The Lord says this: But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labour has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth, and he shall be the one of peace.
O shepherd of Israel, hear us,
shine forth from your cherubim throne.
O Lord, rouse up your might,
O Lord, come to our help. (R./)
God of hosts, turn again, we implore,
look down from heaven and see.
Visit this vine and protect it,
the vine your right hand has planted. (R./)
May your hand be on the man you have chosen,
the man you have given your strength.
And we shall never forsake you again:
give us life that we may call upon your name. (R./)
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, "Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, 'See, God, I have come to do your will, O God' (in the scroll of the book it is written of me)."
When he said above, "You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings" (these are offered according to the law), then he added, "See, I have come to do your will." He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God's will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.
The readings invite a final pause, one further holding of the breath, before the birth of Jesus. The Visitation, in particular, with its explicit and implied encounter(s), may help us reflect on all the encounters of this season, not forgetting "the" encounter to which we are all invited.
When a mother is expecting, all the focus is on her health. She gets loads of advice -- 'be careful,' 'don't lift that' and 'don't forget your afternoon nap.' Once the baby is born the main attention moves to the baby -- 'who does she look like?' 'what name will you give him?' …and so on. So on this last Sunday before Christmas the Gospel is focussed on Mary, the expectant mother, and in particular, on her visit to her cousin, Elizabeth.
One could say that Mary is even more honoured in the Eastern Church than she is in the West. In the West, after the 16th century reformation, many Protestants stopped honouring Mary. Many shrines were levelled, stained glass windows were broken, statues of Mary shattered, pictures of the Madonna burnt. Still, not all Protestants disowned Mary. A frequently quoted line about her is where William Wordworth refers to her as 'our tainted nature's solitary boast.' Martin Luther had a lifelong devotion to Mary and even kept a picture of her on his desk, though many Lutherans seem unaware of this.
All Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, like to meditate on the Magnificat, that prayerful song brimming over with anger at the way the world is tilted against the poor. It is Mary's cry for justice: He has filled the hungry with good things/ And sent the rich away empty. This is Mary who inspires all followers of her son to challenge injustice also in our own time and place.
The two pregnant women in our Gospel today are different in age, yet both full of joy and concern for each other. Mary goes to visit Elizabeth because of the dangers attendant on so late a pregnancy. That she went with hasted, halfway across the country, to make the visit is a clear sign of Mary's generosity and goodness. Through the light of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth recognised Mary's privilege as the mother of the longed-for Messiah. She greets Mary in the words we are so familiar with in our Hail Mary. And Mary responds in the equally familiar words of the Magnificat. These two great women understand the miracle of conception and birth. But in each case there was divine intervention in a truly exceptional way. The Gospel says that both were informed of this fact by the words of an angel; they each had a message from God telling them so.
The fact that these two women had this divine intervention is a reminder that our own lives too are a gift of God; what we might call ordinary grace. It is from this understanding that the Church takes its position on all life issues.
At some moments we may recognise the hand of God in our lives. Maybe at the point when we felt we had a priestly or religious vocation or when we finally decided on our partner in marriage. Maybe it was at the birth of a child, a change in job circumstances, or the death of a parent. Maybe it was a moment in prayer, the grace of a sacrament, advice in the confessional, wise words from a friend or relative at a critical moment.
God continues to work with us and for us. God takes the long view and there are periods of seeming barrenness, seeming aloneness. But these are all part of that gestation which is life on earth. We were born into this world and we will be reborn into eternal life.
Every now and then like John the Baptist we leap in this womb which is our life on earth. Every now and then we recognise God's presence, as John recognised Jesus' presence, and we leap with joy. But life is always moving on and God is always with us. It was God caused us to come into being, who sustains and feeds us, and who will welcome us into life eternal. As well as the birth of Jesus, we celebrate our own birth too at Christmas -- a birth, a life that flows towards death and final resurrection.