Friday, April 23, 2010

a word or two on the Visitation from a beginner

I am awake, though I probably shouldn't be, but before I try to lay down again, I thought I'd look at some old files, and I saw some of my old sermons. As part of "field education" in seminary, I was asked to prepare and deliver sermons a few times. One instance was a Wednesday Vespers in Advent. I think this was my first time in a pulpit. Zion, Fort Wayne's pulpit is quite a place for one's first attempt at preaching, if you could call it that. You ascend a number of steps, then open a door onto the pulpit, which looks down over the assembled congregation. Fr. Punke asked each of us to make sure those evening Advent sermons were less than ten minutes, so I ended up editing a great deal out of it. My assigned pericope was Luke 1:39-56. 

I also recall that before the service on those evenings the congregation gathers in the new addition next to the church, for dinner.  While people around me were eating pizza and salad and bread sticks, I was looking at that sermon, knowing that I was not happy with it.  I ended up coming up with a much better final paragraph, though that was on my handwritten notes, which was lost in our fire, if not before then.  The sermon ended by comparing the Church to a motherly womb, a womb which by its watery atmosphere is like a baptismal paradise.  I'd like to recall exactly how I worded it, but I will content myself with simply recounting below, for your amusement and/or horror, the first public sermon of a seminarist as it was written.  (I have since become completely convinced of the wrongheadedness of having a man preach publicly before he has been at least ordained into the diaconate.  Only our confession of AC XIV is at stake, but what's an article or two among friends these days?)   

THE last time I checked, Mrs. Lawrence and Mrs. Standfest, wives of two of our seminarists, were each very much still great with child. There may be other such women in the congregation not prominent in my mind, all of whom benefit from the Church’s payer. We hear from St. Luke tonight the account of a visit between two such mothers. In this case, Mary, the Mother of our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, visits with her cousin, Elizabeth, the mother of St. John, the great Forerunner of the Lord, the one that Jesus will later claim is the greatest of all men born of women. Already in the time before he is born of a woman, however, the holy Forerunner is demonstrating and fulfilling his holy vocation. He will one day grow up to preach before large crowds, and prepare the way for Christ. But often the best and most profound preaching takes place in small company, before congregations that will never impress bureaucrats and church growth consultants.

So here we see John, doing everything he can to proclaim to his mother the joyous presence of Christ among His people. He hears the holy greeting of Mary, and responds in faith with his unmistakable proclamation and joyful confession.

Note well the order of events here. First he is blessed by the presence of God, the One who is preferred to him even though coming after him. By the holy Word coming out of Mary’s mouth, John is blessed with the gift of faith. He then is compelled to respond with his own confession and preachment. First faith comes to us by means of the Word, then we respond with the confession of faith. As the Psalmist says, “I believed, therefore have I spoken; I was greatly afflicted.” This little sentence may sum up the entire life of the Forerunner, beginning with this holy Visitation.

And what does John recognize? What does he believe? He sees with the eyes of faith what the holy Evangelist Luke sees. For Luke, like a fine musician, weaves into this whole account a theme which serves to teach us just Whom this is in the womb of this holy visitor.

St. Mary, the pure Virgin Mother of God, goes on a journey to a town up in the hill country of Judah, just like the pure and sacred Ark of the Covenant, which in the Second Book of Samuel, is taken on a journey to a town up in the hill country of Judah. Upon arrival at their respective destinations, both the Ark, containing the presence of God, and Mary, containing the presence of God and the new covenant, are greeted with joyous salutations of a near liturgical character.

By means of this Ark, God enters the house of Obededom, and becomes a great blessing there. By means of Mary’s womb, God enters the house of Zacharias and his Elizabeth, in order to be a blessing there.

In reverent fear David asks, “How shall the Ark of the LORD come to me?” Likewise filled with reverent fear, Elizabeth asks “Whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

And just as the Ark of the LORD stayed in the house of Obededom for three months, so Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months.

St. Luke, in this and other ways, is teaching the Church much about how the patterns of the Old Testament point to and are fulfilled in, an even greater reality, the real, redemptive presence of God among His people in the Person of the man Jesus Christ. The coming of Jesus among His people is the advent of the new and everlasting covenant.

Tonight’s reading culminates with the most beloved of the Church’s song’s, the Magnificat of Mary. John is the Forerunner even in his leap of joy. For Mary then also responds to these events with her own joyful song of praise.

This account in the First chapter of Luke, dear friends, like the rest of Scripture, is not given to us merely so that we can have a historical record of events that took place once upon a time. It serves to bring us into the real, redemptive presence of Christ among His people in the Church even today. The preachers in the Church today are called upon to go ahead into the world, and bring the joyful proclamation of Christ’s presence to His people. You and I respond to this awesome presence first like Elizabeth does. “Who am I? And who are we? That the Lord should come to us? We don’t deserve this visitation. It’s like if one of my seminary professors were to knock on my door one night while I was in my usual physical and spiritual mess, instead of doing something holy like reading my Greek New Testament. You can think of a similar analogy with your own dear Pastor Punke. I would have done nothing to deserve a visit of that nature. Our actions, and in fact our very condition, deserve nothing but abandonment from God. But He comes to us anyway. He comes to us because of our condition, for He knows how much we need Him even more than we know it.

Our second reaction is that of Mary. She breaks out in song. If the Ark of the Covenant is a pattern for the pure and holy womb that will bear the Word of God in the flesh, then this Mary, in turn, is a pattern for something much greater than her, namely, the pure and holy Church, which bears the gracious and redemptive presence of God among us today. And if this is true of the Church, then it is true of each holy member of the Church. The Church knows this implicitly because She doesn’t just sing something like the Magnificat of Mary, but the Church in fact makes Mary’s song her song, and sings it throughout the world every night at Vespers.

Just before His holy death, Jesus will hold up a chalice and say of His precious Blood therein, “This is the New Testament.” Yes the Church had a New Testament before She had a canon of Scripture. For the Church had, and has, the new Covenant in Christ’s Blood, which we eucharistically partake of often in the Church. This continuing presence among us moves us all the more to sing Mary’s song with joy, as we pray for His continued presence among His people.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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