Sunday 31 May 2020
Romans 12:9-16; Luke 1:39-49
Context: for the daily Eucharist in the retreat centre – generally 50 adults attending, coming from a variety of Christian traditions
Aim: to highlight the significance of loving companions
So, Mary says ‘yes’ to the Angel and goes ‘in haste’ to her cousin Elizabeth. The journey would have been long and arduous. We are not told the primary motivation for Mary setting out so quickly, but the gift of imagination allows us to explore what may have been a great mix of human emotions. After the extraordinary episode of the annunciation, what must Mary have been experiencing? The placid scenes of the Annunciation, as rendered by so many classic painters, often depict a scene of external peace and tranquillity, and nothing of the internal conflict that must have been present. I am more drawn to the mediaeval painter Simone Martini, who frequently shows human emotion. His painting of the annunciation has Mary drawing back from Gabriel in horror!
Did Mary go to Elizabeth primarily because she wanted to reassure herself that what the angel had said was true? ‘Know that your cousin, Elizabeth, is in her old age expecting a child.’ Or perhaps she longed to be with someone who might believe her story and help her make sense of what was happening. We don’t know whether Mary had told her parents or Joseph of what had occurred before this visit. To be pregnant and unmarried in the Jewish Community of the time was not only to risk disapproval, it was to risk death. Mary could have been struggling with either how to tell them, or with the aftermath of their first reactions. We simply don’t know. What we do know is that Elizabeth, contrary to all tradition and social norms, receives Mary; receives her unhesitatingly with no questions asked, no verdict levied. In fact, Elizabeth receives her with joy and awe. What an enormous relief this must have been to Mary. Elizabeth understands!
It is another two women, two writers, that have greatly helped my understanding of this feast. The first is Sr. Joan Chittister OSB. In her book The Friendship of Women, Joan attributes the gift of acceptance to Elizabeth. She writes ‘A real friend is the second self, cut from the cloth of Elizabeth …. Acceptance is the ability to receive with a listening and loving heart the friend who contravenes the social language of the time. Not only did Elizabeth welcome and accept Mary, but the child she was carrying recognised the child within Mary. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and said ‘the child in my womb leapt for joy, why am I honoured to receive a visit from the Mother of my Lord’, and so Elizabeth becomes the first person in Scripture to recognise the presence of the Lord.’
Ask yourself the questions: Do you have an ‘Elizabeth’ in your life who accepts and welcomes you as you are and unconditionally? Or perhaps you are an ‘Elizabeth’ to someone else?
The second writer, Nicola Slee, has several delightful poems on the Visitation in her Book of Mary. One of them is entitled ‘Sisters’ and it includes the following lines:
‘Every woman needs a sister, sisters; those not born with them must find them, make them along the way……
A sister in solidarity, in struggle. One who chooses you for who you are, loves what is particular about you. She will travel with you down the long years of change…...
Not your mother, yet she will mother you, wrap you in her arms and rock you…..
She’ll walk several steps ahead of you, dragging you up the hill; but she’ll wait for you, never going too far out of sight.’
I find this a vivid description of what Mary and Elizabeth were for each other at this juncture of their lives. Both were facing enormous changes, but in being together for three months, they could offer each other the support, challenge and comfort that the poem describes. They helped each other to contemplate and accept the changes God was bringing about. At the big picture, transcendent level, God was working out the redemption of the human race. God needed the help of both Mary and Elizabeth. But for Mary and Elizabeth at the human, micro level it must have been difficult to keep the bigger picture in mind. When we are in the middle of extraordinary events, we don’t have the assurance of the end of the story. As a retreat director once said to me, when Mother Teresa said ‘yes’ to God to leave the first religious congregation that she had belonged to for many years, she didn’t know where it would lead her. She took the first step, in the same way the Israelites had to step into the Red Sea for the waters to pull back.
It’s the small, individual steps in faith that accumulate into the bigger picture, and we’re blessed when God sends us companions on the journey, be they sisters or brothers, at the times we most need them.
Chittister, Joan. (2006) The Friendship of Women: The Hidden Tradition of the Bible
Slee, Nicola. (2007) The Book of Mary
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