The Visitation- Revisited

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We are all familiar with the biblical story of the Visitation.  It happens at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth, both pregnant, meet. One is carrying Jesus and the other is carrying John the Baptist. The Gospels want us to recognize that both these pregnancies are biologically impossible; one is a virginal conception and the other is a conception that occurs far beyond someone’s childbearing years. So there is clearly something of the divine in each. In simple language, each woman is carrying a special gift from heaven and each is carrying a part of the divine promise that will one day establish God’s peace on this earth.

But neither Mary nor Elizabeth, much less anyone around them, consciously recognizes the divine connection between the two children they are carrying. The Gospels present them to us as “cousins”, both the children and their mothers; but the Gospels want us to think deeper than biology. They are cousins in the same way that Christ, and those things that are also of the divine, are cousins. This, among other things, is what is contained in the concept of the Visitation.

Mary and Elizabeth meet, both are pregnant with the divine. Each is carrying a child from heaven, one is carrying Christ and the other is carrying a unique prophet, the “cousin” of the Christ. And a curious thing happens when they meet. Christ’s cousin, inside his mother, without explicit consciousness, leaps for joy in the presence of Christ and that reaction releases the Magnificat inside of the one carrying Christ.

There’s a lot in that image: Christ’s cousin unconsciously leaps for joy in the presence of Christ and that reaction draws the Magnificat out of the one who is carrying the Christ. Christian de Cherge, the Trappist Abbott who was martyred in Algeria in 1996, suggests that, among other things, this image is the key to how we, as Christians, are meant to meet other religions in the world. He sees the image as illustrating this paradigm:

Christianity is carrying Christ and other religions are also carrying something divine, a divine “”cousin”, one who points to Christ. But all of this is unconscious; we do not really grasp the bond, the connection, between what we are carrying and what the other is carrying. But we will recognize their kinship, however unconsciously, when we stand before another who does not share our Christian faith but is sincere and true to his or her own faith. In that encounter we will sense the connection:  What we are carrying will make something leap for joy inside the other and that reaction will help draw the Magnificat out of us and, like Mary, we will want to stay with that other for mutual support.

And we need that support, as does the other. As Christian de Cherge puts it: “We know that those whom we have come to meet are like Elizabeth: they are bearers of a message that comes from God. Our church does not tell us and does not know what the exact bond is between the Good News we bear and the message that gives life to the other.  … We may never know exactly what that bond is, but we do know that the other is also a bearer of a message that comes from God.  So what should we do? What does witness consist in? What about mission?  …  See, when Mary arrives, it is Elizabeth who speaks first. Or did she? … For most certainly Mary would have said: ‘Peace, Peace be with you’. And this simple greeting made something vibrate, someone, inside of Elizabeth. And in this vibration, something was said. … Which is the Good News, not the whole of the Good News, but what can be glimpsed of it in the moment.”

Christian de Cherge then adds this comment: “In the end, if we are attentive, if we situate our encounter with the other in the attention and the desire to meet the other, and in our need for the other and what he has to say to us, it is likely that the other is going to say something to us that will connect with what we are carrying, something that will reveal complicity with us … allowing us to broaden our Eucharist.”

We need each other, everyone on this planet, Christians and non-Christians, Jews and Muslims, Protestants and Roman Catholics, Evangelicals and Unitarians, sincere agnostics and atheists; we need each other to understand God’s revelation. Nobody understands fully without the other. Thus our interrelations with each other should not be born only out of enthusiasm for the truth we have been given, but it should issue forth too from our lack of the other. Without the other, without recognizing that the other too is carrying the divine, we will, as Christian de Cherge asserts, be unable to truly release our own Magnificat. Without each other, none of us will ever be able to pray the Eucharist “for the many”.

