Delving more deeply into the Gospel of Saint Luke lifts a corner of the veil to witness the birth of the Messiah through the lens of a soul that magnifies the Lord.
My first Advent post on These Stone Walls was “A Corner of the Veil” posted in December, 2009. It seems so very long ago, and I no longer have a copy of it, but I recall every word. That’s partly because I wrote it, and partly because the story it told meant so very much to me. It was about the death of my mother on November 5, 2006, about my inability to see her or communicate with her for the last year of her life despite her being but fifty miles away, and most especially it was about her insistence on always having the last word in life – and even in death.
I borrowed my title for that post from A Corner of the Veil, an obscure little novel by Laurence Cosse first published in French. It’s a strange and satirical story about the discovery of an unpublished manuscript from an otherwise boring priest and theologian that causes everyone who reads it to suddenly believe, casting aside all doubt about the existence and presence of God in both life and death. If you tend to see more with your heart than your eyes – or if your mother, like mine, always had to have the last word – then visit again “A Corner of the Veil” this Advent.
After that post was published three years after my mother’s death, TSW readers Tom and JoAnn Glenn carried out a small but important mission of mercy. They found my mother’s obituary, which I had not been able to see previously, and printed it on the back of a photograph of her found online, a photo I also had not seen. It was a very kind and merciful thing to do, and it went right up onto the wall of this cell above the place where I type. It remains there still. Time has a way of smoothing over the wrinkles and ripples left in the passage from life to death, but that hasn’t stopped my mother from having the last word.
In early November this year, I was very busy. I live in a world of constant chaos and uncertainty, among people for whom gripping and steady drama is just a way of life. In early November this year, nine years after my mother’s death, I had forgotten the date completely. November 5 arrived with nothing whatsoever stirred in my consciousness that this was a date that ought to give me pause.
Then late that day the mail arrived. It was a letter from Bea Pires, a TSW reader in Western Canada. I usually just place incoming mail in a corner of this cell to read it later on the night it arrives, but on that day Mail Call was held just a little early.
When I can, I like to tune into EWTN at 3:00 PM to pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy with the crowd at the National Shrine in Stockbridge, MA. (By the way, that is a GREAT way to observe the Year of Mercy!). The mail arrived just minutes before the Chaplet began so I opened Bea’s letter and read:
“I know you won’t get this in time, but I wanted to let you know that I prayed for your dear mother on the ninth anniversary of her death on November 5.”
I was startled, and had been so busy that I didn’t even know the date. My eyes drifted first to a calendar on my wall to note the date – November 5 – then to the photo of my mother to note the date of her death – November 5 – and realized with a jolt that this reminder came on the exact date and time of my mother’s death. Then the Chaplet of Divine Mercy began and I prayed it for her. Thank you Bea, Tom, and JoAnn. The Commandment to honor our parents survives life and death, and there’s a reason we reverence them, even the flawed ones.
BEHOLD YOUR MOTHER!
Last week on These Stone Walls, we published “On the Road to Jericho: A Parable for the Year of Mercy.” It tells two very different stories about the parable of Luke 10, the so-called “Parable of the Good Samaritan.” There is one story on the surface of the famous parable, and it’s a good story. Then there are deeper elements for those “with eyes to see and ears to hear” that make this account a far richer story with deep significance. What lies beneath the lines of Luke’s Gospel has to be excavated by seeing and hearing with the hearts and minds of the original hearers of this Good News.
At Mass on the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year, pay close attention to the Gospel (Luke 1:39-45). It’s a short account, easy to read and ponder, but it tells two stories – maybe even three – one on its surface and one or two that lay beneath. And if you were at Mass on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12, you might notice that the same Gospel reading was proclaimed then. I am going to reproduce it here, but I’ll use the December 12 version because it continues on in the Lectionary for one additional verse that is important to this post:
“Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.’ And Mary said: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior” (Luke 1:39-48).
This account comprises the Second Joyful Mystery of the Rosary and it’s familiar to all of us. At face value, it relates a joyous encounter between Mary and Elizabeth, her cousin and the wife of Zechariah and expectant mother of John the Baptist.
Then there is a second level of meaning, though subtle, that astute Jewish hearers might detect in Luke’s account. The experience of the child leaping in Elizabeth’s womb in the presence of the prenatal Jesus recalls the Old Testament story of Rebekah (Genesis 25: 22-23), pregnant with the twins, Jacob and Esau. Both Luke’s Gospel and the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, use the Greek word “skirtáō” to describe’ this “leaping” or “struggling” of the child in the womb.
In Saint Luke’s account, “the child leaped (skirtáō) in her womb” is used to infer that the child in Mary’s womb would be greater than his slightly older cousin, John (expressed in John 3:16 and 3:27-30). In the Old Testament case of Rebekah, it was to show that Jacob would have preeminence over his slightly older brother, Esau, as God Himself explains:
“The children struggled (skirtáō) together within her… And the Lord said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples, born to you, shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25: 22-23).
Also, Elizabeth’s declaration, “Blessed are you among women,” reverberates in Jewish ears back to the experiences of Jael and Judith (Judges 5:24-27 and Judith 13:18). Blessed for their heroic courage in warding off the enemies hostile to Israel, Jael and Judith struck mortal blows to the head off the enemy. In Mary’s case, the victory will be even greater as she puts the head of the enemy under foot (Genesis 3:15).
