Seeking God’s face as a theme in the psalms

I know that face

How do we recognise people? By their voice, by their touch, but above all by their face. Where does that leave our relationship with God? Every now and again, there is great internet excitement about someone finding ‘the face of God’ in the inside of a fruit or vegetable, or a picture of Our Lady, or Jesus. Sometimes it’s the letters which spell the Holy Name.   What always intrigues me, though, is how do people know that it’s God (or Jesus, or Mary) and not somebody else?   We have no contemporary photographs or even portraits; it is easy to demonstrate that people’s idea of God’s appearance (or the appearance of anyone else in the story) is culturally conditioned (all those blond Jesuses in long white nighties, all those Marys with peaches and cream complexions – and long blonde hair).

Pregnant BVM
a beautifully pregnant Mary, but the hair is surely wrong

Till we have faces

God is a spirit and he doesn’t have a face.  Jesus offers his own : ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14.9).  Clement of Rome (died about 95 A.D.) said,’Through him we see as in a mirror the spotless and excellent face of God’.  We don’t have even a sketch of Jesus;  any sort of pictures of people (recognisable portraits) are rare until quite recently, historically speaking.   The existence of the Turin Shroud and the Veil(s) of Veronica indicate how desperate people are for a true image of the Lord.  They are a fascinating and relatively rare example in the Western Church, of the ‘not made with hands’ holy objects which are much more frequent in the Eastern Church.  I think this is partly why our own Church treats such images  with gentleness, like relics.  They are very important to lots of good people, even if their provenance is so unclear.  Jesus’ face is an understandable concept for people to focus on.  He was born, lived and died as a human being, and we all have faces;  unique to us, familiar to and loved by those who know and love us.  God is different.  He is not human.  The God of the psalms is from before Jesus’ arrival on earth.  What about his face?

The Psalms : God has a body
God of wrath
God of anger, terrifying even in pink (Sistine)

The idea of God’s face recurs in the Psalms like a bass note or a bell. It’s partly because of the almost shocking physicality of the psalms (look no further than Psalm 3 : ‘you [God] who smite all my foes on the mouth, you who break the teeth of the wicked’,v.8).  God is a mighty man, a warrior, definitely human in his Biblical image, as I’ve said before.  God is as physically present in the psalms as the psalmist himself.  He is shown in very corporeal terms; even his clothes are described, his cloak made of sky (most beautiful concept), his hands and feet, his strong right arm.  Of course he has a face.  In the Psalms  it stands for the answer to all questions, to all yearning.  

Burning bush
Moses sees God’s face (note his bare feet, and the shoes in the foreground)

I haven’t got time to develop it here, but seeing God’s face is an important part of Moses’ story, and there are rules and prohibitions about it because it is so important.  The  foundational Aaronic blessing in Numbers 6.25ff  talks about God’s face twice, first shining upon his people and second being lifted up in their direction.  According to my commentary, the Hebrew verbs for ‘lifting up’ and ‘shining’ are closely related, so we expand the lines to translate them. 

May the LORD bless you and keep you; may the LORD cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; may the LORD lift up His countenance toward you and give you peace.

This is the context of the psalmist’s understanding of God’s face.  ‘What can bring us happiness?’ many say. Lift up the light of your face on us, O Lord’ (Psalm 4.7).  He combines the two lines from the blessing.

face to face with Adam
God and Adam,  face to face
‘The light of your face’

This is a beautiful expression, and brings its own explanation with it.  Often and often you can see the light come into someone’s face : when they catch sight of someone that they love, when they see a baby for the first time, when they see again someone dear to them after absence.  We say, ‘her eyes lit up’; ‘his face shone’ ; we talk about somebody ‘beaming’.  A loving face is full of light.  This may be one reason why the sun (in children’s picture books) is so often given eyes and a smile.

Stories about faces

Seeing someone’s face is important.  This is why it is a motif in so many stories.  Not always positive, either : the sight of Medusa’s face turns men to stone; the stone faces of pharaohs and sphinxes have a stern appearance.  The wicked queen in Snow White looks into a mirror to find out who is the fairest, hoping to see herself,  and then talks to the mirror which reflects other faces back to her.  Dorian Gray and the picture in the attic.  Beauty and the Beast.  Shrek, even. 

