Detail of Visitation by Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1445, via Web Gallery of Ar
It is hard to imagine what was likely a twelve to fourteen year old Mary taking off alone into the Judean hillside on a four-day journey, even if it was to visit her cousin Elizabeth as two mothers-to-be. Many assume that this meeting was not specifically historical, but a literary and theological device used by Luke to bring the two together so that both may praise the God active in their lives and establish John, Elizabeth’s son, as Jesus’ precursor.
None of this reduces the magic and delight of the scene, however. I find that every time I read it I have womb envy. It reminds me of Jacob and Esau “leaping” as they struggled in Rebekah’s womb, portending future relationships and the movement of God always on the arc of the liberation of God’s people. Even the encounter of Mary and Elizabeth is rife with themes of liberation.
On the darker side it all has the scent of crisis moments found in the Hebrew Scriptures surrounding the Exodus saga. Mary flees much as Moses fled after his crime. She is “untimely pregnant,” outside of the likely clan arrangement of her day. Her pregnancy is an affront to the social and religious order and therefore a crime punishable by death. In the midst of it all, God is delivering into history the great liberator and prince of peace, Jesus the Christ. Light is promised.
Singing in exaltation infuses the moment as Elizabeth cries out her hymn, “Hail Mary.” Mary responds with the great hymn of liberation we know as the “Magnificat,” again connecting us to our Jewish roots through Hannah’s song of praise for God’s great acts of setting God’s people free.
I was making a call on an elderly woman who, according to her son, had not spoken for ten months. He joined me for this particular visit and spoke of the pain of not being able to communicate with her and wondered if anyone was “in there.” As our time unfolded in our visitation, I learned through the son of his mother’s great devotion to Mary. When I offered prayer, I led with “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you,” Elizabeth’s words to the mother of Jesus. At that very moment his mother’s eyes took on recognition and she, in clearly enunciated English, joined us in the rest of the hymn. It was a moment of being set free for her son and for his mother, as later that night she died. Something leapt in all of us, the stirring movement of God’s Spirit always making new and redeeming what is right in front of us. It was a new day.
Mary and Elizabeth were open to the God-surprise in their own life circumstance. Each day gives us an opportunity to offer ourselves to this same possibility. We might even find ourselves singing new songs of hope and liberation for all God’s people.
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.