When I was pregnant with Ariana, my last child, our baby girl, I allowed myself to become, well, rawther large. There were some who wondered whether I was in fact carrying twins! As I luxuriated in what I assumed would be my last pregnancy, I grew, happily, as large as a house! Therefore, I think of dear Mary — the theotokus, the God bearer — carrying the weight of our Lord on her journeys: from Nazareth to visit her sister, Elizabeth; then from Nazareth to Bethlehem. She was not so much a mansion for our Lord, but rather a trailer, a Winebago, an Airstream for God. Life for the Mother of Jesus involved a good deal of travel.
Mary made her first trip earlier in her pregnancy, to visit her elder family member, her mentor, Elizabeth, who was herself unexpectedly 6 months pregnant. Mary journeyed nearly 100 miles — from Nazareth to the hill town of Ain Karim. We traveled there on our clergy pilgrimage by bus, and climbed only some of the tall hills by foot, up to the Church of the Visitation. The statue there of Mary and Elizabeth meeting is surrounded by many plaques displaying the words of Mary’s Magnificat in different languages. We women clergy — priest and bishops — happily gathered there for a photo which I treasure. For although the majestic, Byzantine church there certainly seemed like a proper mansion fit for our Lord, somehow the true location of his dwelling place seemed to be in the meeting of these women, the meeting of hearts and souls, in the bonds of Love.
Our reading today from Hebrews reminds us that Christ did not come to ask for our sacrifices and burnt offerings — religious rituals that would have been practiced at that time in the grand Temple of Jerusalem in order to cleanse the people from sins. Our God became human not to demand more outward piety from us, but rather to invite us to an inward transformation.
The writer here quotes from Psalm 40, which begins “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry . . . he put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise.” And that is just what Mary and Elizabeth experienced when they met together! They each sing their own song of praise!
A woman who came to our outreach office a few weeks ago asked me about our attitudes around Mary. “I’ve heard about how the Catholics worship Mary,” she said, “and I don’t believe in that.” As a former Catholic, and one who still includes the Blessed Mother in my prayers, I took a moment to think, and replied: “We believe in the Communion of Saints, and Mary, the mother of our Lord, is one of those saints. So we ask for her prayers, just like her Cousin Elizabeth did when she shared the joy of their miraculous childbirths together.” Elizabeth’s “new song” of praise is remembered by millions of Christians whenever we pray the rosary: “Blessed are you and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” Elizabeth’s joy is so complete that her baby, John, leaps in her womb — in that marvelous feeling of butterflies and excitement when life stirs within us.
Do you feel that now? On this fourth Sunday of Advent, with tomorrow night being the holiest night of the year; with Christmas morning presents and pajamas just two days away? I know that the children among us feel that way, barely able to contain their excitement. As adults, we may get worn down, worried, and feel a bit of dread and even guilt as we think of all the expectations we may feel we have not met for the celebration. We may focus on the outside of the “mansion” and find it wanting. But what Christ desires is not our sacrifice, but our hearts, our ears, our paying attention.
“Happy are those who make the Lord their trust,” the Psalm continues, “You have given me an open ear”, which literally means giving us a listening heart, an ear to hear God’s call and to respond to it. The “scroll of the Book” is not like Santa’s naughty and nice list; it is the integrity of our creation as children of God! We are happy when we can greet the incarnate God in ourselves and in others, to say to them as did Elizabeth, “Hail! Greetings!! Ave! Nova!” As we sang in our hymn just now, “Blessed are you!” It is into such moments that “the dear Christ enters in”, makes himself manifest in all persons and in the love within and between us. Regardless of our outward “mansions” — old as Elizabeth or young as Mary, into and between those who are rich and those who are poor, those from every nation, every culture — Christ enters into our covenant of love with one another, into the dignity of every human being.
As we prepare our Church to celebrate the Nativity, to become a “mansion “ for Christ — hanging the greens, and lighting the trees, and watering the poinsettias — let us remember above all this picture of greeting, of excitement, of welcome between these two women of faith. Let us, in spite of everything, be faithful enough to say to our neighbors and to Jesus, “Welcome ! Come in! Come in!” Friends, I can think of no better way to close this morning, as I did last year at this time, than with words by the poet, Mary Oliver, entitled, “Making the House Ready for the Lord”.
Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an uproar of mice — it is the season of their many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances — but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.
Let us prepare a mansion for the Christ child with room enough for each and every one of us. And all of God’s lovely creatures said together: Amen!