Carrying Christ to Full Term

I was recently visiting a family from the parish in the hospital where their infant child was receiving medical attention. I entered the room with a book of prayers, a rosary and a small golden pyx containing Holy Communion for the child’s parents. During the course of the visitation, a number of beautiful themes emerged from our conversation and time of prayer. I would like to share a few of these with you in light of our Gospel passage for this Fourth Sunday of Advent which holds up another visitation: that of Our Lady to her cousin Elizabeth. The Church sees fit to round out our Advent preparation with a liturgical recalling of the mystery of Mary’s Visitation.

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Reading Luke 1:39-56 we hear about how Mary went in haste, carrying Christ in her womb. Impelled forward in charity by the tiny divine life gestating within her, she met Elizabeth who, although in advanced years, had also conceived a son. This visitation made by Mary to the house of Zechariah to minister to the needs of Elizabeth becomes one of the means by which she brought Christ to full term. Herself in need, Mary was awakened to the ever greater needs of others and she could not turn in on herself and sit complacently without striving to serve. As she put the needs of another before her own, Christ grew within her and His Sacred Presence enlivened Elizabeth and caused John to leap for joy in the womb of his mother. Mary’s errand of charity reminds us that Advent is a season not just to await the arrival of Christ as Savior from outside but also to live in such a way as to allow His life to well up within us so that He may be born into the world through us. Mary did this uniquely, but the Catholic Christian is called to bear Christ no less truly. With this context in mind, I would like to return to the themes that emerged from the recent hospital room conversation:

+ Hospital rooms are visually dominated by sleek, sophisticated machinery, screens, tubes, sensors and more. When I see them, I am always reminded of what I like to call the ‘theology of the Belly-Button’. What I mean by this is that even as a child in the womb is dependent on his or her mother and literally connected through an umbilical cord, so too does being connected to all sorts of tubes and IVs in a hospital room remind us of our human fragility and need to remain dependent on God and on each other. We grow in dependence, we are born in dependence and we sometimes attempt to prove our total independence as if that were the goal of life. A child admitted to a hospital room is a poignant reminder of the need to not be afraid of depending rightly on others for what we need. Christ Himself became dependent to teach us not to fear it. He drew His life and sustenance from Mary who carried Him in her womb for nine months and He was born as a vulnerable baby.

+ During my visit the parents of the child mentioned how eye opening it had been over the course of a few days to see so many families with children on the same floor, in the same unit. In effect, they like Mary were being sensitized to the needs and sufferings of others even as they grew in an awareness of their own need for support. They went on to comment that over these few days in the hospital, they came to a realization that these hospital rooms are steadily filled throughout the year. They freely admitted how easy it is to take good health for granted while at any given moment young parents and families are carrying profound burdens and anxieties about the wellbeing of their children. Because she was concerned for the other, in a certain way Mary’s own concerns for herself were lightened. Even from a distance Mary empathized with Elizabeth and that compassion brought her to her cousin’s side. By coming in charity, Mary carried Christ to them.

+ Elizabeth and Zechariah experienced the support of Mary (and very likely Joseph) during the three months leading up to John the Baptist’s birth. It is important to remember that the visitation was not just a fleeting moment but an abiding in charity with her much older cousins to offer support and care. All throughout, as she served their needs, Christ was growing steadily within her to the point that when she left, Mary was already into the second trimester of her pregnancy.  The young family in the hospital was profoundly aware of the gift of support they had received from their family and the hospital care team. Gratitude was so evidently present. I have no doubt that as they leave the hospital to return home, they will be profoundly impacted by what they have experienced in these days. It will be an unforgettable Advent.

+ The central agent of peace, joy and levity in the scene of the Visitation is Christ Himself. No doubt Mary was carrying Him, but it was His Presence which conveyed the gift of peace as it would later on the evening of the Resurrection when He appeared in the midst of His closest friends who had fallen into discouragement and despair: “Peace be with you!” He would say, and that peace was communicated. Into the disorienting and anxious circumstances of a child’s hospital room the Lord entered to bring His peace and hope. What a profound reminder that the Lord continues to be alive and at work, offering a peace which surpasses all understanding!

+ In a certain sense Mary’s visitation was the first Eucharistic procession, carrying the gift of Jesus’ Presence to a soul in need. As I prayed with the parents and administered Holy Communion, I was overwhelmed with a sense of the provision of the Eucharist which is the Lord’s abiding and sustaining Presence. Drawing her own strength from the many meals shared during the visitation to Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary in turn provided nourishment so that Christ could grow within her. In a deep spiritual sense though, it was really Christ who was nourishing and sustaining Mary and who continues to nourish His Church through the gift of the Holy Eucharist. How much we need to be reminded that apart from Him we can do nothing, but we can do all things in Christ who strengthens us (see John 15:5 and Philippians 4:13).

As Mary returned from her visitation to Nazareth and readied herself for the very First Noel, the Lord was growing within her and the time for His Birth was drawing near. She moved from the second into the third trimester, steadily cherishing Christ’s growth within her. Within the mystery of the Visitation is contained the whole gift and grace of the Season of Advent which is rapidly coming to an end. Mary and Joseph invite us into the amazing drama of their preparations for bringing Christ to full term and welcoming Him into the world. As we remember and relive that drama in our celebration of Christmas this year, let’s remember that we are invited to share that same dignity and task.

In the Lord’s Presence this weekend at Mass, let’s offer a prayer of intercession for this family and for all from our parish who are sick and in need of the Lord’s healing grace. We also remember any couples who are struggling with infertility or sterility as well as expectant parents and those experiencing challenging pregnancies. May Mary, Joseph and the Christ-Child be close to them!

On behalf of my brother priests (and deacon), our parish staff and our whole parish community, I wish you and your loved ones a very blessed celebration of Christmas! May the Lord strengthen you in faith, hope and love by His Saving Presence this Christmastide and always. May Christ be born in us anew.

    —Fr. Howe