Meditations On The Life Of The Blessed Virgin For Every Day Of the Month, Suitable for all seasons and especially the month of May.
BIRTH OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST—THE BENEDICTUS.
St. Luke tells us that "Mary abode with Elizabeth about three months." (St. Luke i. 56.) "In deep humility and duteous love, she lavished upon her services and ministrations, as if she had forgotten that she herself was the Mother of God and the Queen of the Universe." (St. Bonaventure, Meditations on the Life of Jesus Christ, chap. v.) When Elizabeth's time was come, she brought forth a son. St. Bonaventure says Mary received him into her arms; it was from her that he received the first of those cares which are indispensable to the frail life of an infant. He fixed upon her eyes full of love, as if he understood who she was; when she gave him to his mother his eyes were turned upon Mary, and he seemed to find no pleasure except in this sweet contemplation. Mary smiled upon him graciously, and pressed him to her heart with kisses which filled him with delight. Who this favoured child was, thus received at his first entrance into life by the blessings of the Mother of God, we all know. As she held him in her arms she looked, no doubt with prophetic forethought, upon the little one who had leapt in his mother's womb at the first sound of her voice. She saw his eyes fixed upon her with an intelligence beyond his age. As she pressed him to her heart, and lavished upon him her holy caresses, she knew that the son of Elizabeth was bound to her own by a supernatural tie, and meanwhile who shall express the joy and holy gratitude of St, Elizabeth? "With what emotion must Zachary have blessed in his heart this child, whom he could not as yet bless in words, for he had remained dumb since the day on which he had doubted the word of the angel.
The Gospel tells us that "her neighbours and kinsfolk heard that the Lord had shewed His great mercy towards her, and they congratulated with her. And it came to pass that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they called him by his father's name Zachary. And his mother answered saying, Not so, but he shall be called John. And they said to her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made signs to his father how he would have him called. And demanding a writing table he wrote, saying, John is his name. And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened, and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came upon all their neighbours, and all these things were noised abroad over all the hill country of Judea. And all they that heard them laid them up in their heart, saying, What an one, think ye, shall this child be ? For the hand of the Lord was with him."
This is the first miracle which made known to the world the high destinies of St. John the Baptist. Let us listen to the beautiful words by which Zachary makes use of the voice which has been restored to him. If the hearts of those who heard him had been open to receive the truth, they would have understood that this canticle of joy which broke from the lips of the holy Levite was a homage rendered to One greater than his son, to the promised and expected Saviour, of whom the child so miraculously given to his old age was to prepare the way on earth. Mary alone received in her heart the words the full meaning of which none but she and the happy parents of St. John the Baptist could understand, and if we may believe the holy doctor, (St. Bonaventure,) whom God may perhaps have allowed to see for our consolation the unknown details of this wonderful scene, Mary attentively "listened in silence and secrecy to this canticle, in which her Son is spoken of in such wonderful terms, and laid up all these words carefully in her heart."
But to return to the words of the Gospel. " And Zachary his father was filled with the Holy Ghost: and he prophesied, saying: Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, because He hath visited and wrought the redemption of His people: and hath raised up a horn of salvation to us, in the house of David His servant: as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, who are from the beginning: salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; to shew mercy to our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant. The oath which He swore to Abraham our father, that He would grant to, us, that being delivered from the hand of our enemies, we may serve Him without fear, in holiness and justice before Him all our days. And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Most High; for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His way; to give knowledge of salvation to His people, unto the remission of their sins. Through the bowels of the mercy of our God, in which the Orient from on High hath visited us, to enlighten, them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death; to direct our feet into the way of peace." (St. Luke i. 67-79.)
How full is this wonderful canticle of the same hopes which are found in the Magnificat, of which it appears to be the development. Mary announced the deliverance, Zachary announces the Saviour who is to accomplish it, the Saviour promised to the patriarchs, foretold by the saints and prophets of the old law, Who comes to deliver us from the slavery of the devil and sin, that "being delivered from the hands of our enemies, we may-serve Him without fear, in holiness and justice before Him all our days." And what a wonderful light God, by whom he was inspired, throws on the mission of the forerunner of the Saviour, who is to come after him!
