“Hark! my lover – here he comes …” – Sgs 2:8
“And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” – Lk 1:43
Since December 1996, this has been one of my favorite sets of readings. That Christmas, my cousin, a religious sister, gave this painting by a Buddhist artist:
Take time to look at the picture. There are several distinguishing features. A young Mary visiting her relative Elizabeth – both poor peasant women. Notice the mud house with bamboo and straw roof … ceiling hanging down … walls peeling off. Mary arrives unexpectedly, before Elizabeth can tidy up. Notice the light surrounding the young Mary … how she arrives ... barely in the door … handbag barely off her shoulders … her left palm open and lifted up … feet ready to move … eyes brimming with eagerness … with good news ... A posture of total openness … Joy overflowing in both women. We can almost see the child in Elizabeth’s womb, leaping for joy …
This painting helps us appreciate today’s Gospel, Mary coming to visit Elizabeth. But if we look carefully and allow Mystery to “speak,” we see more than a young pregnant woman coming to visit her older pregnant cousin. We can see a very profound picture of who God is – of who we are.
We know that Mary carries Jesus in her womb. And we know that Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist. In Mary's visit, Jesus visits Elizabeth and John. Elizabeth recognizes Mary's visit as God coming to her family. She exults with praise, “How can it be that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Thus, this picture of Mary’s visit, reveals God as the One who comes to visit us, in our home. As we are. The Visitation foreshadows what is to come as Christmas draws near: God is coming to visit, to draw near, to stay, pitching tent among us.
The same Christmas in 1996, I was able to visit some communities of ethnic minorities in Central Vietnam. I celebrated Mass with some underground catechists in training so they can return to witness and pass on the faith among their people. They do so at the cost of imprisonment, for it is illegal under Communist Vietnam to proselytize! When asked why they would take such risks, they replied consistently: “We cannot but proclaim a God who is willing to come and be with us, to love and help us.”
I am still deeply moved by their determination … flowing out of gratitude. Like Mary leaving immediately after receiving the news of her pregnancy, braving the hard journey, bearing good news to Elizabeth. Her face in the painting – like the faces of the catechists – becomes a canvas which radiates God’s coming, like the blue sky which radiates the rising dawn. For me, her visit becomes the backdrop God’s coming near.
Praying over these readings today trigger the same joyful anticipation and hope in me that I remember 14 years ago. Yet, I am surprised by a deeper joy. I am also filled with sustained hope as I look forward to visiting my family, especially my nieces and nephews, as well as the kids at Dorothy Kirby Juvenile Detention Center in Los Angeles.
What if, in real, tangible, palpable ways, God wants to visit you and I during this Christmastime? What if God desires to be with us as we struggle to embrace our current worries, troubled past, uncertain futures, deep fears, pains, brokenness, defenses? Even as we wrestle with guilt, forgiveness, unhealthy attachments, addictions … longing for home, for healing, yearning to become the “Beloved”? What if it is through our own fragile humanity – that mysterious mix of grace and fall, beauty and brokenness, lights and shadows – that God visits us, that God comes near? What if this is how God loves?
What if God hides in the people who visit us this holiday? How can we visit others in a way that helps them experience God’s coming near? What if we visit someone outside our present circle of friends, family, and comfort?