“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.”
An ancient tradition designates a small village about four miles west of Jerusalem, as the home of Zachariah.
In the midst of it, on a kind of platform, stands the Franciscan convent of St. John in the Desert. The church is large and stately, and includes the site of the house of Zachariah, where St. John Baptist was born.
In a kind of grotto is an altar ornamented with marble, bas-relief work, and paintings. In the center of the pavement is a slab, with the inscription, “Hie Praecursor Domini natus est.” (Latin: Here the forerunner of the Lord was born.)
Today the Church of St. John the Baptist is a Greek Orthodox church with a monastery next door, and a popular destination for tourists.
The scene presented to us in the Gospel we heard today is the visitation of Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus, to her cousin Elizabeth. This story only occurs in the Gospel according to St. Luke, and not in the other Gospels.
In the preceding verses, the angel Gabriel had visited Mary, and given her the prophecy of the birth of Jesus. With her assent, the Holy Ghost came upon her, and the power of the Most High overshadowed her. And Jesus was conceived.
Gabriel also told her that Elizabeth would give birth to a son, and in fact she was six months pregnant. We celebrate John’s birth on June 24, six months and one day before the birth of Jesus, on our liturgical calendar.
The miraculous thing about the conception of St. John is that Elizabeth was barren. “For with God nothing will be impossible,” says Gabriel.
When Mary greeted Elizabeth, her son jumped for joy when he heard it. Elizabeth was then filled with the Holy Ghost and said, “”Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
She called Mary, the “mother of my Lord.”
I occasionally get questions about Mary. Questions like, do we worship Mary? Do we pray to Mary?
Well, we obviously do not worship Mary as if she were God. We may ask Mary to pray for us. She is the mother of our Lord, and mother’s always hold a special place in the hearts of their sons.
We also venerate Mary as mother because she gave Jesus his flesh, his humanity. The Orthodox church refer to her as the Theotokos, a Greek word that means God-bearer.
Also in this Gospel reading we heard was is referred to as the Magnificat, from the Latin word for Magnified.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
Mary remains very humble about her role as the Mother of God. Instead of magnifying herself, like many people do, her soul magnifies the Lord.
My name is not holy, but his Name is holy, says Mary.
The Mighty One is God the Father, the creator of heaven and earth.
This canticle is in our Prayer Books in the service of Evening Prayer so it is said every day, and in every hour, in churches around the world.
There are some doctrines about Mary that were promulgated by the Roman Church, which Anglicans are free to accept or reject without any risk to our immortals souls.
What is important for us, I believe, is that we revere Mary as the mother of God, who gave Jesus his flesh so that he might walk among us.
She was the first human temple of God. And by extension of the family, she is our mother, as well.
I can identify mostly with Mary’s humility. She never puts herself on equal footing with her son. She said that God looked upon her lowliness with favor.
That is an essential part of the message of Christmas. Jesus was born as a baby, and laid in a feed trough in the barn, so that no one could be more lowly than him.
They were not homeless, or foreigners, or refugees. They were at home.
Joseph had family in Bethlehem, and he and Mary would have stayed with them in their house, but the guest rooms were already taken. The typical home of the time was two-story. The living quarters were above, and the stable where the family’s animals were kept was below.
Sort of a Barndominium.
They were offered the stable, and it was perfect for the birth of our Lord.
It encourages me that when I am feeling low and unworthy of the love of our Heavenly Father, I remember that he lifts up the lowly. No matter what I have done, or not done, when I repent, and turn back to him, he forgives me and lifts me up.
And there are plenty of times I feel unworthy of my calling, and yet he has chosen me for a reason.
And he has brought you here to this church for a reason, too.
First off, it reminds you to whom you belong. You are not your own.
St. Paul reminds us,
“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price.”
This happened at the cross and at your baptism.
Your heavenly Father cares about your well being. Do not worry about your self-esteem, that is the esteem you give yourself, but think instead about how your Father esteems you, how much he values you. This is our true worth.
Your heavenly Father cares about your relationships, too, and that’s another reason you are called to be here, to comfort and strengthen your family.
Our Father created all families, starting with Adam and Eve. In the translation we are most familiar with, God removed a rib from Adam to create Eve. It is perhaps a better translation to say he removed a ‘side’ from Adam, that is his feminine side, from which he created Eve.
The masculine and the feminine are the two ‘sides’ created by God so that they could be reunited at Holy Matrimony, thus creating a family.
Not all are married, and not all have children, but nonetheless we all belong to the family of our Heavenly Father.
Perhaps the most important family created by the Father is that of Joseph and Mary, and their child, our Lord, Jesus. The name Jesus is a variation of the name Joshua, which means “Yahweh is salvation.”
Joshua led the Hebrews across the Jordan to their promised land, and Jesus continually leads us all across time and space to the Kingdom of Heaven.
There is much more to the story which I will talk about on Christmas Eve. Be sure to join us tomorrow night at 6:00 pm when we will sing Christmas carols, then at 6:30 PM when we will celebrate what it’s all about, the mass of Christ Jesus!