The Visitation and the Hail Mary
On a personal note, the following article is memorable to me. It’s a homily I gave one week before my mother died. When I was a university chaplain, I occasionally spent late Advent and Christmas in bucolic Castleton, Vermont, where Fr. Furman, a friend of mine from seminary days, was Pastor. I’d preach his holiday Masses then fly south to visit family. In 2009, Christmas was on Friday. The following Sunday, December 27th, was the Feast of the Holy Family. Fr. Furman and I arranged that I’d say his weekend Holy Family Masses, freeing him to visit family in Lake Placid for a few days. He’d leave on Christmas afternoon, return late Sunday, and take me to Burlington airport early Monday. Those plans changed abruptly. I called home after he departed. My Aunt Prados answered. “Your mother’s not doing well,” she said. I asked her to put Mom on the phone. We spoke briefly, though Mom could barely get a word out. Her voice evoked in me a feeling that she wasn’t long for this world, as if to say, “I’m waiting for you and Kirsten.” Weakened by Multiple Myeloma, a flu bug got the better of her. Troubled, I prayed in the church before the Blessed Sacrament. I wasn’t there two minutes before I sensed a Voice: “Go home.”
I called Fr. Furman and he u-turned. After a few hours of finagling with U.S. Airways agents, I changed my flight plans (expensively) and got a seat on an early-bird from Burlington via Philadelphia to New Orleans on the Feast of Stephen. Some kind parishioners drove me two-hours north, on Christmas night, to a hotel in Burlington. I had a chocolate bar, peanuts and bottled water for my Christmas dinner, purchased from a convenience store, as grocers and restaurants were closed. McDonald’s was open, but I passed. I hoped and prayed to see Mom before the angels came. The prayer was granted. I arrived home on the Feast of Stephen, as did my sister with Jack, her oldest. The next morning, Holy Family Sunday, I said Mom’s last Mass at her bedside and gave her the Last Rites. I read these words from Sirach over her, with Dad, Kirsten and Judy (a family friend and nurse who graciously assisted) also present: “God sets a father in honor over his children; and a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons…he stores up riches who reveres his mother.” I wept silently. That afternoon, I said a rosary at her side and wept aloud. That was her last Hail Mary on earth. She died that evening. It was my last “Visitation” with Mom before we meet again in Heaven.
The following article is the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year C) homily I gave – edited and abridged for print – in the parishes of Castleton and Orwell, Vermont a week before Mom died. For that reason, the Joyful Mystery of the Visitation is all the more memorable. May the Visitation inspire the “Christ within you” to leap for joy. “Blessed is she who believed that what the Lord promised would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45).
Fourth Sunday of Advent Homily
Edited for Print
Given at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Castleton, Vermont and at St. Paul Catholic Church in Orwell, Vermont
December 20, 2009
Today, we meditate on “The Visitation.” Mary conceives Jesus and visits her cousin Elizabeth, who’s in her sixth month with John the Baptist. We might ask, “Who’s the Main Character in this tale?” It’s not obvious. The Main Character is invisible. Yet, He’s fruitful: the Holy Spirit.
In today’s Gospel, we encounter two women: Mary and Elizabeth. Both conceived a child by the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary conceived Christ as a virgin, and Elizabeth conceived John in her old age. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, praised Mary in greeting: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” This reveals a most important teaching of our Catholic Faith: the Holy Spirit is the “Lord and Giver of Life,” as we say in the Creed.
God is a Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God the Father fruitfully begets the Son. The Father and the Son together fruitfully generate the Holy Spirit. What’s the Holy Spirit’s fruit? What life does the Holy Spirit generate?
The Spirit’s fruit is our holiness and salvation. In time, the Spirit’s fruit is the Church and its saints. The Holy Spirit brought Christ into the world, through Mary. At the Last Supper, Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would “lead us into truth” and “bring remembrance of all that He told us.” It was the Holy Spirit that descended upon the Church at Pentecost, sending it on a mission to bring God’s grace to the world. It’s the Holy Spirit who works through the Sacraments, who preserves and promotes Christ’s teachings. It’s the Holy Spirit whom we receive in Baptism and again in Confirmation. When a priest says Mass, the Holy Spirit transforms bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood. The Holy Spirit inspires sinners to confess and repent. The Holy Spirit consoles the sick and dying in the Sacrament of Anointing. The Holy Spirit, through the bishop, ordains a man to the Priesthood in Holy Orders. Grace and holiness come from the Holy Spirit. Anything not from the Holy Spirit dies. Two things are completely incompatible: Death and the Holy Spirit. They have nothing in common. The Holy Spirit is the “Lord and Giver of Life.”
In today’s Gospel, an elderly and childless Elizabeth conceives new life by the Holy Spirit. Her son, John the Baptist, will be Christ’s forerunner. He’ll be the best man at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. On the other hand, Mary was a young virgin who fully intended to remain so. She indicated this in her reply to Gabriel: “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” Betrothed women don’t speak that way – especially not to angels. But Mary was startled to hear that she’d have a child. Gabriel settled the matter: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”
The Holy Spirit transcends nature. As Gabriel told Mary, “Nothing will be impossible for God.” Nothing is impossible for the Holy Spirit. When Mary visited Elizabeth, she said as much: “The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.”
Faith is another life-giving effect of the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth professes her Faith and makes a “little creed.” She says, “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” How did Elizabeth know that Mary was “the mother of her Lord?” Supposedly, only Mary and Joseph knew. They both learned it from an angel. It’s doubtful that Joseph or Mary told neighbors, launching the tale through gossip. Even so, it’s not a good scoop because it’s unbelievable without Faith. So what accounts for Elizabeth calling Mary “the mother of her Lord”? The Gospel gives us the answer: She was filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit illuminates the mind with Faith.
Mary is the “Icon of the Holy Spirit.” This is a perfect title for her because she’s the Immaculate Conception. She was conceived without the taint of Original Sin and (positively) with the blessing of “Sanctifying Grace” – that is, the Grace that empowers us to be holy in this life and to see God in the next life. For us, Original Sin is wiped away and Sanctifying Grace is given at Baptism. But for Mary, she was conceived with this Grace.
At the Annunciation, Gabriel implied that Mary is an Immaculate Conception when He said, “Hail full of Grace.” That’s not hyperbole. Angels don’t exaggerate. (If they did, they’d be in trouble.) When Gabriel calls Mary “full of grace,” he means exactly what he says: You, Mary, contain the fullness of the every Grace and Gift that God could ever give to anyone. St. Paul said it: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). Mary lacked nothing in holiness. She was completely given to God in an intimate bond of Love and lifelong virginity. Through her, the Holy Spirit bore fruit in the Redeemer – and in the mission of the Redeemer.
If we get this, we may begin to get the profound meaning of this prayer: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” The first words of the Hail Mary are Gabriel’s words to Mary: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” The second line is from Elizabeth, under the Spirit’s influence: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” When we say the Hail Mary, we are filled with the Holy Spirit! We are saying the Holy Spirit’s words!
The Hail Mary prepares us for Christ’s coming. The Joyful Mysteries of the rosary recall Christ’s first coming at Christmas, which prepares us for his Second Coming at time’s End. By saying the rosary, we honor Christ by honoring his Mother. And now, let us join the Holy Spirit – who always teaches us how to pray – in saying the words that He inspired: Hail Mary…