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MY SERMON ON THE FEAST OF THE VISITATION: WELCOME JESUS INTO YOUR HEART
St. Paul’s Pomona
May 31, 2006
Feast of the Visitation
OT: Genesis 18 1-18 Psalm: 113 Gospel: Luke 1:39-44
David Justin Lynch, Esquire
+ In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.
I like entertaining visitors at my house, particularly dinner guests. Part of that is my feeling of anticipation of their arrival as I get the food and the table ready and my wife tidies up the house. As the hour for the arrival of my guests draws near, I get more anxious by the moment, every once in a while checking the street out front and even standing on the curb looking up and down street to see them get there. And as I’m doing that, I’m asking myself what will my guests be wearing, what stories will they have to tell me, what pearls of wisdom will they impart to me? As the phone rings I hope my guests are telling me their arrival is imminent and they’re not cancelling at the last moment.
Not only do I like to entertain visitors, I like to go visiting myself. A person’s house communicates quite a lot about them—I’m always curious to know, is the focal point in their home the big screen TV, or do they have lots of books on the shelves,? Information like that gives me some clue as to how I can relate to them more effectively. And what family members might be living there, too—what are they like? And what are we going to have to eat? I try to be a good guest—I arrive on time and always ask if I can bring some wine or one of my culinary creations.
When we hear the word “visitation” in common speech it usually carries some official connotation, like a bishop’s visitation to a parish or a divorced parent’s visitation of his or her children. The Visitation as an “official feast” celebrated in the Christian church had its origins in the Thirteenth Century at the suggestion of St. Bonaventure and universally celebrated by 1389 by the decree of Pope Urban VI.
But for Mary and Elizabeth, it was a just an ordinary social visit between two pregnant cousins. Perhaps they wanted to get together because they did have a bit of shared history, at least according to the extracanonical book called the Protovangelium of James, where we read that Mary was the daughter of Anna and Joachim, who were supposedly too old to have children. And here Mary was going to see Elizabeth, who according to the author of Luke’s Gospel, was supposedly beyond the ordinary childbearing years, but now pregnant with John the Baptist. Perhaps the two were celebrating that nothing is impossible with God.
At bottom, Mary and Elizabeth were human beings with human feelings. They most likely saw their visit the way any two pregnant women in First Century Palestine would. They invite us to empathize with them and their feelings. Of course, because God made me a male individual, I can’t fully empathise with either of these women as to what they felt in relation to their pregnancies. That area is a topic better left to female preachers. Men in all forms of ministry, whether lay or clerical, believe it or not, do have their limitations.
But the human feelings Mary and Elizabeth felt as host and guest are common to us all. They no doubt experienced the same feelings of anticipation we all feel before a visit. In their case those feelings went on a very long time. Mary, heading from Nazareth to the Hebron area near Jerusalem, covered a distance of about 90 to 120 miles according to the maps I consulted in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. On today’s freeways that would be a comfortable 90 to 120 minute car ride, like from Palm Springs to Los Angeles, but in First Century world of Mary and Elizabeth, that was a great distance as it no doubt took about four to five days on the back of a donkey, which was the common mode of transport back then. Remember, they were residents of a desert with no roads and billowing sands rather than Interstate Ten to Palm Springs. Of course, distance, time, and travel are all relative. I, too, can identify with Mary on a long journey, as I have often traveled great distances to visit important people. I recall a very long journey when I was an in involuntarily single man looking for a new mate, when I traveled over 1500 miles to Houston, Texas to visit the gorgeous lady who would later become my wife. Like Mary going to see Elizabeth, I recall I was in a hurry to get to Houston back in February, 1993. And the same was true for me as a host when I was expecting to meet my wife when she came to California to meet me for the first time in person on January 14, 1993.
