Catholicism is a physical at least as much as it is a spiritual religion. It is about things that happened, and things that happen, in and through particular human bodies, in particular places such as Bethlehem or Blackfriars, Oxford, and at particular times such as the days of King Herod of Judea or December 2009. Our faith is about the Word becoming flesh. It is centred on one born of a woman, born under the Jewish law, to save us not through the promise of future incarnations of our ‘spirits’, but through the offering of his body once and for all.
The ministry of Jesus is to poor human bodies. He opens eyes so that they see, ears so that they hear, and he loosens tongues so that they speak. The visitation of Elizabeth by Mary is about bodies: pregnant bodies, an infant kicking in the womb, sounds reaching ears, and mouths speaking. Elizabeth hears and believes and proclaims. Our attention is drawn to her hearing and her speaking. ‘When the sound of your greeting reached my ears’ – why doesn’t she just say ‘when I heard you’? ‘She proclaimed with a loud voice’ – why doesn’t it just say ‘she said’?
These elaborate expressions draw our attention to her hearing and speaking, and show that it is a hearing and a proclamation of the gospel. Faith is established in Elizabeth through physical events: her meeting with Mary, their conversation, John the Baptist leaping in her womb, with the Spirit working through these things.
Elizabeth then praises Mary. Her canticle, Luke 1:42-45, has not received anything like the same attention as the other canticles in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, except that some of it has become part of our ‘Hail Mary’. Later in the gospel another woman shouts out words of praise for Mary, saying to Jesus ‘blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts you sucked’. To which Jesus replies, echoing the words of Elizabeth, ‘blessed rather those who hear the Word of God and keep it’. He does not say ‘please be a little bit less explicit in front of the children’: he says happy are those who hear and who practise the gospel.
How is the Word to be not only received and believed, but also practised? It can only be in the life we have here, and now, in the relationships and experiences and commitments that are ours here, and now. We do not need to look for a future incarnation of ourselves where we might do a better job of living a human life: we do it here, and we do it now, or we do not do it at all.
So in the second reading from Hebrews we are told that Jesus, on coming into the world, is given a body. This is so that he can do the Father’s will as it is written in the roll of the book, so that the word can become flesh in other words. The Word of God does not return empty, it achieves its fulfillment, but can do that only by becoming embodied. This is why our faith is physical and it is why Mary (who gave Jesus his body) stands at the centre of our faith. No longer need we take animals and plants to represent our sacrifice: it is done in the body of Jesus Christ offered once, and for all, and continues in the offering of ourselves, our bodies, in union with Him.
Ours then is a physical religion. At its heart is the woman who said ‘let what you have said be done to me’, and the man who says ‘behold I have come to do your will in the body you have prepared for me’. The relationship with God is established and sustained not by holocausts and sin-offerings but in the body of Jesus and his will, by a loving human being. He has done the Father's will, kept it, and brought it to its fulfillment. Those who believe belong to Him because they too hear, and keep, His word, they receive, and do, His will.