Mary. From all eternity, he had been the Eternal Word, the Almighty Son of the Father; and now he had been the son of Mary for just 7 days.

The poet John Donne once addressed her:

That All, which always is All everywhere,/ … Lo, faithful Virgin, yields himself to lie / In prison, in thy womb; … / Ere by the spheres time was created, thou / Wast in his mind, who is thy Son, and Brother, / Whom thou conceiv’st, conceiv’d; yea thou art now / Thy maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother, / Thou hast light in dark; and shutst in little room, / Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb. [From “The Annunciation,” of his seven La Corona sonnets.]

Our second reading today tells us: When Christ came into the world, he said: … a body you prepared for me. A body, at that time so incredibly tiny, given to him by his mother Mary: which he would offer as that infinite sacrifice that would redeem the world; and in which he would rise from the dead, that body transformed, the firstfruits of the Resurrection; the Resurrection into which he invites every man and woman, and the entire cosmos, and which he will bring to completion at his Second Coming, his Second Advent, for which we watch.

The immensity of what is happening in this gospel reading blows our mind. John the Baptist leaps for joy in his mother’s womb; Elizabeth cries out, “How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”; and a moment later Mary begins her great canticle of praise, in which she will sing, “From this day all generations will call me blessed; the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.” Zechariah doesn’t say anything; but three months later, when he can finally speak, he too will burst forth with his own canticle of praise.

The immensity of what is happening is this gospel reading may even be, some theologians speculate, what sparked Lucifer’s rebellion ages earlier. It may be that, when that mighty and beautiful angel first learned that God was planning the Incarnation—that God was planning that one day the divine nature and human nature would be hypostatically united in the person of Jesus Christ—that he couldn’t stand it. He couldn’t stand such an incredible gift would be given, not to angels, the highest of God’s creation, but to human beings; that the entire host of heaven would have to bow to a man! And so he rebelled against God as Satan because of the immensity of what is happening in today’s gospel reading—

—which our outside observer couldn’t even detect. Because to him it looks like it’s just two women greeting each other on an ordinary April day in Judea.

Today is an ordinary December day in Maryland. Except that we’ve just had a record-breaking snowfall! And so it has taken all of you a lot more effort than usual to get out of your driveway, and clear off your cars, and make your way here—for what? A Mass? A bunch of American Catholics getting together—different colors, different ages, different shapes and sizes, pretty average group—to sing some hymns, hear some Scripture readings and a homily, pray some prayers. It doesn’t look like anything special. It’s just another Sunday Mass in Maryland. Why make the effort on such a snowy day?

But what our ordinary outside observer doesn’t see is what goes on beneath the surface. He first of all cannot see that every one of us here was created in the Image and Likeness of God—as no angel ever was. 60 years ago, C.S. Lewis wrote:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. [The Weight of Glory]

And that’s just the beginning. Every one of us who has been baptized has been conformed to Jesus Christ in his death and begun to receive the benefits of his resurrection. Your original sin has been washed away, like John the Baptist’s was that day. You have been adopted in Christ as a son or daughter of God himself. And an indelible character has been imprinted upon your soul, that surely every angel or demon can see shining brilliantly when they look at you. If you have been confirmed, you have been sealed with the Holy Spirit, and another brilliant indelible character has been imprinted. Some here have the indelible character of ordination. Some here have been joined together with the real sacramental bond of marriage—a bond that surely can be seen too; a source of tremendous grace and which only death can dissolve.

Our outside observer cannot detect a bit of this. But it turns Satan red with envy.

And in just a matter of minutes, our Lord Jesus will make himself present in his one perfect sacrifice to the Father—including that body which he received from his mother Mary. He will be just as small and hidden as he was on that April day in Judea; and he will be just as transforming. John Donne might well say to us: That All, which always is All everywhere,/ … Lo, faithful Catholic, yields himself to lie / upon thy tongue, upon thy palm, close under thy heart. Thou hast light in dark; and shutst in little room, / Immensity.

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Published in: on December 20, 2009 at 1:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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