Fr. Roger J. Landry
Retreat given at Sacred Heart Retreat House
“Renewal at the School of Mary”
November 7-9, 2003
Luke 1:39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
•We continue our journey, as we meditate on the life of Mary, what it reveals about her Son Jesus, what it reveals about her who is the exemplary disciple, our Mother, and what it reveals about our own vocation in relation to Jesus.
•Our next stop on the journey is in Ein Karim, a small village just outside of Jerusalem.
•It was here Mary headed with haste right after the Holy Spirit overshadowed her and she conceived Jesus.
•It was about a sixty mile walk from Nazareth to Ein Karim, first downhill into the valley of Jericho, then up-hill for miles as she ascended to Jerusalem.
•We don’t know if she traveled alone. There’s no evidence that St. Joseph accompanied, or SS. Anne or Joachim accompanied her. She doubtless traveled in some type of caravan for the sake of protection against bandits.
•But she traveled in faith. She couldn’t KNOW she was pregnant. She left in haste, so probably within days of Gabriel’s telling her that her kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age was with child. Jesus was just still the tiniest embryo, probably eight or sixteen cells according to his human nature at the time, well before an infant could begin to kick in her womb. She could only know she was pregnant by faith in Gabriel’s words.
•This 14 year old girl set out to help her elderly cousin. Gabriel didn’t tell Mary to go help Elizabeth. He just stated that she was pregnant in her old age. And off Mary went.
•How can we not marvel at Mary’s great readiness!? A mere 14 years or so prior, she had been prepared by God for this vocation through her sinless conception, but she must have responded straight from her earliest days to so great a grace. Nothing else would really describe her extraordinary faith in the Angel Gabriel’s news.
•Doubtless along the journey, she would have been meditating on the visit of Gabriel, and what it meant.
•This morning we hastily follow her along her journey. In following this itinerary, we’re doing more than traversing the physiological and historical events that preceded the birth of the Lord. We’re entering into the response of faith that Mary indicates to all of us along our own pilgrimage of faith. And so with the Lord, let us climb within Mary’s womb and listen to the beat of her contemplative heart that was treasuring within this greatest of all mysteries.
•I’m going to break this conference down into four parts:
◦Mary’s bringing Christ to others
◦Mary’s response in her Magnificat and true Christian joy
◦What this episode shows about the dignity and vocation of woman
II. Bringing Christ to others
•The visitation begins Mary’s whole renewed pilgrimage of faith.
•In going to Ein Karim, Mary became the first missionary, the first bearer of the Good News that would change all of human history, forming Jesus to be the itinerant preacher he would become even before he had developed the tiniest of feet. The lover of the human race started springing across the mountains of Galilee and Jerusalem, eventually leaping across the hills within Mary’s womb. During the springtime of the annunciation when winter was past, rains over and gone, the flowers appearing, the fig tree bearing fruit and the blooming vines giving forth fragrance, he who is the Vine was attached by an umbilical cord to his mother, and together, God’s beautiful One, His Only Begotten Son, and His Beloved Daughter, that Son’s mother, arose and came to Zechariah’s house.
•Mary was bringing joy to her cousin’s home, because she was bringing Christ.
•This teaches us a central lesson: love that refuses to share kills its own power to love. Mary not only wants others to share her love but also her Beloved. She brings Christ to souls before Christ is born.
•When we have Christ within, we cannot be happy until we have imparted our joy.
•Jesus is the greatest gift that we can ever bring to someone we love. Mary was going to care for her elderly pregnant cousin, but she was bringing with her, in her womb, the divine physician.
•Mary has never ceased bringing Jesus to others.
◦Mary presented Jesus to John in the womb, then to the Shepherds and the Magi, then even to God at the presentation.
◦As we see in the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the back of this chapel, an image that comes from a divine source, Mary is seen pregnant, waiting to give birth to Jesus in the American continent, in us and among us. In so many statues, like the one to my right, Mary is seen holding the baby Jesus, not possessively, but to give him to us. Even in certain depictions of the pietà, Mary is seen presenting to us the dead body of her Son. Mary gives us Christ.
◦She keeps bringing others to Christ through Marian devotion, through her intercession and whenever she is proclaimed well. As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council said: “All authentic Marian devotion leads to Christ” (LG 67). “Having entered deeply into the history of salvation, Mary, in a way, unites in her person and re-echoes the most important doctrines of the faith: and when she is the subject of preaching and worship she prompts the faithful to come to her Son, to his sacrifice and to the love of the Father” (LG 65).