….all she wants to do is see his face

My favourite is Cupid and Psyche, where Cupid, here a young man rather than the baby archer, falls in love with the nymph Psyche.  (This is a very short version of the story, which was developed in every conceivable direction.  For longer versions, check  with wiki, but you could be there for some time.)  He carries her off to a palace of delight and woos her with every pleasure, but she may not see his face (so she does not know who he is).  Her jealous sisters nag and try to frighten her about her invisible lover until she lights a candle (or a lamp) to look upon him while he is sleeping.  He is so lovely that her hand trembles, a drop of wax (or oil) falls on him, he wakes up, and flees, and she has to go through suffering and trials before a final happy ending.  Seeing someone’s face can be dangerous; but the human desire to do so is overwhelming.

The Dream of Gerontius : seeing God’s face

J.H. Newman’s poem, The Dream of Gerontius, shows the eponymous hero (it just means ‘old man’ in Greek/Latin), at the point of death, and what happens next.  It is intensely dramatic.  Elgar set (much of) it to music,  and I find that I can never have it on in the background because it is too immediate and distracting.  Gerontius dies, or goes to sleep, and wakens to a different reality.  He is being carried by his Guardian Angel, to God and judgment.  When ‘The Soul of Gerontius’ realises who is carrying him, he describes the Angel as one who ‘has had a strong and pure celestial life,  And bore to gaze on the unveil’d face of God’, so he is thinking of heaven already in terms of the Beatific Vision, the sight of God’s face.

the angel takes the lead because he knows the way

But Gerontius can feel and hear; he cannot see.  Everything seems dark, and he asks the Angel whether he will ever see anything again. They have quite a lengthy theological discussion about this (one of the parts of the poem which Elgar omits).   The Angel tells him that he will see God, but only for a moment :

Then sight, or that which to the soul is sight,                                                                    As by a lightning-flash, will come to thee,                                                                     And thou shalt see, amid the dark profound,                                                                     Whom thy soul loveth, and would fain approach,—                                                    One moment; but thou knowest not, my child,                                                                      What thou dost ask: that sight of the Most Fair                                                             Will gladden thee, but it will pierce thee too

and it is precisely God’s face that will cause him pain :

It is the face of the Incarnate God                                                                                     Shall smite thee with that keen and subtle pain

– but even knowing that, Gerontius presses on.  The music sweeps forward in a great crescendo, until there is a mighty crash of cymbals as Gerontius darts from the Angel’s restraining hold, and is described as ‘scorch’d and shrivell’d’, –  but it’s all right :

O happy, suffering soul! for it is safe                                                                            Consumed yet quickened by the glance of God.

This is what ‘seeking God’s face’ is all about : a longed-for close encounter, a ‘face-to-face’ meeting.

As for me, I shall see your face (Ps 16/17)

Just like Gerontius, the psalmist looks forward to seeing God’s face after death.  ‘As for me, in my justice I shall see your face / and be filled, when I awake, with the sight of your glory’  (end of Psalm 16/17).  And this looking is mutual : ‘They walk with ever-growing strength, / they will see the God of gods in Zion.[…] Turn your eyes, O God our shield, look on the face of your anointed’  (Ps 83/84 v.8f).  God’s face is like a reward; seeing it is a physical expression of what heaven is about.  But it’s not the after-death vision of God that the psalmist means most of the time.  He is talking about seeking God’s face as a rule of life, as a basic orientation which changes everything.

Bearded woman
Such are the men who seek you, seek the face of the God of Jacob

In Psalm 104/105, one of the long retelling-of-salvation-history psalms, this is the crucial message to be gleaned from all the stories passed on down the generations : ‘Consider the Lord and his strength; / constantly seek his face’ (v.4).  The saints are defined as ‘the men who seek your face’ (Ps 23/24),  in the psalm we use every year for All Saints, and ‘the people who walk in the light of your face’ are described as happy or blessed (Ps 88/89).

