The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Leaping with Life

Be a womb. Be a dwelling for God. Be surprised.
~Loretta Ross-Gotta
from Letters from the Holy Ground

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys
Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place,
From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise,
And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.

Two women on the very edge of things
Unnoticed and unknown to men of power,
But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings
And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.

And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young,’
Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime.’
They sing today for all the great unsung
Women who turned eternity to time,

Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth,
Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.

~Malcolm Guite “The Visitation”

41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Luke 1: 41-45  (Song of Elizabeth)

This scene in Luke is remarkable for its portrayal of the interconnected relationship of four individuals, not just two.  Here are two cousins who become mothers despite utter impossibility — one too elderly and one virginal — present on this day with their unborn sons — one who is harbinger and one who is God.

These unborn babies are not just passively “hidden within” here.  They have changed their mothers in profound ways, as all pregnancies tend to do, but especially these pregnancies.  As any mother who first experiences the “quickening” of her unborn child can relate, there is an awesome and frightening awareness of a completely dependent but active “other” living inside. 

She is aware she is no longer alone in her shell and what happens to her, happens to this other life as well. This is deeply personal, yet deeply communal at the same time – as we witnessed in the arguments about maternal vs. fetal rights that took place in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday.

The moment Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, she and the baby in her womb are overwhelmed, filled with the Spirit from Mary’s unborn.  They leap, figuratively and literally.  Her voice leaps up, louder in her exclamation of welcome; John leaps in the womb in acknowledgement of being in the presence of God Himself.

How can our hearts not leap as well at God’s Word to us, at His hope and plan for each of us, at His gift of life from the moment of our conception.

After all, He once was unborn too,
completely dependent on the willingness of His mother to bear Him to birth,
completely alive because of the overshadowing Spirit of His Father.

We are all buds willed to flower by our God.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

Too Full of Blossom

She skimmed the yellow water like a moth,
Trailing her feet across the shallow stream;
She saw the berries, paused and sampled them
Where a slight spider cleaned his narrow tooth.
Light in the air, she fluttered up the path,
So delicate to shun the leaves and damp,
Like some young wife, holding a slender lamp
To find her stray child, or the moon, or both.
Even before she reached the empty house,
She beat her wings ever so lightly, rose,
Followed a bee where apples blew like snow;
And then, forgetting what she wanted there,
Too full of blossom and green light to care,
She hurried to the ground, and slipped below.
~James Wright “My Grandmother’s Ghost from Above the River: The Complete Poems 

I saw my grandma’s ghost once.

She was my only grandparent I actually knew and who actually knew me — the others were lost before I was born or too young to realize what I had lost.

She had lived a hard life: losing her mother when she was 12, taking over the household duties for her father and younger brother while leaving school forever, too young marrying an abusive alcoholic, losing her first child to lymphoma at age 8, taking her three remaining children to safety away from their father for a year to live above a seedy restaurant where she cooked seven days a week to make ends meet.

But there was grace too. A marriage that somehow got patched together after Grandpa found God and sobriety, her faith that never wavered, their soil that yielded beautiful flowers she planted and nurtured and picked to sell, children and grandchildren who welcomed her many open armed visits and hugs.

She was busy planning her first trip of a lifetime at age 72 when we noticed her eyes looked yellow. Only two weeks later she was bed-bound in unrelenting pain due to pancreatic cancer, gazing heaven-ward instead of Europe-bound. Her dreams had been dashed so quickly, she barely realized her itinerary and destination had changed.

I was 16 at the time, too absorbed in my own teenage cares and concerns to really notice how quickly she was fading and failing like a wilted flower. Instead I was picking fights with my stressed parents, worrying over taking my driver’s license driving test, distracted by all the typical social pressures of high school life.

Her funeral was unbearable as I never really said goodbye – only one brief hospital visit when she was hardly recognizable in her anguish and jaundice. I didn’t even get to hold her hand.

Soon after she had been lowered into the ground next to her husband and young daughter, she came back to me in a dream.

I was asleep when my bedroom door opened into the dark, wakening me as the bright hallway light pushed its way via a shimmering beam to my bed. Grandma Kittie stood in my bedroom doorway, backlit by the light surrounding her silhouette. She silently stood there, just looking at me.

Startled, I sat up in my bed and said to her, “Grandma, why are you here? You died and we buried you!”

She nodded and smiled. And then she said to me:

“I wanted you to know I’m okay and always will be. You will be too.”

She gave a little wave, turned and left, closing the door behind her. I woke suddenly with a gasp in my darkened bedroom and knew I had just been visited.

She hadn’t come to say goodbye or to tell me she loved me — that I knew already.

She had come to shine with her light blossoming around her, mending my broken heart by planting it with peace.

God Was Here: Visited

Bartolomé_Esteban_Perez_Murillo_-_Annunciation_-_WGA16375
Annunciation by Bartolome Esteban Perez Murillo

 

…we should not try to escape a sense of awe, almost a sense of fright, at what God has done. . . . Nothing can alter the fact that we live on a visited planet. We shall be celebrating no beautiful myth, no lovely piece of traditional folklore, but a solemn fact. God has been here once historically, but, as millions will testify, he will come again with the same silence and the same devastating humility into any human heart ready to receive him.
~J.B. Phillips  from Watch for the Light

 

Govert_Flinck_-_Angels_Announcing_the_Birth_of_Christ_to_the_Shepherds_-_WGA07928
Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ by Govert Flinck

 

I want to be like Mary, awed yet accepting, as the angel interrupts her daily routine with an incredible announcement.

I want to be like the shepherds, silenced and aghast, flattened with so much fear that I need to be reminded “do not be afraid.”

I want to be like Joseph whose life is never to be the same again, as my self-sufficiency and sense of “how things should be” is shot through and leaking dry.

Only then my heart will be ready to receive this visitor.  Only then.

 

Anton_Raphael_Mengs_-_The_Dream_of_St._Joseph_-_Google_Art_Project
The Dream of Saint Joseph by Anton Raphael Mengs, 1773

1. This is the truth sent from above,
The truth of God, the God of love;
Therefore don’t turn me from your door,
But hearken all both rich and poor.

2. The first thing which I do relate,
Is That God did man create
The next thing which to you I tell,
Woman was made with man to dwell.

3. Then after this was God’s own choice
To place them both in Paradise,
There to remain from evil free
Except they eat of such a tree.

4. But they did eat, which was a sin,
And thus their ruin did begin —
Ruin’d themselves, both you and me,
And all of their posterity.

5. Thus we were as heirs to endless woes,
Till God the Lord did interpose
And so a promise soon did run
That He would redeem us by His Son.
~the Herefordshire Carol

Collected by E. M. Williams from 
Mr. W. Jenkins, Kings Pyon, Herefordshire, July, 1909. Music Noted by R. Vaughan William