•She’s making her own visitation to us this morning, to bring us that same son.
III. Greeting of Elizabeth
•As soon as Elizabeth heard the sound of Mary’s greeting — very likely “shalom” — three things happened. John the Baptist leaped in her womb, she was herself filled with the Holy Spirit and she burst out saying: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?… And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
•The Holy Spirit inspires Elizabeth to bless Mary among all women for two reasons: because of the blessed fruit of her womb and become of her faith that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled, both of which refer to the annunciation. In other words, because of Jesus and then because of her faith in her embryonic savior and son. Her faith was the response to God’s gift through Gabriel.
•The Holy Father says that in the expression “Blessed is she who believed,” we can therefore rightly find a kind of “key” which unlocks for us the innermost reality of Mary, whom the angel hailed as “full of grace.” (RM 19). She has been eternally present in the mystery of Christ and through faith a sharer in it. She believes.
•“Blessed is she who believed” continues to accompany the Virgin at Pentecost and throughout the history of the Church, wherever Christ’s salvific mystery spreads. “All generations will call her blessed, for he who is mighty has done great things for [her] and holy is his name.” Knowledge of the mystery of Christ leads us to bless his mother, in the form of special veneration for the mother of God. This is a blessing for her FAITH. We seek in her faith support for their own. (RM 27).
•Both Elizabeth and John recognize the presence of the Lord and Mary’s beatitude in relation to him. He who would later cry out “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world,” points him out in the womb. And leaps for joy.
•In response to Elizabeth’s greeting, Mary could not restrain herself.
•She whose contemplative heart is the model of all who have ever prayed couldn’t keep her love and praise of God to herself any more. She opened up in the presence of her cousin, who likewise had been blessed by the Lord and filled with the Holy Spirit to recognize by faith the presence of the embryonic Lord within her.
•Mary’s explosive first words to Elizabeth upon her arrival — which we have in the Magnificat — demonstrate how much she had to have been reflecting upon the whole history of salvation of the Jewish people during her journey. Such a synthetic proclamation of all the Old Testament prophecies and how they were fulfilled in her — which is what we find in the Magnificat — would only make sense as the result of such a profound meditation on them during the journey.
•“In these sublime words, which are simultaneously very simple and wholly inspired by the sacred texts of the people of Israel, Mary’s personal experience, the ecstasy of her heart, shines forth. (RM 36).
•She starts off by praising God: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Only the soul that does not magnify itself can truly magnify the Lord. (Sheen) Her soul, her body, her womb were all praising the Lord.
•“My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Her joy is boundless. As the Holy Father comments, “In her exultation, Mary confesses that she finds herself in the very heart of God her savior, the fulness of Christ. She is conscious that the promise made to the father, “to Abraham and his children for ever” is being fulfilled in her. God, who from age to age “remembers his mercy” has manifested himself to her. (RM 36).
•Her joy is discovered in God, “who has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” As her Son would teach three decades later, the Lord exalts the humble, and he was exalting Mary, who was bright enough to realize that all generations would call her blessed as a result of what the Lord had done for her. While her presence in the midst of Israel, especially before the incarnation, was so discreet as to pass unnoticed by the eyes of contemporaries, it shone before God. And her Magnificat was the expression of her humble gratitude.
•St. Josemaria Escriva commented, “How great the value of humility! — Quia respexit humilitatem… It is not of her faith, nor of her charity, nor of her immaculate purity that our Mother speaks in the house of Zachary. Her joyful hymn sings: ‘Since he has looked on my humility, all generations will call me blessed.’
•Her joy is enriched because the “Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is his name.”
•She traces his mercy from generation to generation and recognizes his mercy toward her. He praises God’s strength and his preferential love for the lowly, the hungry, the poor. “He has lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich awway empty.
•Finally she praises God for being good to his word: He has helped his servant Israel, being mindful of his mercy, as he promised to Abraham and to his descendents forever.” She was blessed because she believed that ALL the Lord’s words to her — not just by Gabriel, but through Sacred Scripture — would be fulfilled.
•The Church has continued, throughout the generations, to call Mary “Blessed” and echo her Magnificat as the source of our own joy, because of the great things God for her — his true masterpiece — and for the great things he continues to do for us.
•The Church models her pilgrimage on that of the Mother of God, praising God whose “name is holy.”