Two different sorts of seeing
Close up of the Arnolfini mirror

This fits with the psalms’ usual emphasis on life here and now, rather than an afterlife of which we know nothing definite.  There are two sorts of seeking God’s face : there is the daily striving to do God’s will,  something we have to keep working on (not always successfully); and there is the seemingly vaguer, more mystical aspiration to gaze at God for ever.  This corresponds to St Paul’s two different sorts of seeing in 1 Corinthians 13.12, ‘now […]in a mirror dimly, but then face to face’.

Lighten our darkness

Because God’s face is light, it is dark when he turns his face away, and darkness in the Psalms is always frightening and dangerous (‘The Lord God is our light’, Ps 117.27).  So there are several pleas for God not to hide his face (Pss. 9/10, 12/13, 26/27, 43/44, 87/88, 103/104, 142/143).  But in Psalm 50/51, the great penitential psalm, the speaker implores God to turn his face away from his sins, because if God is not looking at them, there is no light and they cannot be seen.  God’s glance is full of power :’the boastful cannot stand before your face’ (Ps 5); ‘may [the wicked] perish at the frown of your face’ (Ps 79/80) – but in the same psalm we have the refrain ‘let your face shine on us/ and we shall be saved’.  God’s face is salvation itself.

World with cloud flying above
God among the clouds, and the earth below
Do not hide your face

When God hides his face, the psalmist is distraught (Pss 9/10, 12/13, 26/27, 29/30, 43/44, 87/88, 103/104, 142/143).   He wants God to look at him as much as he wants to look at God.  He is afraid to be out of God’s sight (Ps 30/31), because God’s power is such that a man cannot be out of sight unless God chooses to turn his face away : ‘Where can I flee from your face?/  If I climb the heavens, you are there. /If I lie in the grave, you are there’ (Ps 138/139).  This is a comforting, not a terrifying thought, because the whole psalm is a celebration of God’s infinite power and reach, even into the recesses of the psalmist’s own being.  He ends by opening his heart to God without reserve : ‘O search me, God, and know my heart’ v.23.

God’s eyes are always open; ‘he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep’ (Ps 120/121).  He is contrasted with the idols that other races worship : ‘they have eyes but they cannot see’ (this comes up twice, in Ps 113/114 and in Ps 134/135).

Sicut cervus
stag in a stream
desiring the waterbrooks

What the psalmist longs for is to look peacefully upon God’s face and have God look upon him.  This is at the root of all the yearning psalms.  ‘When can I enter and see the face of God?’ (Ps 41/42).  ‘My body pines for you […] so I gaze on you in the sanctuary ‘ (Ps 62/63).  In Ps 68/69, the psalmist complains :’My eyes are wasted away /from looking for my God’, a striking image even in this psalm of so many (it’s the one that begins ‘Save me, Lord, for the waters have risen to my neck’).

This watching is sited in a place of calm, of tranquillity.  Like the weaned baby in Ps 130/131, the soul is at peace on its mother’s breast, needing nothing, trusting for everything.  This attitude makes all these psalms natural prayers in contemplation or adoration, words for when words stop.  We can of course look at God when we think he isn’t looking at us, as it says in Ps 122/123 : Our eyes are on the Lord till he show us his mercy;  but what we seek, what we long for,  is the mutual gazing.  As the old farmer is supposed to have answered St John Vianney, who asked what he was doing when he looked at the tabernacle, ‘Nothing; I look at him, and he looks at me’.

‘Let us fix our gaze on the Father’ (Clement of Rome, first century)

There’s another high Victorian poet I would like to quote in this context. F.W. Faber, often called ‘Father Faber’, wrote a lot of hymns.  Many are too sentimental for modern taste, but some are still sung (There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, Faith of our fathers (with arguments about the original version of the words), O come and mourn with me awhile, Souls of men, why will ye scatter, and many others less common today).  The language is unbounded and can be cloying;  he has all the faults of his time, he is hopelessly non-inclusive and Counter-Reformation (though he was himself a convert); but he was always trying for simplicity and not afraid of strong feeling.   I admire the way that he is not afraid to tackle the mysteries of God in a simple hymn.  And he admired the Wesleys, so he understood the power of a good hymn.

