Fourth Sunday of Advent

Christ Church, Springfield–Luke 1:39-49, Hebrews 10:5-10

When I traveled to England earlier this year, I bought some of those special plastic bags that allow you to put articles of clothing in them and then squeeze all the air out and compress the contents so they take up a lot less space in your suitcase than they normally would. The same sort of thing happens when you download software over the internet—it comes in a “compressed” format, and before you can install the new program onto your computer, you have to “unzip” it, and let its contents expand into a usable form, just like you have to unzip the special plastic bag and fluff up the sweater before you can put it on.

We actually see the same thing in nature, only in a much more complex and wonderful form. Imagine a simple acorn. It’s a small thing, kind of a nuisance, actually, if you’re trying to maintain landscaping in the vicinity of an oak tree. Yet, within each acorn is the genetic blueprint and the initial raw material for every detail of a great oak tree. An acorn is, in effect, a “compressed” oak tree that is waiting to be “unzipped” and “installed.” Lady Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth century English mystic, took this natural phenomenon of the acorn and turned it into a spiritual image; she saw it as a microcosm, a miniaturized model of the entire universe, held lovingly in the palm of God’s hand.

These images provide a sort of interpretive lens through which to view a very special meeting, a meeting between two pregnant women, Mary the expectant mother of Jesus and Elizabeth the expectant mother of John the Baptist. Mary, who has just learned of her pregnancy, makes a rather arduous journey to visit her older relative Elizabeth, who is nearly into her third trimester. As Luke’s gospel tells the story, when Mary came into Elizabeth’s presence, the fetal John the Baptist did a little dance inside his mother’s belly. It was a moment of great symbolic spiritual importance.

Pregnancy, of course, is an experience that focuses the attention of everyone concerned on how a complex and unknown future is “compressed,” miniaturized, in a developing pre-born infant, which is the palpable (if not yet visible!) sign, a sort of model, of a life that will soon be “unzipped.” A parent looks at that first ultrasound image and sees a toddler taking her first step, a kindergartener on the first day of school, a Little League ball player, a teenager with his first car, high school and college graduations, and a bride walking down the aisle—all of that compressed into the growing fetus, the way an oak tree is compressed into an acorn. Indeed, lately we’ve been hearing about a “compressed” future king or queen of England, currently “compressed” in the womb of the Duchess of Cambridge.

The visit of Mary to Elizabeth, then, is that much and so much more. It is that much written in block capital letters and blazing with neon. The visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth is not just about the two mothers and their unborn sons. It’s about the future of the human race, the fate of the entire world. There’s an ancient hymn text for Advent—it’s #60 in our hymnal—that speaks of God being moved by “sorrow that an ancient curse should doom to death a universe…” The whole initiative that God takes, and which we celebrate during this holy season, is about rescuing us from that curse, delivering us from the certain doom that is ours if no action is taken. There’s a beautiful medieval carol that compares the Virgin Mary to a rose, and says “For in this rose contained was heaven and earth in little space.” And “jumping John the Baptist” is a sign—to his mother, to Mary, and to us—a sign of that recognizes and celebrates God’s gracious action on our behalf.

Now I’m going to ask you to take this mental picture of the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth—this meeting that means so much more than what it literally is—take your mental image of the meeting and lay it to one side for a moment, and turn your attention with me to the epistle reading from Hebrews, and then we’ll come back and tie the two together. The author of Hebrews quotes from Psalm 40 these words: “a body you have prepared for me.” A body you have prepared for me. He was using that quotation to help support the intricate argument he was making about the high priestly ministry of Christ, pleading on our behalf—your behalf and mine—pleading our case before the Father as both priest and victim. But when we set this quotation from Hebrews side by side with the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, we’re able to see something quite wonderful going on here. The body of Christ is being formed in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. All that we understand by that expression “body of Christ” is compressed in the “little space” of the womb of a Jewish teenager from an obscure village in Galilee.

So let’s unzip the file, shall we?  What do we see?

First, we see the physical Body of Christ being formed. It is a body that will be the vehicle through which many, many people are blessed, but, more than anything else, it is a body that will be offered in sacrifice. One of the gifts that the Wise Men brought to the infant Jesus was myrrh. Myrrh is a fragrant spice, and its principal use in the ancient world was to anoint dead bodies prior to burial. So, virtually from the very moment of his birth, the body of Christ was marked for sacrifice. This is the season in which we joyfully celebrate the Incarnation of the Word of God. But the Incarnation is not an end in itself. It has a purpose, and that purpose is the cross. The physical “body of Christ” fulfills its purpose in nothing other than being offered as a ransom for many. In an oblique way, the calendar of the season confronts us with that reality. Three days after Christmas is the feast of the Holy Innocents, the young male children of Bethlehem who were put to the sword by King Herod in a vain attempt to exterminate the one he perceived as a threat to his kingdom. In the midst of our Christmas rejoicing, blood is shed, and we know that the body of the One whose birth we celebrate will have the blood drained from it on our behalf.

The second thing we see when we unzip the file of Mary’s encounter with Elizabeth is the mystical Body of Christ being formed—a body to manifest and display the Incarnation until the “day of the Lord,” until the end of history. That body is, of course, the Church. In the Christian spiritual tradition, Our Lady is said to be the “prototype” of the Church, since the “body of Christ” was, quite literally, formed in her. I love what this says! It’s a wonderful reminder that the church is not a voluntary association of individuals who happen to believe the same things. Rather, it’s organic; it’s a family. Nor is the church purely optional, like we can have our own relationship with God and go to church to strengthen that relationship. No, the Church is that relationship! Our catechism defines the Church as the Body of which Christ is the head and all baptized persons are members. There is no connection to the head except through the body.

Finally, when we unzip the compressed image of Our Lady’s visit to her cousin, we see that the Eucharistic Body of Christ is being formed in her—a body that displays the sacrificial offering of the physical body and feeds the mystical body until the end of time. If Mary is the prototype of the Church, then she is also the prototype of the Eucharist. Christ is the sacrament of God; he shows us the Father, he is the visible face of an invisible God. The Church, in turn, is the sacrament of Christ, extending the Incarnation, so to speak, across space and time so that those of us who are not first century Palestinian Jews can also hear his voice and feel his healing touch. And that makes the Eucharist—the liturgy we are presently celebrating and the meal we are about to share—that makes the Eucharist the sacrament of the Church. It is in the Eucharist that the Church is most clearly and explicitly herself. We offer this Eucharist in union with the sacrifice of Christ, the one at whose presence John the Baptist leapt in his mother’s womb. With Mary, our souls proclaim the greatness of the Lord, and our spirits rejoice in God our savior. The Lord has done great things for us, and holy is his Name.

Come, Lord Jesus.


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