•The Holy Father says nothing should be able to rob us of this joy: Like a pilgrims in a foreign land, the Church presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God, announcing the Cross and Death of the Lord until he comes (RM 35). The Virgin is present on this journey, helping us, in faith, to “magnify the greatness of the Lord.” (RM 36).
•What joy must have shone on Mary’s eyes!? This young girl, who would return to Nazareth under the threat of a death penalty, was bursting with joy. She is the model for all Christian joy. The cause of our joy. She teaches us very clearly the source of our joy:
◦Because she was full of grace
◦Because the Lord was with her
◦Because she humbly grateful for everything the Mighty One had done for her.
•This joy needs to be seen by all, and needs to be the distinctive characteristic of the Christian. St. Paul says, “Rejoice always! Again I say rejoice!”
•Real authentic joy is contagious and is the greatest way to evangelize, because our hearts long for this type of joy, which the world cannot give and cannot take away.
•It’s worth our time to reflect for a moment on what can do to grow in joy and what we do to lose it.
•We can mention four things that will help us grow in the joy that Mary showed in her Magnificat:
◦The first is the convinction that God loves us, that the Almighty has looked at us with kindness and be grateful for that love. We must believe in God’s deep love for us, accept it, thank him for it and give it back to the Lord. This is what Mary did, as we see in her Magnificat.
◦The second is to reflect on the meaning of God’s indwelling through the gift of sanctifying grace. Dominus tecum! Dominus nobiscum! The Lord is with us, inside, when we are in the state of grace. God doesn’t just love us, but lives with us in love. Blessed Don Marmion used to say that joy is the echo of God’s life within us. One of the sources of our joy, therefore, will be our recognition of the importance of the sacraments, which intensify or restore this loving presence of God within.
◦The third is a deep trust and hope in Divine Providence, as Mary always showed, no matter what occurred. “Blessed is she who trusted that what the Lord had spoken to her would be fulfilled.” Mary showed us how to trust in God. In addition to being all-loving and living inside of us through sanctifying grace, God is all-powerful. He is in charge. He’s conquered sin, Satan and death. How can anything extinguish our joy? Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from his love, as St. Paul said. Even those who from a human point of view are desperate can be profoundly joyful if they trust in God and in his love.
◦The fourth source of joy we’ll mention is prayer. This is how we put our trust in God’s providence into action. Jesus said to us in the Sermon on the Mount, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it will be opened to you. As St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Our joy will flow from that prayerful peace. The ability even to approach God the Father in prayer is a source of joy. And if human fathers wouldn’t give their children snakes instead of fish, rocks instead of bread, so much more will our Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. And that same Holy Spirit, within us through the divine indwelling, will help us to bear with him the fruit of joy. Mary, who herself was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit throughout her life, is our model in prayer as well.
•What can rob us of joy?
◦The first is self-pity. We can start feeling bad for ourselves, to start counting not our blessings, but our misfortunes. We can start to see ourselves as martyrs. Rather than convert humility into an opportunity for giving God praise and joy, as Mary did in the Magnificat, rather than even rejoicing in our sufferings, we can start voluntarily to allow those sufferings and difficulties to separate from God. To live up to our vocation to rejoice always, we have to expunge all self-pity.
◦The second is worry. We can start to be eaten alive by worries, preoccupations, fears, what-ifs. Of course there are going to be things that concern us — health problems, loved ones going down the wrong path, whether we’ll be able to fulfill well our duties — but Jesus tells us not to worry. “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? … Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” If Jesus is saying this about the things we really need — food, shelther, clothing — then he’s saying it about everything else. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his holiness,” and everything else will be given to us besides. Mary, after having been told by the Archangel not to be afraid, taught us the secret here too in her fiat, trusting in willing whatever the Lord allows to happen. “Let it be done to me as you say.” We don’t really have the weight of the world on our shoulders, even though at times we feel that we do. I love the story of Bl. Pope John XXIII, who had the weight of the Church and all her problems on his rather bulky shoulders. As he would go in to pray Compline and then pray to the Lord for the needs of the Church throughout the world, he would name several of them that were troubling him most. Then he would conclude, full of trusting confidence, “Signore, é la vostra chiesa. Vado dormire!” “Lord it’s your Church, I’m going to bed. Probably all of us need to trust more in the Lord like Bl. John XXIII, so that we might radiate the joy that he did.