Faber at the front, Newman at the back, helpfully together

We used to sing his hymns at school (that probably dates me), which means I know many by heart.  For years I have had a very soft spot for his My God, how wonderful Thou art, simply because of the last verse : Father of Jesus, love’s reward / what rapture will it be/ prostrate before Thy throne to lie / and gaze and gaze on Thee!     Some of the other verses are a bit twee, but I have always loved that one, and it is saying precisely the same thing as the psalmist of thousands of years ago.  Immortal, invisible, God does not change;  nor does our longing for him, our desire to see his face.

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Advent of Year C : joy just round the corner

Starting a new liturgical year
Lovely but entirely mythical scene of St Luke painting Mary and baby Jesus

We are hurtling towards Advent at quite a scary speed at the moment, and I want to seize the moment to take a look at the psalms and readings for it. We will be leaving Year B of the Liturgical Cycle after the great feast of Christ the King, and moving into Year C.  Year B is Mark’s year, with all the stories and ‘immediately’ narratives; Year C is Luke, with the emphasis on the birth story and all the insider information which Mary herself is supposed to have passed on to Luke, according to tradition, so surely that will affect the Advent narrative..

Last Sunday of the Church’s year : Christ the King

The Church’s year ends always on a high note, with the feast of Christ the King.  This is a relatively modern feast, instituted by Pius XI in 1925, and it’s always the thirtyfourth Sunday in Ordinary Time because the numbers are eased if necessary by changing the numbered Sundays after Trinity Sunday, so that the sum always works out. It has a great psalm, and my recorder player gets to pretend that he is a trumpet for the duration (if you listen with the ear of faith).  We used to call it just Christ the King, but apparently this extended title ‘King of the Universe’ has always been there, although I think the simpler title has more heft.

Christ the king, ruling in majesty
First Readings in Advent are always prophets

Advent in Years A and B starts with different parts of Isaiah, and stays with him for all four weeks; but in Year C we have a different prophet every week, moving across centuries as we go.  We start with Jeremiah, move on to Baruch (exciting little frisson there, as Baruch is one of the books of the Bible that Catholics have and some other Christians, including the Anglicans, class as Apocrypha, like Ruth), then Zephaniah, and finally Micah.  Second readings are all St Paul, but to different groups of early Christians, and all the Gospels are from Luke.

First Sunday of Advent C

Advent C starts with a rush of excitement.  The Collect asks God to give us ‘the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ’ and the momentum is maintained in the First Reading, where Jeremiah speaks in God’s name, not only with force and authority, but also with intimacy and commitment : ‘See the days are coming – it is the Lord who speaks – when I am going to fulfil the promise I made […] I shall make a virtuous Branch grow for David […] Judah shall be saved’ (Jeremiah 33:14f). He insists on the timing ‘in those days and at that time’ which keeps repeating in this short reading, and ends by naming the new city like a clarion call ‘The Lord-our-integrity’.

Jerusalem strongly compact, with all the little towers
Psalm 24/25, walking with God

This is followed by Psalm 24/25, one of the classic psalms about God’s Law and walking in his ways.  It’s a psalm that comes up quite often, at different seasons of the Church’s year, with different Responses designed to focus our attention on some particular aspect. ‘Teach me your ways’, ‘Remember your mercy, O Lord’; but this Response is one of the best, gentle but thought-provoking, and I tried to set it so that the line opens up as you sing it : ‘To you, O Lord, I lift my soul’.  Here we are, embarking on our Advent journey.  We have the promise; we know the way we should be going; now we set out.

The Second Reading is Paul to the Thessalonians, an outpouring of love and encouragement, looking forward to the Lord’s coming (again), almost like a blessing for us all at the start of the journey. The Alleluia verse is taken from Psalm 84/85, and is just a general prayer for help.  The emphasis so far has been on the immediacy of what is going to happen, with reassurance that God is in charge and knows what he is doing.  The joy is just around the corner.

