One thing the Christian preachers from patristic times seem to do well is to lead you to the scriptures to search for God’s wisdom there. They seem to do it better than many preachers today who use the scriptures rather like “proof texts” to back up their own observations and ideas, good as they may be.
The patristic homilists don’t just give you the dish of fish to eat. They teach you how to fish. Here’s St. Ambrose on Luke’s gospel about Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth in today’s Office of Readings. He’s fishing in the text.
Notice in the third paragraph the beautiful way he uses the simple detail that Mary made haste to go to the hill country. It’s a place of grace revealed. “I lift up my eyes to the mountain, from whence shall come my help…”
“The angel Gabriel had announced the news of something that was as yet hidden and so, to buttress the Virgin Mary’s faith by means of a real example, he told her also that an old and sterile woman had conceived, showing that everything that God willed was possible to God.
When Mary heard this she did not disbelieve the prophecy, she was not uncertain of the message, she did not doubt the example: but happy because of the promise that had been given, eager to fulfill her duty as a cousin, hurried by her joy, she went up into the hill country.
Where could she hurry to except to the hills, filled with God as she was? The grace of the Holy Spirit does not admit of delays. And Mary’s arrival and the presence of her Son quickly show their effects: As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting her child leapt in her womb and she was filled with the Holy Spirit.
See the careful distinction in the choice of words. Elizabeth was the first to hear the voice but her son John was the first to feel the effects of grace. She heard as one hears in the natural course of things; he leapt because of the mystery that was there. She sensed the coming of Mary, he the coming of the Lord — the woman knew the woman, the child knew the child. The women speak of grace while inside them grace works on their babies. And by a double miracle the women prophesy under the inspiration of their unborn children.
‘Blessed are you,’ said Elizabeth, ‘who believed’.
You too, my people, are blessed, you who have heard and who believe. Every soul that believes — that soul both conceives and gives birth to the Word of God and recognises his works. Let the soul of Mary be in each one of you, to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Let the spirit of Mary be in each one of you, to rejoice in God. According to the flesh only one woman can be the mother of Christ but in the world of faith Christ is the fruit of all of us.”