Last week we thought about Jesus as God’s message of love to Mary. This week we move on to the visit she made to Elizabeth, and find that the message of love is starting to spread.
Elizabeth is some kind of relative to Mary – the Gospel isn’t precise about what their relationship is – but she is obviously someone Mary trusted, because the reading starts by telling us that “in those days Mary set out and went with haste” to see her. In what days? In the days after the angel had told her that she would bear the Son of God. In the days when the reality of that statement was starting to become clear, not only to her, but maybe to others as well. She went “with haste”. Why? Maybe because she knew her pregnancy would soon start to show, and there would be a scandal, which would put her and her unborn child at risk. So she goes to a place where she hopes she will be safe, where she hopes she will find a welcome. And she is right to have chosen Elizabeth.
Elizabeth is also living in extraordinary times. She is pregnant herself despite being long past the age when that should have been possible. Her husband had heard from that same angel who came to Mary that their child would be the forerunner of the Messiah, the child we know as John the Baptist. When she heard she was to bear a son, and a special one at that, she said “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
Of course, we would want to say to her that there is no disgrace in not being able to have children, but the reality was that in her society, women’s main role in life was to marry and bear children. When we read the Bible we have to read it from within the thought-world of its characters if we’re going to understand it.
In her time, fertility was seen as a sign of God’s favour, and infertility a sign of his curse. She had felt, and others had probably encouraged her to feel, that being childless meant that she and Zechariah must have done something to displease God, but now she realises that was wrong, and that God is much bigger than she’d been taught. God had a purpose for her. She was beloved of God all along, and so is this other mother-to-be who has come to her in her moment of need.
Artists have imagined this scene – the moment when Elizabeth and Mary meet – in many ways over the centuries. Often Mary looks a little tentative. What will the reaction be? Will she be met with scorn or suspicion? But always the answer is no. Without needing Mary to say a word, Elizabeth welcomes her, recognising that God is at work in her too. Sometimes there is laughter in the pictures, a bubbling over of joy. Sometimes Elizabeth puts her hands out to feel Mary’s “bump”. Each of them has been cherishing a private joy. Now, for the first time, that joy spreads beyond them and is recognised and acknowledged by someone else. “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other”, said our Psalm tonight, and that might be a caption for this moment.
Of course, for both these women there will be pain ahead. Both will lose those precious sons in brutal and cruel circumstances, but they know that their children will change the world, that they will have given the world a great gift. Elizabeth and Mary discover that their lives matter. They’re called. They’re chosen. In a world where most women, most of the time were invisible, and encouraged to be so, they proclaim that each of us, however ordinary we feel, is noticed by God, valued by God, vital to God, called to bear good news.
In the silence tonight, perhaps we could think about how much we feel our lives matter, how much we feel our choices matter, how much we feel our response to God’s call matters. Like Mary and Elizabeth, that call may not look the way we thought it would. It may come later or earlier than we think it ought to. But these women’s stories remind us to be ready for that moment when the life of God leaps within us for joy, ready to recognise the life of God in others too, ready to rejoice in it and share it.
|Rogier van der Weyden|
|Modern Icon of the Visitation|