The Gospel : stay awake and be afraid

The Gospel is more frightening, because Jesus starts by warning the disciples of the terrifying signs there will be before that event.  It is from late in Luke’s gospel, Chapter 21; Jesus’ brief adult life before the Passover which leads into the Passion.  He wants to warn them that they need to stay watchful, as no one knows when these apocalyptic times will come, and there will be plenty to be frightened of; but (he says) when these things do happen, take courage, because it means your liberation is very near.  Frightening but encouraging.  We are already a long way from the reassurance of Psalm 24/25.  You may experience a slight feeling of déjà vu, as we had exactly the same reading, but Mark’s version, in the 33rd Week, i.e. the one before Christ the King.  Luke’s version is just slightly darker and more minatory, but the essential message is the same : stay awake, watch out.

Second Sunday of Advent C

Now we have a First Reading from Baruch, thought to be Jeremiah’s scribe, but in the Catholic Bible allowed to have a Book all of his own.  He addresses Jerusalem directly, picking up the reference to the city ‘The-Lord-our-integrity’, to which Jeremiah looked forward in the previous week.  This city is personified as a beautiful and glorious woman, her mourning and distress all over.  All her sons are coming home, and she can stand on the mountain top and watch them all returning in honour ‘though they left on foot’, ‘with enemies for an escort’.  Now we are looking forward to the joy that is to come.  I love this reading, especially at this time when every family is looking forward to its members reassembling.  Baruch also talks about the mountains being flattened and the valleys filled in, but it’s a less familiar version than in Isaiah and Messiah, so we hear it with sharper ears.  This journey home is an easy stroll, on smooth ground, in the shade of ‘fragrant’ trees, with God showing the way to follow and escorting the travellers.  Every detail is covered, and it sounds idyllic, almost literally a walk in the park rather than an arduous pilgrimage.

daughter Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem
Psalm 125/126

The response to this is the joyful Psalm 125/126, commemorating an earlier return from bondage and thanking God for it.  This again is a familiar psalm, which occurs often (we had it most recently on 30th Sunday B), but it’s so apposite that it earns its place here.  The people in the psalm are active and engaged; they are singing, laughing, travelling, sowing and reaping; they move from grief to joy.  They reassure us.

The second reading is Paul to the Philippians (so, a different group from the previous week) with a loving and joyful message and another exhortation to get ready for what is coming, which Paul presents entirely positively :'[…] the Day of Christ, when you will reach the perfect goodness which Jesus Christ produces in us’ (Phil. 1.11). 

The Gospel : what it isn’t
a Coptic John the Baptist, with his whole life flashing before his eyes

The Alleluia verse is taken directly from the Gospel, and it’s where Luke quotes the familiar bit of Isaiah I referred to earlier, because he is introducing John the Baptist, preaching in the desert and fulfilling the prophecy.  This is already Luke’s third chapter; we have skated over the birth of John the Baptist and all the details about Anna and Zechariah.  We have also left out the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Magnificat and Zechariah’s  beautiful prayer at the birth of his son, once he has regained his speech, the Benedictus.  All that is in Chapter 1. 

In Chapter 2, we have the census, the birth of Mary’s baby (Mary is almost introduced again in this narrative, as though we might not have read Chapter 1), with shepherds but no kings, taking the baby to the Temple and meeting Simeon and Anna (the Nunc dimittis, but sadly no record of what Anna said), and even the losing of Jesus in Jerusalem when he was twelve, and finding him in the Temple again.  That is all Chapter 2.  Those are two crucial and action-packed chapters, which we have simply set aside for now, even though they are vitally relevant.  But our narrative requires  John to be the Fore-runner, the Preparer, and that is his adult role, so several years have gone by.  The timeframe resets at Christmas, when our narrative suddenly moves backwards.

