Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-18a / Romans 12:9-16b; Song of Songs 2:8,10-14/Isaiah 12:2-6; Luke 1:39-56
In his life of St Thomas Aquinas, G.K.Chesterton says that Thomas and St Francis of Assisi together saved the West from spirituality, from what Chesterton also calls 'the Asiatic despair'. Why despair? It can be seen in one of the most characteristic beliefs of 'oriental' religious thought, re-incarnation. This means the significance, the meaning of my life, of me, is not available here and now but requires other, perhaps many other, times and places, people and experiences. What we have been given is not enough. We yearn for more even though we are the best fed, most prosperous, most travelled, most assisted, humans who have ever lived. It seems that it is not enough even when it is too much.
The Catholic faith, however, is a physical as much as it is a spiritual religion. It is about things that happened in and through particular human bodies in particular places (like Bethlehem Ephrathah) and at particular times (like the days of Herod king of Judea). 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 the body of Jesus Christ once and for all.
His ministry is to poor human bodies, opening eyes so that they might see, healing ears that they might hear, and loosening tongues that they miught speak. The visitation of Elizabeth by Mary is one of the most physical passages in the New Testament. Two pregnant women meet and talk about what is happening inside their bodies. Their meeting is about ears and tongues, in particular about what Elizabeth hears, believes and proclaims. 'When the sound of your greeting reached my ears': the expression is ornate, unnecessarily so we might feel, but it draws attention to her listening just as our attention is drawn to her speaking: 'she proclaimed with a loud proclamation'.
What we have here is a preaching and a hearing of the gospel. Faith is born in Elizabeth through physical events: an encounter, words spoken, a kicking baby, the Spirit working through these things. Elizabeth's canticle (Lk 1:42-45) anticipates that of another woman in Luke's gospel, equally physical: 'happy the womb that bore you and the breasts you sucked', to which Jesus replied, 'blessed rather those who hear the Word of God and keep it' (Lk 11:27-28). He did not say, 'please be a bit less explicit in front of the children', but rather happy, blessed, are those who hear and practise the Gospel. This is exactly what Elizabeth too had said: 'blessed the one who believed that the promise made to her by the Lord would be fulfilled'.
How is the Word to be not only believed but brought to fulfillment? not only heard but done? It can only be in the life we have - here, and now, in the relationships and commitments and experiences we have here, and now. We read in the Letter to the Hebrews that Jesus, on coming into the world, was given a body so that he could do the Father's will as it is written in the roll of the book (Heb 10:5-7). The Word of God that does not return empty, but that achieves its fulfillment, can only do so by becoming embodied. Which is why our faith is physical. It is no longer to be made physical in the bodies of animals and plants that we might offer to represent us. It is made physical in the body of Jesus Christ offered once, and for all (and the offering of ourselves, of our bodies, in union with him).
Ours is not then a spiritual religion as much as it is a physical religion. It is, we might even dare to say, a religion of free love in the body. Jesus says 'lo, I have come to do thy will in the body thou hast prepared for me' and he does this by being the human being that loves human beings and shows it physically. By the gift of His Spirit (the love of his heart) he enables us to participate in this mission, hearing and believing the Word, proclaiming it and doing it - all in the bodies that we are.