My thoughts and reflections on my Catholic Faith, Fulton Sheen, the problem of suffering, and books

Friday, June 1, 2012

Sheen on the Visitation

Excerpts from Sheen's 1952 book The World's First Love: Mary, Mother of God.  Taken from the online text (http://archive.org/stream/worldsfirstlove013240mbp/worldsfirstlove013240mbp_djvu.txt).  The tricky part is deciding what to share, because the entire chapter is too long.

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One of the most beautiful moments in history was that when pregnancy met pregnancy, when childbearers became the first heralds of the King of Kings. All pagan religions begin with the teachings of adults, but Christianity begins with the birth of a Child. From that day to this, Christians have ever been the defenders of the family and the love of generation.  If we ever sat down to write out what we would expect the Infinite God to do, certainly the last thing we would expect would be to see Him imprisoned in a carnal ciborium for nine months; and the next to last thing we would expect is that the "greatest man ever born of woman" while yet in his mother's womb, would salute the yet imprisoned God-man.  But this is precisely what took place in the Visitation.

At the Annunciation the archangel told Mary that her cousin, Elizabeth, was about to become the mother of John the Baptist. Mary was then a young girl, but her cousin was ''advanced in years," that is, quite beyond the normal age of conceiving. "See, moreover, how it fares with thy cousin Elizabeth; she is old, yet she too has conceived a son; she who was reproached with barrenness is now in her sixth month, to prove that nothing is impossible with God. And Mary said, 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done unto me according to thy word.' And with that the angel left her." (Luke 1:36-38)

The birth of Christ is without regard to man; the birth of John the Baptist is without regard to age! "Nothing is impossible with God." The Scripture continues the story: "In the days that followed, Mary rose up and went with all haste to a city of Juda, in the hill country where Zachary dwelt; and entering in she gave Elizabeth greeting. No sooner had Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, than the child leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth herself was filled with the Holy Ghost; so that she cried out with a loud voice, "Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. How have I deserved to be thus visited by the mother of my Lord? Why, as soon as ever the voice of thy greeting sounded in my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed art thou for thy believing; the message that was brought to thee from the Lord shall have fulfillment." (Luke 1:39-45)

Mary "went with all haste"; she is always in a hurry to do good. With deliberate speed she becomes the first nurse of Christian civilization. The woman hastens to meet a woman. They serve best their neighbor who bear the Christ within their hearts and souls. Bearing in herself the Secret of Salvation, Mary journeys five days from Nazareth to the city of Hebron where, according to tradition, rested the ashes of the founders of the people of God, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

. . .
Cousin-nurse at birth, Mother-nurse at death. There is nothing Mary has that is for herself alone - not even her Son. Before He is born, her Son belongs to others. No sooner does she have the Divine Host within herself than she rises from the Communion rail of Nazareth to visit the aged and to make her young. Elizabeth would never live to see her son lose his head to the dancing stepdaughter of Herod, but Mary would live and die at once in seeing her Son taste death, that death might be no more.

. . .
Mary's song has this double note; her spirit rejoices because God has looked down on her lowliness. A box that is filled with sand cannot be filled with gold; a soul that is bursting with its own ego can never be filled with God. There is no limit on God's part to His possession of a soul; it is the soul alone which can limit His welcome, as a window curtain limits the light. The more empty the soul is of self, the greater the room in it for God. The larger the emptiness of a nest, the bigger the bird that can be housed therein. There is an intrinsic relation between the humility of Mary and the Incarnation of the Son of God within. She whom the heavens could not contain now tabernacles the King of the Heavens, Itself. The Most High looks on the lowliness of His handmaid.

Mary's self-emptying, alone, would not have been enough, had not He Who is her God, her Lord and Saviour "humbled Himself." Though the cup be empty, it cannot hold the ocean. People are like sponges. As each sponge can hold only so much water and then reaches a point of saturation, so every person can hold only so much of honor. After the saturation point is reached, instead of the man's wearing the purple, the purple wears the man. It is always after the honor is accepted that the recipient moans in false humility: "Lord, I am not worthy."

