BLESSED AMONGST WOMEN
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON SUNDAY DECEMBER 20th 2009
Our children have just presented a portrayal of the meeting of Mary with the very pregnant Elizabeth, rather than the traditional nativity story. I want to focus briefly on that Gospel reading, in particular the words in Saint Luke 1: 42 of Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”. This story is called the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and is kept in the calendar of the Church on May 31st.
The story is rather unusual. It is not something we traditionally associate with the nativity – but it is an integral part of the birth of Jesus and of the Incarnation. To understand this we need to look at the whole story.
Elizabeth and Mary were cousins, Elizabeth was a much older woman, as was her husband Zechariah. In fact Saint Luke 1: 7 stares: “Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years” – implying that they could have no children.
One day her husband Zechariah was performing his rites as a priest in the temple at the altar of incense, when the archangel Gabriel appeared to him – the same archangel who appeared to Mary some six months later. Gabriel told Zechariah that his wife was going to conceive and bear a son. Zechariah did not believe this – he knew that they were too old to have children.
Because of his lack of faith, the archangel Gabriel struck him dumb. He did not speak again until the day when their son was named when he was circumcised in the temple. That was a rather amazing event. When they came to name the child, they wanted to name him Zechariah after his father – but Elizabeth said he was to be called John. So they motioned to Zechariah to ask him his opinion, and he wrote on a tablet “His name is John”. Immediately his speech returned.
So Zechariah is an example of a person who would not believe, who had no faith, but whose faith was restored. Their son was John the Baptist – the forerunner of Christ. Now we see the connection. The archangel Gabriel appears to these two women, Elizabeth and Mary, and tells them of amazing conceptions they are going to have. And their children are unusual – John the Baptist, the forerunner, and Jesus, the Messiah.
We know the story about Gabriel and Mary. He tells her that she is to conceive and bear a son. She, being a teenage virgin girl, said: “How can this be?”. Gabriel goes on to explain that it is through the Holy Spirit. And Mary then changes from one of little faith to a women of faith. She says: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word”.
Thus we have the contrast between Mary, who is the woman of faith, and Zechariah, who doubts.
As a sign that all things are possible with God, Gabriel tells Mary to look at her cousin Elizabeth. She is now six months pregnant, and she was called barren by her gossiping neighbours. With God all things are possible.
When we come to today’s story, Mary goes off to see Elizabeth. Upon Mary’s arrival, St Luke says that the babies in the wombs leapt for joy.
John, three months before his birth, sixth months into the pregnancy, recognises Jesus, newly conceivedin the womb of Mary. Here is the Holy Spirit doing an incredible thing – making these babies leap for joy in their mother’s wombs.
Elizabeth is also inspired by the Holy Spirit, and says to Mary: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb”. Then she says why Mary is blessed: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord”.
Elizabeth could see the difference between her husband Zechariah – he of little faith – and Mary, who had faith enough to believe that what was promised to her by the Lord would happen. Mary is the woman of faith. She was ready to embrace God’s will and to trust in him – no matter how difficult it must have seemed to her.
I’m sure Mary had doubts, not only then, but along the way. She certainly would not have understood everything. Even later on Jesus would be a bit of a mystery. Remember that incident when Jesus was twelve and Mary and Joseph brought him to the Jerusalem to do the ceremonial act in the Temple? When they left they forgot about him, their group was so large. And three days later they returned to Jeruslaem, looking for him – and found him in the Temple, at twelve years of age, talking to the authorities, the Scribes and the Pharisees. Talking about things of God.
Mary and Joseph, being good parents naturally were concerned and expressed their exasperation – as I’m sure all of you have. Perhaps when you’ve been shopping in Mission Valley and the kids go off looking for toys – you’re not too kind to them when you find them!! So we can understand Mary and Joseph being a little exasperated.
And what’s the response that they get from their twelve year-old son? “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house”. How strange is that. Even with all that Mary knew about Jesus, it must have seemed to her like a strange thing to say.
So when we look at Mary we see that she did not find being a disciple plain sailing, or that she had all the answers – even though she had been told more than anyone else. Isn’t that the same with us? Life is not plain sailing, we don’t always know the answers, and often we are in situations where we are more than perplexed, and sometimes even angry.
Yet, she followed God’s will. She didn’t follow God’s will because she got the answers – but in faith she launched out into the deep. And she did not pretend that there were no doubts or problems.
But there is one thing that she did know. God has asked her to take part in some great mysterious enterprise, and she trusted that in the end, things will turn out okay.
Wouldn’t we like to have that sort of faith? That is why Mary is a model of discipleship for Christian people – and why she is called Mother of the Church. Because she is both an example to us, and a sign of what the Church must be. Of what we are all called to be.
This Visitation has much to teach us, particularly about the importance of family and friends. As if we need to be reminded of that at Christmas! But it’s good to have the example of Mary and Elizabeth to remind us of the value and the beauty of our families and our friends.
And of course the story has a final sign for us. It finishes with the Magnificat – that great song which Mary sang, and which the Church says everyday at Evening Prayer. The great song of praise from Mary. And so we, too, as disciples are called to also to sing a song of praise to God. Especially at Christmas.