When guests come to see us we go to the door and greet them. Guests and hosts hug, shake hands, and say we’re glad to see each other. It was Gabriel’s greeting to Mary at the Annunciation that gives us the first line of the Hail Mary—“Hail Mary, Full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” if one translate the appropriate lines from the Vulgate (the Latin Bible) into English. But the second line of the Hail Mary, “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus,” comes from Elizabeth’s greeting of Mary as she arrived. Mary’s response was, of course to sing the Magnificat which we heard in today’s Gospel. Perhaps Mary was reacting to the fact that Elizabeth was the first person recorded in scripture to recognize Mary as “Theotokos,” a Greek word meaning “God-Bearer.” According to my research, Orthodox Christians are very fond of that term. The theological significance of “Theotokos” is to emphasize that Jesus is fully God AND fully human. The use of the term Theotokos in relation to Mary came out of the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus in 431. That council heard a competing view from Nestorius, who was then the Patriarch of Constantinople. He felt Mary should be called “Christotokos”, meaning “Mother of Christ,” to restrict her role as just the human mother of Jesus. But another participant at the council, Cyril of Alexandria, saw this as dividing Jesus into two persons, one who was Son of Mary, and another, Son of God, who was not. The council ultimately decided that was unacceptable, because it denied that Jesus was fully human and fully God. So “Theotokos” won out over “Christotokos,” which was condemned as heresy.
Just as Elizabeth recognized Mary when she arrived, I always greet Jesus when I come to visit him here at St. Paul’s, where he lives, sacramentally speaking, in the Tabernacle. Like most people with whom I share an Anglo-Catholic upbringing, I customarily acknowledge greet Jesus with a genuflection or a bow. In that case I’m acknowledging the divine, God-like aspect of Jesus. But like Mary, Jesus was also human, and it was from Mary that Jesus took his human nature. So some times I walk by the Tabernacle and just wave and say, “Hi, Jesus.” It is that human Jesus who is my friend, someone with who I can share my innermost thoughts, just as I do with other people close to me when I go to visit them.
Our faith is an ongoing experience of developing a comfort level with Jesus as both divine and human. We do this as we welcome Jesus as an honored guest in our life. There are many ways we can do this, but here are a couple of the most significant. One, we can welcome Jesus into our lives every day by reading something from the Gospels. We can follow the lectionary, or we can pick a favorite passage, and stiil other times we can just place our finger in our bibles where the gospels are and and let God walk our fingers to whatever passage God wants us to read. That’s an example of surrendering ourselves to God in a small way, just as the Blessed Virgin surrendered herself to God to become the mother of Jesus. Another way is, of course, to receive Jesus sacramentally, as we do here at Mass.
Hosting Jesus as a guest into our lives blesses us to spread the Kingdom of God here at St. Paul’s. In keeping with the Great Commission to spread the Kingdom, we need to be good hosts as we welcome the strangers within our gates. When I see a newcomer at St. Paul’s I think of Mary coming to see Elizabeth. I think of the feelings of anticipation that visitor experienced as he or she dorve to church. He or she was probably feeling, “what is St. Paul’s going to be like” Whom am I going to meet there? Will I like the liturgy? Will I like the clergy?
I am sure Elizabeth was a great host. After all, Mary’s response to her greeting, according to the still-anonymous author of Luke, was the Magnificat. Our roles as parishioners must be to make our visitors comfortable so that they respond to us and to God with the same kind of positive statement. Introduce yourself. Try to learn something about our visitors, where they live, where they work, how their family is doing. And always ask, “how can I help you?” The whole idea is to make that visitor feel so welcome that he or she will return and perhaps become part of our household of faith.
When Mary went to visit Elizabeth, she had Jesus inside her in a very physical way, even more physical than for us when we receive his Body and Blood in Holy Communion. However the presence of Jesus most of the time for us and everyone else is a spiritual presence. Jesus is present in all of those who visit us, whether here at St. Paul’s, at work, or at home. We often miss the presence of Jesus in those everyday encounters. That’s because we sometimes analyze those who visit us the way I size up new clients in my law office—to what extent will that relationship benefit me? While that’s necessary in business, outside of business, we need to turn that around, and look at how we can benefit our visitiors. That’s because Jesus is in every visitor we greet. In the 25th Chapter of Matthew, beginning at verse 38, we find some specific instructions about how we should look at the strangers within our gates. If they are hungry we are to feed them, if they are thirsty we are to give them a beverage, if they are naked we are to clothe them. For when we do this for others, we do it for Jesus. So when you see a visitor here at St. Paul’s think of the Jesus in that person, just as Jesus was in Mary when she visited Elizabeth. Welcome that person. Welcome Jesus. Welcome him into your life. Welcome him into your heart. AMEN.