Third Sunday of Advent C (Pink Sunday)

From the Entrance Antiphon (from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which we had the previous week), the keynote is of pure joy (till we get to the Gospel).  ‘Rejoice’ is the first word in the Entrance Antiphon, and keeps ringing out along with ‘joy’ through all the readings (again, except the Gospel).  The First Reading is from Zephaniah, addressed to a personified Israel, but female : ‘daughter of Zion’, ‘daughter of Jerusalem’, which is slightly unusual.  It predicts the joy to come, but mixes up the tenses, so that it sounds as though the joy is here already : ‘The Lord […] is in your midst; you have no more evil to fear. When that day comes, word will come to Jerusalem : Zion, have no fear.’  The reading ends with a wonderful portrayal of God as a returning victorious warrior, bubbling over with joy and success, dancing and shouting for joy.

Responsorial Psalm : Isaiah 12 Canticle

The Psalm following this is slightly unusual, because it’s a Canticle, one of the parts of Isaiah in psalm-form.  The Response begins ‘Sing and shout for joy’, repeating the words of the First Reading, and turning all of us into the ‘daughters of Zion’ responding with joy to the Lord on his victorious arrival.

There are a few of these Canticles in the Lectionary, out of Tobit, Chronicles, Exodus, Judith and some other books of the Bible.  In the last week of the Church’s year, we have a sequence of highly-charged prophetic readings.  Currently (until Advent) we are in Year I, and the readings are all from Daniel;  in Year II, the readings are from the Apocalypse (the weekday readings are on a two-year cycle, not three- as the Sundays).  Daniel’s readings are followed by canticles from the same book (taken from the song of the three young men in the fiery furnace), most of them shaped like a litany, and some recalling the Canticle of the Sun by St Francis, another outpouring of joy in creation.   So we have been having that as a weekday psalm in the week running up to Christ the King. and it was difficult to set for a whole week’s worth, because it’s just two lines repeating.  You can play with it where the words allow (e.g. references to water or wild beasts), and at least the congregation will have no trouble remembering their Response for that week.  This piece of Isaiah is more straightforward, because even though it is irregular, it fits into the usual psalm shape.

Peaceful holy well
St Brannoc’s holy spring welling up to eternal life

This Canticle is full of joy and confidence, with references to water from the wells of salvation.  We use it several times during the year (Baptism of the Lord, Easter Vigil, Sacred Heart as well as Advent). The Response picks up the line which also occurs in the First Reading about the Holy One being in our midst, and the cause of our joy.

Paul continues with the letter to the Philippians, the bit where the Entrance Antiphon also came from, about how we should be always happy because everything is going to be all right, a very comforting thought for anyone, and impressive when you think of how hard much of Paul’s life was.

The Gospel : more about John

The Gospel picks up from last week, with John shown in action preaching beside the Jordan.  It’s not an exact follow-on, though, because the scary bit where John rebukes and condemns the people flocking to him has been left out.  What we have is the next section, where the cowed and repentant people ask him specifically what they should do, and he tells them; but the second half is what John tells them about the coming Messiah, to stop them thinking that he is The One.  The expectation is mounting all the time, but John explains clearly , ‘One mightier than I is coming […]with the Holy Spirit and fire’.  This is not a cosy expectation, but it is described as ‘good news’.

Fourth Sunday of Advent C
Christ as shepherd-king

The prophet for the Fourth Sunday is Micah, and this is his one appearance in the Sunday Lectionary, although most people also know the verses where he sets out what the Lord requires : ‘to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God ‘(Micah 6.8).  This reading is from the fifth chapter, and sets the scene for what is about to happen.  It is prophetic and mysterious.  We are told that something will happen in Bethlehem, too small a place to be significant in any other way; that a baby will be born; but no ordinary baby.  Exiles will return and the baby will grow into a great shepherd of his people, God-like, and with unlimited power and scope.  That is not so unusual as a prophecy, but then there is a last line : ‘He himself will be peace’.  This is not just victory in battles and expanding empire; this is something new.  We need to wait and watch.

