Salvation is Close at Hand
Fourth Sunday of Advent. Fr Peter Harries helps us to prepare for the coming of the Saviour by reflecting on the journey of Our Holy Mother Mary to her cousin Elizabeth.
In the gospel today we read the story of the Visitation. Here at the beginning of his gospel, Luke has told us of two women, Mary and Elizabeth. Both are about to become mothers unexpectedly. The angel Gabriel has appeared, first to Elizabeth’s elderly husband Zechariah, and five lunar months later to Mary, an unmarried young woman. Zechariah had been in the innermost sanctuary of the temple in Jerusalem; Mary was at home in Nazareth, a provincial place up north, a place from which in popular estimation no good came. Elizabeth had conceived her son John the Baptist in the usual way, after Zechariah had returned dumb-struck from the temple. Mary had conceived as a virgin, although already betrothed to Joseph.
Elizabeth had kept things quiet; she was well beyond the age at which ladies usually become mothers, although she and Zechariah had been longing for children. Now Mary is told by the angel of the pregnancy of her relative Elizabeth. She responds straight away by travelling to visit Elizabeth. At one level it is a natural response of a charitable young woman when learning that some older relatives might need some extra help for a while. It is the kind of thing that families do one for another as a normal part of family life, although modern life with lack of job security, immigration controls, and so on, can make such simple acts of generosity much more difficult.
However there is much deeper level as well. Mary knows from the angel Gabriel that the son she bears in her womb, conceived without any man’s assistance, is Jesus the Messiah. When Mary, in her first few weeks of pregnancy enters Elizabeth’s house,Elizabeth’s son in her womb leaps for joy. John the Baptist, from his mother’s womb, prepares the way of Jesus “the Lord”.Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and mother and inborn son together recognise that their visitor Mary is pregnant with the Son of the Most High. Salvation is close at hand. Emmanuel, God with us, is present in this house in the womb of his virgin mother. Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.
Mary is blessed because she believes the promises made by God. Her life of simplicity and holiness, from her immaculate conception onwards, is but a start. It enables her to freely say “yes” to God when Gabriel appeared to her. It is her destiny to be the Mother of God, but it is a destiny she freely chooses when God’s messenger appears.
After the telling us the story of the Visitation Luke continues the story, telling of two births and two circumcisions; first of John the Baptist, and then of Jesus. John the Baptist is Elijah returned, the prophet preparing the way of the Lord. Jesus is Lord bringing salvation and peace to people of good will. Tomorrow night, Christmas Eve, many of us will gather in the darkness of night to listen to the message of the angels of light, singing of the birth of the Saviour.
So what about us? Many people have told us of love, of peace, of the forgiveness of sin, of God’s promises of peace and reconciliation. We have listened to the gospel message in church; we acknowledge our deeply-held desires for peace and love; integrity and truth challenge our intellects. So let seek to be reconciled with God. Let us prepare ourselves to listen once again to the angels’ message of peace. Once again let us renew and deepen our love Jesus our Saviour, born amongst us for our salvation.
Mary said yes to God. So did John the Baptist, Elizabeth and Zechariah. Zechariah after his brief moment at the centre of things in the Jerusalem temple resumed his quiet priestly life. Elizabeth, an older mother, had a squalling baby to look after. We have our commitments of family life and charitable care of our neighbours. Christmas, as a day, will pass once again. But God is with us. Truth is triumphant. Evil, death, chaos and oppression have met their match. Jesus who is the Christ reigns from his mother’s arms.