Elizabeth’s question put to Mary – “Why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” – does not denote a simple visit between cousins. Every occurrence of “Lord” in this account and throughout this chapter in Luke (there are seven such references in this chapter) refer to God. Elizabeth’s declaration that Mary is the Mother of God (Theotokos, in the Greek) became the first Marian dogma to be expounded by the Church and defined, at the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431.
Preceding these verses in Luke’s Gospel – and found no where else – is the beautiful account of the Archangel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Zechariah and then to Mary, and the very different ways the Archangel approaches them with Divine News. I wrote of this in an Annunciation post that would make for good Advent reading this week. That post is “Saint Gabriel the Archangel: When the Dawn from On High Broke Upon Us.” It demonstrates the great reverence and deference with which the Evangelists and early Church viewed Mary. It was a reverence that spilled over into art, as evidenced in the great painting “The Annunication” by Fra Angelico.
THE NEW ARK OF THE COVENANT
And then there is yet another layer of meaning for keen Jewish ears in Saint Luke’s Visitation account. There are several striking parallels between Mary’s visit with Elizabeth and King David’s of the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. In Luke 1:39, Mary proceeds in haste “into the hill country to a city of Judah.” In the Second Book of Samuel (6:2) David arose and went to the very same place. In Luke 1:43, Elizabeth asks, how is it “that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” In Second Samuel 6:9, David asks, “How is it that the Ark of the Lord comes to me?” In Luke 1:41, “When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the child leaped in her womb…” In Second Samuel 6:16, “As the Ark of the Lord came into the City of David, Michal the daughter of Saul saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord.”
The parallel is extremely important for the hearers of Luke’s words. The importance rests in the way the Ark of the Covenant was viewed by the people of God. It was a chest made of acacia wood – about 3.75 feet long and 1.5 feet wide (1.1 meters by 0.5 meters) lined both inside and outside with gold (Exodus 25:10-26). At its four corners were placed heavy rings of gold through which acacia poles could be slipped to carry the Ark since it could not be touched by human hands.
The lid was composed of a solid slab of gold that formed the “kapporet” or “mercy seat,” the place of atonement. It was surmounted by two solid gold cherubim which formed a throne so that the Ark itself became a footstool for God (Numbers 10: 33-35).
The Ark was built upon the command of God at Mount Sinai, and it housed the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. It also contained a golden vessel of manna (Exodus 16:34) and the rod of Aaron (Numbers 17:10). The Ark became the evidence of the Lord’s intimate association with Israel, a sign of the Covenant, and a housing for the True Presence of God. When the Jews encamped, the Ark was placed in the Holy of Holies where Moses “conversed with the Lord” (Numbers 7:89).
During a struggle with the Philistines, the Ark was captured (1 Samuel 4:11) and taken. The Philistines suffered seven months of earthquakes and plagues (1 Samuel 5:3-9) until the Ark was returned. It stayed for twenty years at Kiriath-Jearim until that scene above in Second Samuel (6:16) when David leaped before it as it returned to the Tabernacle in Jerusalem.
The Ark remained there for the next 400 years until the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. to the Babylonians (Jeremiah 3:16). It was not counted among the spoils claimed by the Babylonians but the Second Book of Maccabees (2 Macc 2-5) described that it was saved from destruction by the Prophet Jeremiah and hidden on Mount Nebo where it would stay “until God gathers His people together again and shows His mercy” (2 Macc 2:7).
Thus emerged throughout Israel the expectation of a Messiah, a Branch of David and a Son of God. In Saint Luke’s subtle but powerful short paragraph about the Visitation is found an entire nation’s wealth of understanding about the return of the Ark of the Covenant and the hope of a Messiah. In the subtle hand of Saint Luke, it is in Mary, the Theotokos, the God-bearer, the New Ark of the New Covenant that the Dawn from On High will break upon us. Her’s is a soul that magnifies the Lord.
The vision of the Ark in the Book of Revelations (11:19-12:1) hints at this identification: the “woman clothed with the sun” is the Mother of God. And she wants the last word. The door to that word was opened on the Solemnity of her Immaculate Conception. The word is “mercy,” a divine Christmas gift, and it is the great tragedy of our age that so many don’t even know they need it.
O Come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem;
From Every foe deliver them
That trust Your mighty power to save,
And give them victory over the grave.
O Come, O Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that sets us free,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! O Israel.
To thee shall come Emmanuel.
Note from Father Gordon: Remember that Christmas cards can no longer be sent to prisoners here per order of the New Hampshire State Prison. This “Bah Humbug” news should not deter you from the Christmas spirit, but if you’re not quite finding it this year, these TSW Christmas posts might help, or at least might make you smile – maybe even laugh a bit:
- “Christmas in the Midst of All That Really Matters”
- “Phasers on Stun, Mr. Spock! Captain Kirk’s Star Trek Epiphany”
- “In Sin and Error Pining: Christmas in an Unholy Land”
- “Upon a Midnight Not So Clear, Some Wise Men From the East Appear”