As you go a-visiting over the festive season you will certainly be bringing with you a gift to your loved ones and friends. Whatever gift you bring, your main gift will be yourself, your presence, your company, your love. In listening to the Gospel of the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth no gifts are mentioned by name, but there are actually quite a few and they are momentous.
Our Lady never comes alone. She always brings Christ with her. She is, if you like, permanently pregnant with him, ready to give birth to him as often as we are willing to welcome him. Elizabeth recognises that straight away. Mary is no sooner in the door than Elizabeth asks, “Why should I be honoured with a visit from the Mother of my Lord?” She knew that Mary brought the Lord into her home.
But how did she know? We are told that as soon as Mary’s greeting “reached her ears” the child leapt for joy. It’s as if John the Baptist detected Christ’s presence in the voice of Mary, proof in its own way that the child in the womb hears external voices, senses the presence of the other. It was because of Mary’s voice, too, that the Spirit filled Elizabeth and so made her cry out that she was the Mother of the Lord.
The voice of Mary communicates to both John and Elizabeth the joy of the Holy Spirit. That’s no surprise since, at the Annunciation, the Holy Spirit covered Mary with his shadow, a beautiful way of referring to the conception of Jesus in her womb. Jesus and the Holy Spirit are inseparable. Where there is one, there is the other, and so, too, therefore is the Father. Mary is enveloped by the Trinity, you might say, and they make her the bearer of their presence.
We don’t hear it in today’s Gospel excerpt, but immediately following it there is the Magnificat, Mary’s equally joyful hymn of praise to God for what he has literally done in her. So, Mary not only brings joy in visiting her cousin but expresses the fullness of the joy which is brimming over in her own heart and soul. And lest we might think this meeting between cousins was way too high-powered for us, the Gospel tells us that Mary stayed three months with Elizabeth, that is, she stayed to attend to Elizabeth in the last period of her pregnancy and to help her with the birth of the Baptist. The high power of grace finds practical expression in nursing and midwifery! Mary was probably curious to know what she would need to prepare herself for nine months later.
When you meet over Christmas, by all means do all the sharing of news and the familiar chit chat which comes with that. But, if you can, try to use your voice to bring and share with one another something of the life of God in you, as Mary did. At times people today are embarrassed to speak at home to one another about their spiritual lives. And yet, is not your life of prayer with God the truest part of your life? Sometimes it can be that we don’t know what to say or how to say it. OK, well why not say simply, “God has been so good to me” or “I have felt Jesus very close to me.” Maybe things are not going well in that domain, so maybe you could say, “I feel nothing is happening in my relationship with God” or “I feel upset with God just now.”
Whatever it is you say, it will break the ice because the others will want to know more: I wonder why you feel God so distant, or I wonder how it felt for you to sense Jesus so close. We have got so used to the notion that matters of faith and spirituality are private and personal as if it wouldn’t be polite or politic to mention them. But that’s not correct. Not just Mary and Elizabeth, but millions of Christians throughout the centuries have shared and discussed their prayer, their faith, their experience of God and of his love. Sharing and communicating among ourselves in this way strengthens our prayer and faith. It also strengthens our relationships and families because we are learning to share what is deeper, truer and most authentic. Not only that. If a family member is struggling with faith and prayer, with worship and sacraments, then a network and bond of such sharing can form a safety net that helps them to grow and move forward.
When we bring the Word and Sacrament in us back into our homes from Church and talk about them as a perfectly normal part of family life, then they begin to influence in a hugely positive way all the other dimensions of our lives. There will be struggles, uncertainties, failures, but the habit of talking and praying together will allow the stronger faith of one to support the weakness of the other. Our Catholic faith is not something we should be afraid to discuss, to question, to challenge, to learn, to study, to make us thrill, to enlighten and to move us to strong decisions. The core of our faith is the Presence of Christ, the Presence of the Spirit of joy and courage and fortitude and wisdom, the Presence of the compassionate and provident Father. Faith is the expression of our living and personal relationship with the persons of the Trinity. I often feel it is like the treasure or pearl of great price hidden in the field of our homes but which we can be reluctant to unearth and rejoice over. Certainly, a deeper engagement with the faith of the Church can raise all kinds of very painful and challenging issues that require mature and careful decisions. But it also gives foundation, direction, support and sustenance to our individual and family lives.
The more we get our hands dirty in knowing and loving our faith and the Triune God of love who has showered his grace and riches upon us, we will not only be better Catholics for it, but also better human beings. The Catholic faith properly understood is not the enemy of our human happiness but its greatest friend and guarantee. Engaging in it, as so many of you already do in great depth, moves you to want to share it with others, to be witnesses, apostles and evangelisers. Perhaps we will not be like Mary, running as quickly as she could to tell Elizabeth, but in our circumstances and in our own way we will be like her.
Parents and grandparents, it is you above all to whom your children look for leadership, for courage, for strong devotion in faith and worship. They will gladly take from your hands all the presents you will have for them over Christmas. But I would say that if you use your voice like Mary to speak to them from your own hearts about the love of God that you have experienced, about the consolation of the sacraments that has been yours over the years, about the warmth and tenderness you experience in your relationship with Our Lady, you will be giving them a treasure that will not be cast aside when the Christmas lights go off, but that will grow and expand within them as they find their own way to and through the saving mysteries of our faith.
A practical suggestion. As you sit round the table for your Christmas meal, let someone (dad? mum?) chink the glass for attention, say with love and simplicity what Jesus has meant in his or her life and then lead the grace before meals. And, when you are gathered around the hearth afterwards, sing together a verse or two of “Silent night” and allow the deep, quiet love of the Saviour-child make your family-heart leap for joy.