St John's, Decatur--Luke 1:39-57
Although I am sorry that this is a “makeup” visitation because I had to miss my regularly scheduled visit to you after Easter, I’m kind of glad to be here to keep a feast that we don’t usually get to observe in a grand fashion—the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The story is not unfamiliar to us, because we hear it in connection with the Advent and Christmas cycle: When Mary is told that she’s going to become the mother of God Incarnate, the angel offers her a confirming sign: a relative of hers—cousin? aunt? we’re not told—who is herself beyond childbearing years, Elizabeth, had become pregnant, and was indeed already in her sixth month. So, rather soon thereafter, Mary packs up and heads from Nazareth to the Judean hill country, which was kind of an arduous trip, rather like going from Decatur to, say, Danville, only on foot, or at the speed of a donkey, and with bad roads and lots of hills. But Mary makes it to Judea safely, knocks on Elizabeth’s door, and when Elizabeth answers, her unborn child, John the Baptist, does an in utero backflip in recognition of the presence of the Son of God, freshly conceived in Mary’s womb. Elizabeth responds with, “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” and then Mary breaks out into the song we know liturgically as the Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
I am part of the 50% of the human race that is less qualified to say anything about pregnancy and childbirth than the other 50% of the human race. So I realize I’m treading on slightly dangerous ground here. But I can still say with some authority, having been closely associated with three pregnancies and three births, that pregnancy is a time of great expectancy; indeed, one of the euphemisms for pregnancy in our culture is to say that a woman is “expecting.” We don’t even have to add “expecting a baby;” that’s just understood.
So Elizabeth and Mary are both “expecting” in the euphemistic sense, but they both also bring other dimensions of expectation to their unlikely encounter on the doorstep of Elizabeth’s home. Elizabeth had conceived late in life. She was carrying a miracle baby, and had been told that he would be a great prophet who would prepare the way of the Lord. Mary was carrying even more of a miracle baby, because he had been conceived without the participation of a sexual partner, and she had been told that he would be called the Son of the Most High, and that he would reign over Israel as the heir of the great King David. Both of these women had great expectations for the children they were carrying.
In the tradition of Christian spirituality, Mary is understood as a prefigurement of the Church. We see in her the Church encapsulated, they way a great oak tree is encapsulated in a tiny acorn. The Son of the Most High, the eternal Word of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, took human flesh in and from the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jesus the Christ was, quite literally, formed in her. While she was “expecting,” Christ was formed in her.
In that, we who are the leaves and branches of the mature oak tree find our vocation. It’s in our DNA. We were given this vocation when we were still part of the acorn, encapsulated in the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our vocation is to allow Christ to be formed in us as he was formed in the womb of his mother. Our vocation, collectively as the Church and individually as Christian disciples, is to be pregnant! Our vocation is to be expecting—always expecting, even as Elizabeth and Mary were expecting on that day of their encounter. Now, I could go on the rest of the evening about what it looks like for Christ to be formed in us. Among other things, a person in whom Christ has been formed has a deep confidence in his or her relationship with Christ and can talk about that relationship naturally and winsomely. That person is also familiar with the underlying story of God’s dealings with the human race and what God has done to reconcile us to Himself. That person has cultivated habits of prayer and study and service within the community of the Church, and has an awareness of his or her spiritual gifts, and uses those gifts. That person seeks the Lord’s guidance before making major life decisions, and has acquired the wisdom to make moral and ethical choices in a responsible and faithful manner. These are among the marks of a disciple in whom Christ has been formed. These are the marks of a community that is constantly expecting, constantly pregnant with God incarnate.
If we keep reading in Luke’s gospel, we find that, in due course—and I love the way the King James Version puts it here—“the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” Mary gave birth. She delivered. The other thing I’ve learned about pregnancy is, it’s a temporary condition. (I know, tell that to a woman who’s eight months pregnant in July, right?) As individuals and as a community for whom Mary is our model, part of our “expectancy” is that we are ready to give birth to the Jesus who is being formed in us, ready to deliver. This happens, to use another pregnant biblical expression, in “the fullness of time,” or as we might be more apt to say, when “the time is ripe.”
In our baptismal vows, which we have an opportunity to renew several times a year, we promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” I might suggest that proclaiming good news by example is what we do during the time of our pregnancy, during the time of our expectation. We conduct ourselves, both individually and together, in such a way that those in the world cannot help but be both annoyed—annoyed because it challenges the way they are living their own lives—and strangely compelled to take a close look, to investigate further, because they see in us something that they are profoundly hungry and thirsty for. Then, in the fullness of time, when the time is right, the days are accomplished that we should be delivered of that which we had until that moment left unspoken, and our proclamation in deed becomes a proclamation in word.
My friends, whether we are male or female, young or old, single or married, the feast of the Visitation of Our Lady is a time for us all to be pregnant, a time for us all to be expecting. This is a time for us to pay close attention to how Christ is being formed in us, and to be alert to the signs that our days are accomplished, and that we should be prepared to give birth, to deliver the Son of the Most High, Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing, to a world divided and enslaved by sin, that people may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.