Friday, December 20, 2013

Chapter I: Advent - Ember Day II: The Visitation

Today marks the second of the Winter Ember Days.

Praise Yahweh, Jerusalem!
    Praise your God, Zion!

He gives snow like wool,
    and scatters frost like ashes.
He hurls down his hail like pebbles.
    Who can stand before his cold?

           -Psalm 147:12 & 16-17

As I reflect on the Winter Ember Days, I wish I could write this well:
Winter is a time of reflection, when human activity is stilled and snow blankets the world with silence. For the Christian, Winter symbolizes Hope: though the world now appears lifeless and makes us think of our own mortality, we hope in our resurrection because of the Resurrection of the One Whose Nativity we await now. How providential that the Christ Child will be born at the beginning of this icy season, bringing with Him all the hope of Spring! Also among our Winter feasts are the Epiphany and Candlemas, two of the loveliest days of the year, the first evoked by water, incense, and gold; the latter by fire...

Yes, despite the typical, unimaginative view of Winter as a long bout with misery, the season is among the most beautiful and filled with charms. The ephemeral beauty of a single snowflake... the pale blue tint of sky reflected in snow that glitters, and gives way with a satisfying crunch under foot... skeletal trees entombed in crystal, white as bones, cold as death, creaking under the weight of their icy shrouds... the wonderful feeling of being inside, next to a fire, while the winds whirl outside... the smell of burning wood mingled with evergreen... warm hands embracing your wind-bitten ones... the brilliant colors of certain winter birds, so shocking against the ocean of white... the wonderfully long nights which lend themselves to a sense of intimacy and quiet! Go outside and look at the clear Winter skies ruled by Taurus, with the Pleiades on its shoulder and Orion nearby... Such beauty!

Even if you are not a "winter person," consider that Shakespeare had the right idea when he wrote in "Love's Labours Lost":
Why should proud summer boast
Before the birds have any cause to sing?
Why should I joy in an abortive birth?
At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth;
But like of each thing that in season grows.
                                                   -Taken from the website

As we reflect for a moment on the beauty of winter, the Christian can view these months as the foundations for our Faith: Hope. I have heard that primordial Man feared winter for the same reason he must have feared the night: there was not guarantee that summer or day would ever return. Contrary to our scientific advancement, we only like to pretend to have that guarantee in the modern world. But we Christians actually do have a guarantee toward which we can look forward: the coming of our Saviour, first at Christmas, then at the Last Day.

And so with this in mind, we turn to the Gospel Reading for the day:

Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Judah, and entered into the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She called out with a loud voice, and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came into my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy! Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of the things which have been spoken to her from the Lord!”

Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord.
      My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior,
      for he has looked at the humble state of his servant.
For behold, from now on, all generations will call me blessed.
     For he who is mighty has done great things for me.
     Holy is his name.
     His mercy is for generations of generations on those who fear him.
He has shown strength with his arm.
      He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down princes from their thrones.
     And has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things.
     He has sent the rich away empty.
He has given help to Israel, his servant, that he might remember mercy,
     As he spoke to our fathers,
     to Abraham and his offspring forever.”

Mary stayed with her about three months, and then returned to her house.

Now the time that Elizabeth should give birth was fulfilled, and she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had magnified his mercy towards her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day, they came to circumcise the child; and they would have called him Zacharias, after the name of the father. His mother answered, “Not so; but he will be called John.”

They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name.” They made signs to his father, what he would have him called.

He asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, “His name is John.” They all marveled. His mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue freed, and he spoke, blessing God. Fear came on all who lived around them, and all these sayings were talked about throughout all the hill country of Judea. All who heard them laid them up in their heart, saying, “What then will this child be?” The hand of the Lord was with him. His father, Zacharias, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying,

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
     for he has visited and redeemed his people;
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David
     (as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets who have been from of old),
     salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show mercy towards our fathers,
     to remember his holy covenant,
the oath which he spoke to Abraham, our father,
     to grant to us that we, being delivered out of the hand of our enemies,
     should serve him without fear,
     In holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life.
And you, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
     for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways,
     to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the remission of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
     whereby the dawn from on high will visit us,
     to shine on those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death;
     to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The child was growing, and becoming strong in spirit, and was in the desert until the day of his public appearance to Israel. -Luke 1:39-80
 This section of Scripture contains two of the most beautiful pieces in the New Testament: Mary's Magnificat and the Zacharias' Benedictus.

As I read through them this morning, I noticed something significant: the work of God is often in the past tense: "He has looked", "He... has done great things", "He has shown strength", "He has given help", "He has visited and redeemed", "He has raised up"... Yet the work to which Mary and Zacharias are referring had only begun and would not be completed for years to come. Zacharias probably would not see it. Even Mary would not see her Son's second coming. This great work would require the brutal deaths of their own sons.

Yet their confidence was so great that they used, seemingly without reservation, the past tense to refer to something that God had only as of yet promised to do. Elizabeth perfectly summarizes the faith of all three:
"Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of the things which have been spoken to her from the Lord!" Such faith and hope.

These two songs, along with Elizabeth's acclamation, become the pinnacle of Advent, perfectly exemplifying the Themes of Hope, Preparation resulting in Peace, Joy, and even Love (which we will experience on Sunday).

I long to be filled with that same Holy Spirit that burned inside Mary, Elizabeth, and Zacharias. Lord, give me the faith to see Your promises as so sure that they are already accomplished.

And that is what the Ember Days' fasts are about: asking God, stripping away all distractions and sufficiently weakening our own defenses to the point where we can hear from Him more closely. Begging for His coming, not only to the manger 2,000 years ago or His return at the End, but into our lives in a moment-by-moment basis.

Lord, visit us.

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