Psalm 79/80

The psalm is 79/80, which immediately picks up the shepherd reference and identifies it with God himself.  The psalmist calls to him for help as one of the exiled, begging to be allowed to return (and that’s the verse that becomes the Response, which mirrors the structure of the psalm in its original form). The second stanza is an appeal for protection, and the third one refers to the chosen saviour, ‘the man you have chosen’.  Again, this is a familiar psalm (it occurs several times, and also in Year B as the psalm for the First Sunday of Advent), but it has several other verses, so it appears with different emphases.  This version is straightforward and direct, less extended metaphor and more heartfelt appeal. 

Second Reading : Jesus’ coming

Paul’s reading is from the letter to the Hebrews, and he’s explaining the context of Christ’s arrival in terms of the prescriptions of the Jewish Law, with an extensive quotation from Psalm 39/40.  This is because of who his addressees are, familiar with all the scriptures as Paul was himself, and stressing one of Paul’s great themes, the difference between the letter and the spirit.  Paul has been repeating the message of joy in the other Sundays of Advent, but this week’s reading is more technical.  The joy element for this week, for the first time, is in the Gospel reading, specifically in the words of Elizabeth.

The Gospel : back to Luke 1

The Gospel Acclamation is Mary’s words to the angel, and they have to stand in for a lot of narrative work here, as the Gospel launches straight in to Mary’s journey to visit Elizabeth in Luke’s first chapter.  You can almost hear the brakes screech as we return to Chapter 1.   So Mary sets off (with no explanation), already pregnant (but no explanation for that either, though we do get the Annunciation as the Gospel for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, just to confuse),  but the only person who speaks in this Gospel is Elizabeth. 

mutual support, something women are good at

She calls out as her own baby, further on than Mary’s, leaps in her womb and she is filled with the Holy Spirit.  Her words are amazing and prophetic (in the true sense of the word : she speaks on God’s behalf).  Mary has had no time for more than a greeting, but Elizabeth knows all the important facts already, and blesses and honours Mary with great joy.  The word of God has made Mary pregnant with the Word of God; and Mary’s word as it reaches Elizabeth’s ear has revealed everything to Elizabeth, causing the baby inside her also to leap with joy.  Anyone who’s ever been pregnant will remember that amazing sensation, starting like the flutter of a butterfly’s wing but developing into the muscular twists of the equivalent of an eight-pound salmon.  Mysterious, magical, mystical, but also extremely physical.

Late arrival of a crucial character

All the Fourth Advent Gospels have Mary on stage.  Matthew in Year A has his neat precis from Chapter 1, with the emphasis on Joseph and his reaction to Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, and the angel telling him not to worry.  Advent 4 Year B has Luke’s account of the Annunciation (because Mark has no birth narrative at all, with Jesus arriving fully-formed to be baptised by John), and, as I said last year, it’s the first time Mary has appeared in the narrative.  Year C, as we have just seen, has a brief account of the Visitation, but it stops immediately after Elizabeth’s words, so no Magnificat.  Mary’s words  (her one extended piece of speech in any of the Gospels) are used as a Responsorial Psalm in Advent 2B, and are read as the Gospel for the feast of the Assumption, but presumably are not seen as crucial to the story as it unfolds here.

It is baffling how little Mary appears in the readings in Advent, considering her role, and this being Luke’s year.  I feel a lack here;  I want to go through Advent with Mary, accompanying her on this journey from terror to joy.  We have almost no solid information in any of the Gospels on this topic; the little we have is from Luke, and we’re using so very small a part of it in the Advent readings.  Pregnancy and birth are such an important part of life for so many women.  It is an experience which changes you.  Mary is going to give birth to a unique being, unlike any other, who is going to change everything we thought we knew about life, the universe and everything.   How could you not wonder at her and with her?  I go through Advent wanting to know more about Mary and what she is thinking, but the Lectionary is not much help.

Its emphasis, rather, is on the joy that is coming, introduced in the early readings but not reaching the Gospels until the fourth week.  The expectation is being carefully built up.  We watch and wait, starting with fear but moving through into not just anticipation but present joy.  Advent C is a wonderful journey.  I’d just like to make it at Mary’s side.


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