By Most Rev. Richard W. Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Joy and Hope Grounded in Mercy

Franciscan custodian prepares for
Mass at Church of the Visitation
As Gabriel made his announcement to Mary that she would conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit, he indicated that her kinswoman, Elizabeth, had also conceived a child and was in her sixth month. St. Luke tells us that, following the annunciation, Mary "set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country." Hill country is right! We were there today, in the area known locally as Ein Karem, and experienced for ourselves just how hilly the countryside is. Praying the Rosary, we climbed a steep hillside on foot to reach the Church of the Visitation, built at the place where the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth took place. More than a little huffing and puffing accompanied the climb, but it was well worth it.

The story of the Visitation is presented
beautifully on the chasuble
Mary came to the aid of her relative in need, and her urgent and arduous journey contains within it an important lesson: charity admits of no delay and yields to no obstacle. In this act Mary lived out in anticipatory fashion the clear commandment later given by her Son regarding love of God and neighbour. From the beginning, she modelled authentic discipleship.

Embracing figures of Mary and Elizabeth
in courtyard of Church of the Visitation
At the holy site itself, the pilgrim is surrounded by the message of joy. Mary's great hymn of joy, the Magnificat, is posted in beautiful tile panels around the entrance courtyard as an invitation to everyone to share in her rejoicing. This magnificent prayer grounds the joy of the Christian in the loving and merciful fidelity of God to his people. God looks upon us in our lowliness, he pours out favour, he remembers his promises to us, above all the promise of mercy. Our faithful God deals mercifully with his needy and sinful people, and will never abandon us because he remains always faithful to his covenant promises. Herein lies the source of our joy!

This church marks the birthplace
of John the Baptist
The first to leap for joy at the presence of the Saviour was St. John the Baptist, a testimony given even from his mother's womb as she heard the voice of Mary. His place of birth is also in the area of Ein Karem, not far from the Church of the Visitation, and we went there next. It escaped none of us that we had the great blessing of visiting the birthplace of the Precursor in Advent. In this liturgical season of waiting and expectation, we reflected on what John has to teach us about living in anticipation of the Lord's coming. He teaches us to expect it. His whole ministry was given over to an intense expectation of the coming of the Christ, and a desire to point him out when at last he appeared. This expectation was based entirely on God's covenant fidelity and in no way on human merit. We, too, can expect God to intervene and act in our lives because he has promised to do so, unworthy though we are. Furthermore, John teaches us to expect to be surprised by the Lord. John's public description of the manner in which the Christ would come (cf. Matthew 3: 11-12) left him puzzled when Jesus acted otherwise. The Lord works in our lives, certainly, but on his terms and in his own time according to his saving purpose for us. What is important is that he does, in fact, act in our lives, and does so with love and mercy.

Church of St. John the Baptist
at Ein Karem
In the afternoon, our joy at the truth of God's mercy changed to sorrow at humanity's lack of it.  A number of us visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial here in Jerusalem. The horrors perpetrated against the Jewish people by the evil and merciless Nazi regime are there on full display. When Blessed Pope John Paul II visited this place in March of 2000, he put into words the emotion within each of us as we viewed eh exhibits: "The heart feels an extreme need for silence..." Indeed, I noticed we all grew quiet as we visited this memorial site. At the same time I was encouraged by the presence of many young Jews visiting the site while we were there. One can reasonably hope that by coming to terms with so great a tragedy in the past they will be inspired to create a much different and better world in the future.

Pilgrims head down the mountain
after Mass at Church of the Visitation
We, too, must take up our part, and we learn how to do so through the witness of Our Lady of the Visitation. When Mary received word of the great mercy God would show to the world in the gift of the child conceived within her, she immediately became an agent of mercy to Elizabeth. Mercy is the only way forward. It is the only effective antidote to the cycles of violence which continue to plague us. By Mary's intercession, may we, too, be ready agents of mercy wherever there is need.

Deacon Pat Hessel proclaims the Gospel account of the Visitation