"And thou child shalt be called the prophet of the Highest, for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord." He, then, Whose way was to be prepared by John on earth, is none other than the Lord from heaven, and it is as announcing Him to men that John will be called the prophet of the Most High. Now comes the mission of the forerunner. "Thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways. To give knowledge of salvation to His people, unto the remission of their sins, through the bowels of the mercy of our God." It is mercy as well as penance which John comes to announce to the world. A mercy such as the earth had never known; for the most marvellous act of God's mercy under the old law was the promise of the Redeemer, following immediately on the condemnation of our first parents; and on this promise the whole human race had lived for four thousand years, surrounded by the sorrows which sin had entailed on them. But here the bowels of the Divine mercy are moved like those of a mother for the sufferings of her children; and it is in the name of this mercy that He who is to dissipate so much darkness appears upon earth. " The Orient from on High hath visited us. To enlighten them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, to direct our feet into the way of peace." Since Adam's sin had introduced death into the world, each succeeding generation was wrapped in that night so justly called by the Holy Scriptures the shadow of death. The spirits of the just who had served God on earth, although departed, were still sighing for deliverance, as they had done in this life, and it was through hope alone that some rays of light were reflected into the darkness in which they were waiting for the dawn. But listen to Zachary: " The Orient from on High hath visited us." He will dissipate for ever this fatal night, and shed floods of light over the regenerated earth. The just man of the new law, looking "upon death, not as the end of life, hut only as the last step to be taken " in the way of peace," by which the Lord has brought him to Himself, will say with another prophet, " O grave, where is thy victory ? O death, where is thy sting ?"
Such is the wonderful canticle of Zachary, called the Benedictus, from the Latin word with which it begins. The Church orders it also, like the Magnificat, to be sung standing, as a sign of reverence and faith. It comes in at the end of Lauds. Every time this joyous sound strikes our ears, let us remember its signification, and thank God. Then, in thinking over all the wonders which Zachary announced to the world, let us think also of his faith; his voice, so long silent, breaks forth in an act of fervent faith, and then, when we remember how severe had been the chastisement with which in his case a single rising of doubt had been visited, we shall be able to see the high value and blessedness of a firm and unwavering faith. Let us be careful never to doubt any of the truths announced to us in the name of the great God, by His ministers and messengers, who speak to us in His name, as the Angel Gabriel did to Zachary. Has no word contrary to faith ever escaped our lips ? Have we never, like Zachary, deserved to have our tongues struck dumb ? If God is so merciful to us, let us not abuse His mercy, and thus incur a guilt far greater than that of this holy priest, even in the moment of his unbelief, for at that time the marvels of the Divine goodness, which have been revealed to us, had not yet been made known to him.
"Mary," continues St. Bonaventure, "after having taken leave of Elizabeth and Zachary, and having blessed St. John, returned to her poor dwelling at Nazareth. And while she makes this journey, her extreme poverty is once more brought before us. In the humble home to which she is returning she will find neither food nor drink, nor any of the necessaries of life, for she possessed neither money nor property. She has just spent three months with kinsfolk who were probably in easy circumstances, and she is returning to her former poverty. She is now reduced once more to provide for her subsistence by the labour of her own hands. Be touched by her necessities, and let your hearts be enkindled by the love of poverty.
O Mary, so gentle and tender towards Elizabeth, so happy in her joys, so sympathising in her sufferings: O Mary, so strong in faith when thou didst press in thine arms the Forerunner of thy Son, and didst hear Zachary announce at the same time the destinies of John and of the Saviour: O Mary, so humble, so calm,, so diligent in the poverty of Nazareth, obtain for us, according to the measure of our weakness, the virtues which we learn to love in thee. Teach us active charity, which loves and consoles; lively faith, which accepts and worships the word of God; and an untroubled soul, which receives alike from the Hand of God poverty and abundance. Thou wert the same in the house of the rich Elizabeth and Zachary, and in the poor dwelling at Nazareth. The same joy, far above all earthly joys, shone forth from thy soul, and enlightened all around thee. O holy Virgin, our model, may the meditation of thy life light up in us a single ray of that charity, and of that faith of which thy soul was the centre, and of which the peace and joy which thou didst shed around thee, were the rays, and may we learn to believe and love like thee, that we may also learn like thee to suffer and to comfort. Amen,
To thank God from the bottom of our hearts, with holy Zachary and the Blessed Virgin, every time that we hear the Benedictus.