The Lord Is In Your Midst

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The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear. On that day it shall be said to  Jerusalem: Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged! The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; He will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love. He will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.

Zephaniah 3:15-18

Today is the Feast of the Visitation. Whose visitation are we celebrating? Certainly that of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. Yet, as Luke’s gospel makes clear, it is also a visitation of the Lord, the King of Israel whom Mary, his mother, bears. Something truly extraordinary happens to Mary in the annunciation. The Lord our God, a mighty savior is taking flesh in her. And yet, her first impulse, on hearing of her cousin’s pregnancy is to move out of herself and hasten to Judah to visit her cousin. She who comes is bearing the Lord. The joy that Elizabeth experiences as manifest in the child of her womb is the recognition of the Lord’s presence in this visit of Mary.

In our secular age, we live largely without the sense of enchantment that characterized earlier times. Our urban and suburban existence is no longer a place where we daily touch the sense of mystery, of things both seen and unseen. Many of us live at a remove from the sights and sounds of the natural world. Even our sense of human life becomes more and more reduced to the physical and behavioral. The sense of the other and of the world as bearing mystery and the divine is largely absent from our experience. Yet, even in our time, we all know something of the experience of the visitation.

There are times when we stand on the shore of the ocean, or on the ridge of a mountain, or in the dark and deep of a large forest that we experience a sense of awe, not only in the beauty of the scene we are perceiving, but in ourselves, the one who is perceiving it. There is the moment of the birth of our child, or the light in the face of a beloved, or the possibility we recognize in the eyes of friend whose depth of spirit seems fathomless.  Awe is always directed not only to the other we are perceiving but also in the Source of that other, which our awe knows to be our own Source as well. There is often a certain level of fear in the experience of awe, a fear that we understand to be the fear of the Lord. It is, however, very different from the physical or “servile” fear that we know most often. It is rather the fear of the reality of our own smallness in the face of the mystery of creation. it is the realization that are but grains of sand or specks of dust, and yet, we are the object of a love that delights in us and that rejoices over us with gladness and renews us in his love. In the presence of the Mystery with the awe and fear it evokes, we realize the promise of Zephaniah, “You have no further misfortune to fear.”

“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high has visited us.” (Luke 1:78) The truth of the matter is that the feast we celebrate today is a reminder not of rare and peak experiences but of each moment of our daily lives. Each moment of our lives is a visitation and a call. As John says when the disciples see the risen Jesus on the shore of the lake: “It is the Lord.” (John 21:7) With this particular person, at this particular task, in this particular moment of challenge, the Lord is visiting us.

The presence of the Lord is always a gift of love and compassion toward us, but it is also a call. In Christian belief, God is a community of loving persons. What constitutes the life of God is the love among God’s persons. As sharers in that divine life, we too are called to participate actively in this love. To be visited is to be invited to offer the love that only we can offer to this person, in this situation, at this task. Love is a willingness to respond. it is giving what we have to give that the moment at hand asks of us. Mary comes to visit and care for her cousin Elizabeth, but it is Elizabeth who confirms and ratifies Mary’s call. Love evokes love in return. The Mystery is that wherever such love is shared there is God. The love is God’s love; the life is God’s life.

Each moment is an invitation to the spark of the Divine in us to give itself away, to “enkindle in us the fire” of the Divine love. We can follow love’s direction or we can withhold. This is always the choice before us. The opposite of expression is repression. Each of us is a “ ray of God’s own light.” The great pain of life is that we miss the visitation because we choose to repress rather than express the light and love that we are. We hold back because it feels so vulnerable to us to offer and to express who we really are. It is only the act of love, however, that can cast out that fear that holds us back. Mary goes “in haste” to tend to her cousin. Elizabeth gives voice with her whole being to the gift that Mary bears her. The invitation of this feast is to grow evermore in the courage to be, to express and offer who we truly are to the world.

When the young man had finished, Fr. Alypius said, “I have just one question for you: ‘who are you?’”

“I just told you,” said the young man.

“No, you told me about the clothes you wear. You told me your name, where you’re from, what you’ve done, the things you’ve studied. Your problem is, you don’t know who you are. Let me tell you who you are. You are a ray of God’s own light.”

“Sounds a bit silly,” the young man thought to himself. But he was intrigued, so he said, “What do you mean?”

“You say you seek God, but a ray of light doesn’t seek the sun; it’s coming form the sun. You are a branch on the vine of God. A branch doesn’t seek the vine; it’s already part of the vine. A wave doesn’t look for the ocean; it’s already full of ocean. Because you don’t know that who you are is one with God, you believe all these labels about yourself: I”m a sinner, I’m a saint, I’m a wretch, I’m a worm and no man, I’m a monk. I’m a nurse. These are all labels, clothing. They serve a purpose, but they are not who you are. to the extent that you believe these labels, you believe a life, and you add anguish upon anguish. It’s what most of us do for most of our lives. In the secular world we call it our career. In monastic terms, we call it our vocation.”

“Before you can know in your own experience what the Psalmist meant when he said, ‘Be still and know that I am God,’ you must first learn to be still and know who your are. The rest will follow.”

Martin Laird, OSA, Into the Silent Land, pp. 138-9

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