01 June 2019

Visitation Homily on the Feast of the Visitation (3 Year)

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

Well, let's get the bad news out of the way first. Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the great Cappadocian fathers of the fourth century, leader of the Second Great Ecumenical Council held at Constantinople in 381 (you know, the one that gave us basically the final form of the Nicene Creed), and regarded by none other than Johann Gerhard as simply THE greatest theologian of the Church ever, THAT Gregory....He was being badgered to attend to another meeting of church leadership, and he wrote (Letter 124), and I quote: "Synods and conventions I salute from afar, since I have experienced that most of them (to speak moderately) are but sorry affairs." Ouch. And here you are, prepping for a convention of Synod. No question that it can end up being the sort of sorry affair Gregory the theologian expected. But you know, it need not.

Tonight's reading opens up another way, a better way. Behold a different kind of convention, of coming together, a Synod, if you will, that is anything but a sorry affair. Let's think on it for a few minutes. Mary, having spoken her "let it be to me according to your word" leaves Nazareth and heads to the Judean hills. Mary, that is, AND the little child whose tiny heart may already even then have been beating beneath her own. Why head to Judea? Gabriel had told her this was already the sixth month with Elizabeth, her old kinswoman. As Mary reaches the door, she calls out her greeting."Shalom, Cousin Elizabeth!" And maybe even "Baruch ha shem adonai!" Blessed be the name of the Lord. Praise for a safe journey.

Whatever she said, at the sound of her young voice, Elizabeth sat up startled. And not just because of an unexpected visit. Something happened inside her. The child in Elizabeth's womb, St. John the Baptist a little more than six months along now, did a somersault of joy. And Elizabeth sat straight up in shock, filled with the Holy Spirit, and then she saw it. She saw the whole thing in a moment. I don't doubt Zacharias had somehow communicated to her all that happened in the temple. She knew that HER child was the forerunner for Another, to "make ready for the LORD a people prepared." She saw it and wonder shone on her face as Mary stepped into her house that day. 

Can you see her go over to the virgin? Can you see Elizabeth's old hands gently hold Mary's face between them as she looks with tears into those questioning eyes? This was not the first time that Mary would have the experience of that look and it would not be the last. A look of awe on people's faces. She'd seen it on the angel when he came to her, bearing his astounding embassy. Now the awe shines from Elizabeth. Mary was coming to understand what it meant: "Ah, here's another that God has let in on the great secret of the ages!"

Elizabeth looks her in the eye and whispers: "Blessed are you among women!" Blessed indeed. There would never again be such: a woman who would unite both virginity and motherhood in her body, the walking fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14. But more. Can you see Elizabeth step back, look down, and maybe lay a trembling hand upon Mary's womb and say: "And blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is it granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, as soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy." Blessed in being Virgin Mother, yes, blessed even more in this: that the fruit of her womb is the Lord, is Immanuel, is God with us! She alone of all creatures is the Mother of God, the Eternal Word. Now first two beatitudes Elizabeth pronounced upon Mary are Mary's alone. We are blessed in contemplating them but we do not share them and never will. But Elizabeth is not done blessing. Oh, no.

For now, I strongly suspect she turned to her old Zacharaias lurking in the corner watching it all unfold, and she gave him a proper look as she pointed to Mary and cried out: "And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord." (Unspoken, of course, but no doubt heard were the words: Unlike you, you silly old goat! Arguing with an angel and ending up silent all these months, not that I'm complaining about that too much). But this last beatitude, this blessedness of Mary that she believed what the Lord promised her, no matter how crazy and impossible it seemed, this, people loved by God, this is a beatitude you can share with her. Just like old Zacaharias was laughing and nodding in agreement with his cheeky wife. "Yes, I should have known better." He no doubt thought: "Truly, with God nothing is impossible, nor do any of His words fail." 

Luther once pondered this text and concluded that in contained three miracles. The first was that a Virgin would conceive and become a mother. The second that her child should actually be God the Eternal Son in human flesh. And the last? The last miracle, said the Reformer, was that Mary should believe any of it. And he paused to add, that he didn't know if that weren't actually the greatest miracle of them all. And that this last miracle for which Elizabeth blesses Mary is precisely the one you can share,

I think Luther got that last blessing of Elizabeth as the greatest from an incident later in Luke's gospel. You remember Jesus had been teaching, and a lady in the crowd cried out her own beatitude upon Mary: "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you sucked." Jesus responds in what surely seems an odd way: "Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it." Now, I don't think He was putting down His mother, but He was inviting that lady and you and me too to share in the greatest blessedness of Mary. Blessed are THEY who hear the Word of God and hold onto it, not just blessed is SHE.  But how many times does Luke say it: "and Mary kept all these things, these sayings, and pondered them in her heart." As though Jesus were saying: Get right, dear woman, what was so extraordinary about my momma: her greatness was this, that she heard and held the Word of God's promise to her and credited it as truth. And you can do that too. In fact, that is the very secret of the Church's abiding joy: that we come together to read and hear, hold and treasure, ponder and proclaim "what was spoken to us from the Lord."

Mary, of course, hearing these three beatitudes from Elizabeth breaks into her joyous song. And do you notice: we sing her song with her. Every evening in the Church whenever we gather for Vespers or Evening Prayer, we take up Mary's song. All of us. Why? Because this last blessedness is ours too. She alone is Virgin Mother; she alone is Mother of God, but the Child she bore, He is the Lord and our Savior of who has done great things for us too and holy is His name.  

Now just for a moment, back to Gregory's sad observation about the sorry affairs that in his experience Synods and Conventions usually turn out to be. I dare say they end up that way whenever we come together around any other reason than to be in the presence of the Lord together, to listen to Him as He speaks aloud His words and promises, and then being set free to join in singing His praises, and asking His gifts and praying with all our might that HIS will to be done among us, and not our own. In other words, what if you just trashed all your own private agendas, admitting them to make for the sorry state of affairs that Gregory the Theologian expected, and instead entered into the joy of the Lord Jesus, basking in the love that brought Him from the heights of heaven to the Virgin Mother's womb, from Mary's womb to the manger, from manger to cross, from cross to resurrection, from resurrection to Ascension, and who seated at the right hand of the Father still delights to pour out His Spirit upon His people, so that through His words and promises and Sacraments He dwells among us, even that we wait with joy for that moment when He will appear again in glory: His final promise kept!

Look, just like He was there with Elizabeth and Mary and John the Baptist and Zacharias, hidden in His mother's womb, but busy at work as He filled Elizabeth with the Holy Spirit and John with joy, His hidden advent, even so He comes still among you still to fill you with joy ("In Thy presence is fullness of joy at Thy hand are pleasures forevermore"), to free you from fear (His "perfect love drives out fear"), to set your lips to praising and your lives to serving, while you wait. As Mary and crew waited for the day when "that Babe, the world's redeemer, first revealed His sacred face," so we wait now for Him to show that same face once more at His glorious appearing. 

O people loved by God, do not miss out on the third blessedness of Mary: it's for you. Listen and hold tight to your God's promises, trust His Words and pray that everything you say and do this weekend and at Convention will strengthen the congregations and schools and mission starts and ministries of our Synod and all her workers to do the same that together we may open our mouths and say with Mary: My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He that is mighty hath done great things for me and holy is His name. 

Because then even Gregory the Theologian would find nothing to grump about in our coming together. And wouldn't that be glorious?

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

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