◦The third thing that robs us of joy is complaining. This can be common among priests and religious, especially when we start, rather than taking out the logs from our own eyes, to notice specks in everyone else’s eyes and in every corner. I think we’ve all met people who would have complained about the menu at the Last Supper, whose glasses are always half-empty, who are more prone to criticize than compliment, to discourage than encourage. Is it any wonder that these people have no joy? Some of us are playing on the field; others are criticizing from the stands. And those of us in the first group should be prepared for criticism by those in the other. That shouldn’t rob us of our joy, if our joy involves following Jesus in carrying the Cross. The opposite of complaining is gratitude, gratitude for anything the Lord allows. We learn this from the example of Mary, especially in her Magnificat.
◦The final thing we’ll mention is really the most fundamental. The greatest thing that threatens our joy is when we place our happiness in anything other than in God. If we’re really setting our desires on esteem, advancement, recognition, prestige, particular material things, the affection of other human beings — or as many in the world, on power, money, or sex — we’ll never be joyous. If we don’t achieve what we’re hoping for, it’s obvious why we won’t find joy. But even if we obtain any of these things, we won’t be joyous either. Joy is not the same thing as pleasure. Each of these things may give us some fleeting pleasure, but none of these things will give us joy. And as CS Lewis once said, anyone who has tasted joy would never exchange it for all the pleasure in the world. Mary realized that. In her spousal & virginal chastity, in her obedient fiat, in her turtle-dove poverty, Mary showed us the true source of joy. She was truly blessed because she heard the word of God, treasured it with her heart and put it into practice so much that the Word took her flesh and dwelled inside of her among us. She placed her whole being at the service of the Lord and that led her to ineffable joy.
V. What Mary reveals about the dignity and vocation of woman
•We can finish these reflections by focusing briefly on what Mary reveals about the dignity and vocation of woman, which is shown by Mary in these early episodes of her life with the Lord.
•Listen to the Holy Father: Mary shows the dignity and vocation of a woman. In the Incarnation, God entrusted himself to the ministry, free and active ministry of a woman. Women, by looking to Mary, find in her the secret of living their femininity with dignity and of achieving their own true advancement. She shows the beauty which mirrors the loftiest sentiments of the human heart: the self-giving totality of love; the strength that is capable of bearing the greatest sorrows; limitless fidelity and tireless devotion to work; the ability to combine penetrating intuition with words of support and encouragement.” (RM 46).
•The Pope says that Mary reveals the highest expression of and inspiration for what he calls the “feminine genius”: She called herself the “handmaid of the Lord,” and in obedience to God, she accepted her lofty yet not easy vocation as wife and mother in the family of Nazareth. Putting herself at God’s service, she also put herself at the service of others: a service of love. Through this service, Mary was able to experience her mysterious “reign,” as “queen.” For her, to “reign” is to serve. Her service is to reign! This is the way authority needs to be understood in the family, in the society, and in the Church. Each person’s vocation is revealed in this “reigning,” for we’re made in God’s image. This is why man cannot fully find himself except in the sincere gift of himself to others.” (LW 10).
•Mary’s maternal “reign” consists in this: She was a gift for her Son and has become a gift for the sons and daughters of the whole human race, awakening profound trust in those who seek her guidance along the difficult paths of life on the way to their transcendent destiny. By fidelity to his or her vocation, the disciple achieves this final goal (LW 10).
•The Pope thanks God in his letter to women for all women who live out this mystery, this reigning service. Church gives thanks to God, he says, for the “mystery of woman” and for every woman — for all that constitutes the eternal measure of her feminine dignity. It also thanks women for all they represent in the life of woman, as Mothers, wives, daughters and sisters, workers, are consecrated, for smiling on children, mutually giving in service of life and love, bringing sensitivity, intuitiveness, generosity and fidelity, humanizing structures, and for faith in God. (LW 2).
•Women are crucial for the process of humanization which marks the “civilization of love.”
•There is great significance to the “womanhood” lived sublimely by Mary. In the believing and “consecrated” woman, there is a kind of inherent “prophecy” that finds its fullest realization and expresses the essence of the Church, which is virgin (undivided heart), bride and mother.
•All women are called to this service of receiving Christ within, full of grace, full of faith, and of bringing him to others, in this inherent “prophecy” or preaching of the Gospel through acts of service, in which a woman creates a civilization of love, where love reigns and woman’s dignity is fully achieved and fully respected.
•We turn to Mary, to the first evangelist in history, and ask her to bring her Son to us and bring us to him, so that we may cherish him within and bring him to others, so that he can make them leap again!