Sunday, December 23, 2018

Three Important Lessons from the Visitation

(Fourth Sunday of Advent (C): This homily was given on December 23, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Micah 5:1-4; Psalm 80:2-19; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Advent 2018]

Today I will share with you three lessons—three simple but very important lessons—that we learn from the story of the Visitation of Mary to her elderly cousin Elizabeth, which we just heard in this gospel text from Luke 1.

So here they are:

Lesson #1: Real love is self-sacrificial.  When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary at the Annunciation, one of the things he said to her was, “And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.”

And how did Mary respond to this unexpected good news about Elizabeth?  What did she do when she found this out?  Why, she did the most loving thing she could think of doing: she went to see her cousin and she stayed with her for three months (in other words, until the time when John the Baptist was born).  Remember, Elizabeth was an old woman, well past the normal child-bearing years.  Pregnancy isn’t easy even when you’re young (or so I’m told.  You ladies can correct me after Mass if I’m wrong!).  Mary knew that!  She also knew that, in all likelihood, her cousin would need some special assistance because of her advanced age—especially during the last trimester of her pregnancy.  That’s why the Bible says that she went “in haste” to Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home. 

Our Blessed Mother didn’t think of herself first; she wasn’t concerned with her own delicate condition (she was pregnant too!); she wasn’t obsessed with her own personal needs.  Her focus was on the health and well-being of someone else, and she was willing to make any and every sacrifice necessary to help that person in her need.

And for Mary, the sacrificing began with the trip itself!  The distance from Nazareth (where she lived) to Ain Karim (where Elizabeth lived) is around 80 miles.  That’s a little over an hour by car (depending how “heavy” your foot is).  But Mary didn’t have the luxury of travelling in a 2018 air conditioned vehicle.  Her mode of transportation was her own feet, or perhaps some beast of burden (which I suspect isn’t the most comfortable way to travel if you’re pregnant!).

Real love is self-sacrificial—just like Mary’s love for Elizabeth was.

That’s lesson 1 from the Visitation story. 

Which brings us to lesson 2: It’s a baby!  After Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s home and greeted her cousin, Elizabeth said to Mary, “At the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.”

Notice that she referred to the entity in her womb as an “infant”—not a “cluster of cells,” or the “product of conception,” or a “fetus,” or a “potential human life,” or a “choice”.  Elizabeth knew that she had a living, distinct human person inside of her: a baby, a child—which automatically makes her smarter than all the people at Planned Parenthood put together, because those folks don’t seem to understand this basic truth that human life begins at the moment of conception.

Or maybe they just don’t care to understand it—that’s probably more accurate.

Elizabeth also knew something else that’s very important in this regard (something that even pro-life people can sometimes forget): She knew that a woman becomes a mother not on the day her child is born; rather, she becomes a mother on the day her child is conceived!  Elizabeth said to Mary at one point, “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

She called Mary a mother!  And she was right—even though Mary was only in the first days or weeks of her pregnancy.  Mary had become a mother at the moment she said to the angel Gabriel, “Be it done unto me according to your word” and conceived Jesus within her body.

This is why I always invite those who are pregnant with their first child to come forward on Mother’s Day at Mass for the gift we give to the moms of the parish.  The world says you’re not a mother until the day your first child is born, but that’s not true!  The truth is that you begin to be a mother nine months before your first child is born.

This brings us to the third and final lesson that I’ll focus on today in this story of the Visitation: We are all called to bring Jesus to others (like Mary did)—and at the same time we’re all called to recognize the presence of Jesus in others (like Elizabeth did).

Mary brought Jesus—literally and physically—to Zechariah and Elizabeth when she came to their home.  As Catholic Christians we’re also supposed to bring Jesus to people.  We’re supposed to bring him, spiritually speaking, to the people we have contact with in our daily lives.  We “bring” the Lord to others, of course, by our faith and by our charity; by our words and by our actions; by knowing the Gospel and by living it as fully as we can each and every day.

Which is hard—very hard!  And if we think it isn’t hard, then obviously we don’t know the Gospel message as well as we should.

Nor is it always easy to recognize the presence of Jesus in others, like Elizabeth did.  She greeted Mary with the words we now say in the Hail Mary:  “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  Then immediately she spoke the words I quoted earlier: “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Notice that she called the child in Mary’s womb her “Lord”.  That was an extraordinary affirmation, an affirmation that had to have come from a source beyond herself.  And it did; it came from the Holy Spirit, who was mentioned at the beginning of the story.  By the power of the Spirit (not by her own power, but by the Spirit’s anointing), Elizabeth was able to perceive the presence of God within her cousin Mary.

This, I would say, is one of the most important reasons why we should pray to the Holy Spirit often!  Let’s be honest about it, it’s very difficult to be conscious of the presence of God in certain people that we have to deal with: the people who dislike us, who hurt us, who slander us, who use us, who betray us, who steal from us.

Whenever we encounter people like this in our daily lives, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, is probably not the first person we think of!

We need the Holy Spirit to help us see that, in spite of the bad things they’ve done to us, these men and women are still created in the image and likeness of God and loved by Jesus Christ—who died for them just like he died for us and for the rest of humanity.

We need the Spirit to help us to be aware of these things, because they’re very, very easy to forget.

So there you have it: three simple but very important lessons from the Visitation:

Real love is self-sacrificial; what’s in the womb after conception is a human life; and we’re called as Christians to bring Jesus to others (like Mary did) and to recognize the presence of Jesus in others (like Elizabeth did).

I think the most appropriate way to end this homily is by asking you now to pray with me one Hail Mary.  In doing this we will be asking our Lady to pray for us, that we will all take these lessons to heart and allow them to have an impact and an influence on our lives. 

And so we say together:

Hail Mary …