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No Room In The Inn

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Mary gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.
In the Christmas story, we have always vilified and demonized the innkeeper who turned Mary and Joseph away, leaving them no choice for shelter except a stable. And the lesson we took from this was the need for greater hospitality in our lives, the need to not be so busy and preoccupied that there is “no room in the inn”, that is, that there is no place in our busy lives for a messiah to be born, for Christmas to happen.
There is some truth in this, but scholars suggest that there is a deeper lesson in Jesus having to be born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn. What is being stressed is not so much lack of hospitality by an innkeeper, but rather the fact that Jesus was born outside of a city, outside of what is comfortable, outside of glamour and fame, outside of being recognized by the rich and the powerful, and beyond notice by the everyday world. Jesus was born in anonymity, poor, outside of all notice, except for family and God.
Being rejected by the city also foreshadowed his death. Jesus’ earthly life will end as it began. He will be a stranger, an outsider, crucified outside the city just as he was born outside the city.
Thomas Merton once gave a wonderful commentary on this: Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet must be in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied status as persons, who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.
Jesus was born into this world unnoticed, outside the city, and outside of all persons and events that seemed important at the time. Two thousand years later, we recognize the importance of that birth, but, at the time, virtually no one did. Understanding what is implied in that can help give perspective to those of us who, in our lives, forever, feel like we are outsiders, unknowns, anonymous, small-time, small-town, persons who are incidental to the big action and the big picture. Our photo and our story will never appear in TIME or PEOPLE magazine. Our names will never be up in lights and we are destined to live and die in basic anonymity, not known by anyone outside of our own small circles.
Most of us will live lives of quiet obscurity, in rural areas, in small towns, and in the unknown parts of our cities, watching the big events of our world from the outside and seeing always someone other than ourselves as being at the center. We ourselves, it seems, will remain forever unknown, and our talents and contribution will not be recognized by anyone, perhaps not even our own families. There will never be room for us in the inn. We will live, work, and give birth to life and to our children in much humbler places.
And, perhaps most painful of all, we will suffer the frustration of being unable to manifest our talents and gifts to the world, but will instead find that the deep symphonies and melodies that live within us will never find satisfying expression in the outside world. Our dreams and our deepest riches will never find an earthly stage. There will never be room in the inn, it seems, for what is best within us. Our deepest riches, like Jesus’ birth in our world, will be consigned to the fringes, to the martyrdom of inadequate self- expression, as Iris Murdoch once called this. Art too has its martyrs and there is no pain greater than the inadequacy of self-expression.
Mary gave birth to the Christ in a stable because there was no room for them in the inn. This is a comment on more than just the busyness and inhospitality of some ancient innkeeper. It is a comment upon what, in fact, lies deepest within human life. In essence, what it says is that it is not those who sit at the center of things, the powerful, the rich, the famous, the government leaders, the entertainment celebrities, the corporate heads, the scholars and academics, who ultimately sit at the center of life. What deepest and most meaningful inside of life lies in anonymity, unnoticed by the powerful, tenderly swaddled in faith, outside the city.

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Advent Hope

Henri Nouwen was once asked: ” Are you an optimist?” His reply: “No, not naturally, but that isn’t important. I live in hope, not optimism.”
Teilhard de Chardin once said the same thing in different words when he was accused of being overly-idealistic and unrealistic in the face all the negative things one sees in the world. A critic had challenged him: “Suppose we blow up the world with a nuclear bomb, what then happens to your vision of a world coming together in peace?” Teilhard’s response lays bare the anatomy of hope: “If we blow up the world by nuclear bombs, that will set things back some millions of years, but eventually what Christ promised will come about, not because I wish it, but because God has promised it and, in the resurrection, God has shown that God is powerful enough to deliver on that promise.”

Hope is precisely that, a vision of life that guides itself by God’s promise, irrespective of whether the situation looks optimistic or pessimistic at any given time.

Hope is not simple optimism, an irrepressible idealism that will not let itself be defeated by what’s negative; nor is it wishful thinking, a fantasy- daydream that someday our ship will come in; nor is it the ability to look the evening news square in the eye and still conclude, realistically, that there are good reasons to believe everything will turn out well.

Hope is not based on whether the evening news is good or bad on a given day. The daily news, as we know, is better on some days and worse on others. If we hope or despair on the basis of whether things seem to be improving or disintegrating in terms of world events, our spirits will go up and down like the stock market. Hope isn’t based on CNN, or any other network. Instead, hope looks at the facts, looks at God’s promise, and then, without denying the facts or turning away from the evening news, lives out a vision of life based upon God’s promise, trusting that a benevolent, all-powerful God is still in charge of this world and that is more important than whether or not the news looks good or bad on a given night.

Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners and one of the prophets of hope in today’s world, has a wonderful way of illustrating this:

Politicians, he says, are all of a kind. A politician holds up his finger in the wind, checks which way the wind is blowing, and then votes that way. It generally doesn’t help, Wallis says, to change the politicians because those who replace them do exactly the same thing. They too make their decisions according to the wind. And so – “We need to change the wind!” That’s hope’s task. The wind will change the politicians.

How does this work? Wallis uses the example of the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid was not brought down by guns or violence or even by changing the politicians, but by changing the wind. And it was changed by hope. How?

In the face of racial injustice, people of faith began to pray together and, as a sign of their hope that one day the evil of apartheid would be overcome, they lit candles and placed them in their windows so that their neighbours, the government, and the whole world would see their belief. And their government did see. They passed a law making it illegal, a politically subversive act, to light a candle and put it in your window. It was seen as a crime, as serious as owning and flaunting a gun. The irony of this wasn’t missed by the children. At the height of the struggle against apartheid, the children of Soweto had a joke: “Our government,” they said, “is afraid of lit candles!”

It had reason to be. Eventually those burning candles, and the prayer and hope behind them, changed the wind in South Africa. Morally shamed by its own people, the government conceded that apartheid was wrong and dismantled it without a war, defeated by hope, brought down by lit candles backed by prayer. Hope had changed the wind.

During the season of advent, Christians are asked to light candles as a sign of hope. Unfortunately this practice, ritualized in the lighting of the candles in the advent wreath, has in recent years been seen too much simply as piety (not that piety doesn’t have its own virtues, especially the virtue of nurturing hope inside our children). But lighting a candle in hope is not just a pious, religious act; it’s a political act, a subversive one, and a prophetic one, as dangerous as brandishing a firearm.

To light an advent candle is to say, in the face of all that suggests the contrary, that God is still alive, still Lord of this world, and, because of that, “all will be well, and all will be well, and every manner of being will be well,” irrespective of the evening news.

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