But here, after the honor is received, Mary, instead of standing on her privilege, becomes a servant-nurse of her aged cousin and, in the midst of that service, sings a song in which she calls herself the Lord's handmaid or better still the bondwoman of God, a slave who is simply His property and one who has no personal will except His own. Selflessness is shown as the true self. "There was no room in the inn," because the inn was filled. There was room in the stable, because there were no egos there only an ox and an ass.

God looked over the world for an empty heart but not a lonely heart—a heart that was empty like a flute on which He might pipe a tune—not lonely like an empty abyss, which is filled by death. And the emptiest heart He could find was the heart of a Lady. Since there was no self there, He filled it with His very Self.

"Behold, from this day forward, all generations will count me blessed!' These are Miraculous words. How can we explain them, except by the Divinity of her Son? How could this country girl, coming from the despised village of Nazareth and wrapped in anonymity by Judean mountains, foresee in future generations how painters like Michelangelo and Raphael; poets, like Sedulius, Cynewulf, Jacopone da Todi, Chaucer, Thompson, and Wordsworth; theologians, like Ephrem, Bonaventure, and Aquinas, the obscure of little villages and the learned and the great would pour out their praise of her in an unending stream, as the world's first love, and say of their impoverished rhymes:

               And men looked up at the woman made for the morning
               When the stars were young,
               For whom, more rude than a beggars rhyme in the gutter,
               These songs are sung?

Her Son will later give the law explaining her immortal remembrance: "He that humbleth himself, shall be exalted." Humility before God is compensated for by glory before men. Mary had taken the vow of virginity and, seemingly, thus prevented her beauty from passing on to other generations. And yet now through the power of God she sees herself as the mother of countless generations, without ever ceasing to be a Virgin. All generations who lost the favor of God by eating the forbidden fruit will now exalt her, because through her they enter once again into the possession of the Tree of Life. Within three months Mary has had her eight Beatitudes:

1. "Blessed art thou because full of grace," said the Archangel Gabriel.
2. "Blessed art thou for thou shalt conceive in thy womb the Son of the Most High, God."
3. "Blessed art thou, Virgin Mother, for "the Holy Spirit will come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee."
4. "Blessed art thou for doing God's Will: "Be it done unto me according to Thy Word."
5. "Blessed art thou for believing" said Elizabeth.
6. "Blessed is the fruit of thy womb (Jesus)" added Elizabeth.
7. "Blessed art thou among women."
8. "Blessed art thou, for the message that was brought to thee from the Lord shall have fulfillment."

Lowliness and exaltation are one in her; lowliness because, judging herself to be unworthy of being the Mother of Our Lord, she took the vow of virginity; exalted because God, looking upon what Mary believed was her nothingness, once more created a world out of "nothing."

Blessedness is happiness. Mary had everything that could make a person truly happy. For to be happy, three things are required: to have everything one wants; to have it united in one person who is loved with all the ardor of one's soul; and to know that this is possessed without sin. Mary had all three.

If her Divine Son had not intended that His Mother should be honored where He is adored, He would never have permitted these prophetic words of hers to have had fulfillment. He would have nudged the hands of the artists at their canvas, would have stopped the lips of the poets, and would have frozen our fingers as we told our beads.

How quickly the great men and women are forgotten, and how few of their names are remembered at all! A guidebook is necessary for us to identify the dead in Westminster Abbey; few are the citizens who know their World War heroes, after whom the streets were named. But here in Mary is a young girl, obscure and unknown, in an outpost of the Roman Empire; she who affirms that the law of forgetfulness will be suspended in her favor, and she prophesies it before a single Gospel has been written, before the Son of God has seen the light of day in the flesh.

2 comments:

  1. Wow. I had never thought of that. Remind me to fully read this later.

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    1. Per your request, this is a reminder to read this sometime.

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