The Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth invites us into a deeply personal moment of the Scriptures. While the outside world is busy getting on with its worldly affairs, here are two very ordinary women who entertain their mysterious God at a deep soul level. On hearing that Elizabeth was with child and is now in her sixth month, Mary set off with haste for the hill country of Judea. She was obviously eager to help Elizabeth, but I imagine, equally eager to share and talk about these amazing events happening to both of them. And who else could she share with anyway? She could hardly tell Joseph at such an early stage. And if she were to tell him how on earth could he take in that she was with child of the Holy Spirit? Mary knew instinctively that she had a confidant in Elizabeth. How she must have anticipated her conversation with Elizabeth as she hurried on her way!
The scene of their meeting is very special. Both women are going to be mothers. Both have been called to collaborate in God’s plan. The larger context is a patriarchal society where men are supposed to spearhead all important events, yet their absence here is deafening. Zachariah is mute and Joseph is surprisingly absent. These two women fill the scene.
On Mary’s arrival, John the Baptist and the Lord, who were both hidden from each other, immediately begin to make mysterious connections. Even before the two women embraced, John leaped for joy in his mother’s womb, having recognized the presence of the Lord and Messiah in the womb of Mary. Elizabeth follows up on this by exclaiming: ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
There are two very remarkable points about Elizabeth in this encounter. Firstly, she is very wise and clued in and secondly, she is very selfless and generous. As regards her wisdom she knows instinctively that Mary is to be the mother of her Lord. Luke explains her knowledge comes from being filled with the Holy Spirit. However I think her years of barrenness and shame was the fallow ground that prepared her to receive the Spirit in abundance. In her emptiness she obviously turned to her God and the Holy Spirit was thus able to fill this space to overflowing over many years. Thus Elizabeth could readily believe that God was indeed working mightily in and through lowly women from insignificant villages in a conquered, powerless nation. Before Zechariah sang his Benedictus, the mother of John the Baptist prophesied that God was indeed coming into the midst of the people.
Elizabeth is totally selfless in her greeting, wanting to put Mary centre stage. She considers it a wonderful privilege that Mary should come to her. “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” She loudly greets Mary as the Mother of my Lord. How true this is for all of Jesus’ followers! Mary is above all the Mother of our Lord. This is the starting point of all greatness. The first Christians never separate Mary from Jesus. They’re inseparable. “Blessed by God among all women”, she offers us Jesus, “blessed fruit of her womb”.
Elizabeth then praises Mary for her faith, realising that it is no small thing for this young girl to believe in the message of the Angel Gabriel. “Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Elizabeth declares her happy because “she has believed”. Mary is great not just because of her biological motherhood, but because she welcomed with faith God’s call to be Mother of the Saviour. She knew how to listen to God; she kept God’s word in her heart; she meditated on it; she put it into practice, faithfully fulfilling her vocation. Mary is believing Mother.
One senses a great joy in this moment. Mary’s greeting transmits the joy that springs forth from her Son Jesus. She has been the first to hear God’s invitation: “Rejoice… the Lord is with you”. Now, by means of an attitude of service and of help for those who need it, Mary spreads the Good News of Jesus, the Christ, to everyone she meets. She is the best model of a joyful evangelization for the Church. Pope Francis has to be impressed.
What of Mary today? In the past there were attempts to exaggerate Mary’s status with exuberant pious emotions etc. Today the danger is a Marian minimalism that would frivolously brush aside the evidence of countless Christians from every century who in their difficulties have appealed to the mother of God as the mother of mercy and have experienced her assistance and consolation. Today there is need to acknowledge once again that Mary appears in the gospel and in a prominent position.
Elizabeth invites us to honour Mary. Mary is more honoured in the Eastern Church than she is in the West. After the 16th century reformation many Protestants stopped honouring Mary. Still, not all Protestants disowned her. A frequently quoted line about her is where William Wordworth refers to her as ‘our tainted nature’s solitary boast.’ Martin Luther had a lifelong devotion to Mary and even kept a picture of her on his desk, though many Lutherans seem unaware of this.
All Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, like to meditate on the Magnificat, that prayerful song brimming over with anger at the way the world is tilted against the poor. It is Mary’s cry for justice: He has filled the hungry with good things/ And sent the rich away empty. This is Mary who inspires all followers of her son to challenge injustice also in our own time and place.
Sunday, 20 December 2015