|The Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, statue at Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Jerusalem.|
As I got older, the story of Mary and Elizabeth’s exchange became imbued with its own weight in my own life, after I nearly died giving birth to my own first child. A few days after I was released from the hospital, my mother took me to the Saturday evening service at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, and the supply priest who was serving that day led the praying of Mary’s song over me there in the relieved embrace of my parish family. Ever since then, this feast has been doubly meaningful for me.
In the gospel reading for today’s feast, the first verse takes up the story right after the angel has informed Mary that she will bear a son by the power of the Holy Spirit. What’s interesting is the way the story depicts Mary’s first reaction after her faithful, surprising assent: she sets out “with haste” to see her kinswoman, Elizabeth, who herself is expecting a baby after years of childlessness. Mary’s response to this news is to want to be with someone who will be able to support her in this surprising change of life, and she hurries to her kinswoman Elizabeth’s side, one who herself is in the midst of a joyfully surprising pregnancy, one that mirrors the miracle that Hannah exults in in the reading from 1 Samuel. Hannah’s song rejoices in emptiness being filled, and Mary’s song echoes that as well, stripping out the resentment Hannah justifiably feels but doubly exclaiming about the hoped-for coming of God’s shalom and righteous re-ordering of society.
Mary and Elizabeth meet with jubilation, and the Holy Spirit seizes both of them and draws from their very depths rapturous exaltations of triumph and hope. Elizabeth feels the child within her leap for joy at Mary’s approach, and responds with part of the prayer we now know as the Ave Maria, which is a combination of the angel’s greeting to Mary, and Elizabeth’s exclamation: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Elizabeth continues in astonishment and prophecy, for both she and her unborn child know that the Mother of God, and the savior she will bear, have drawn near, bringing also nearer the kingdom of God.
Two women, so different in age and status in life, are nonetheless bound together by their willingness to cling to God’s promises, both astonished and joyful at the changes that will present themselves in their lives. Both are willing to have their lives be completely upended and transfigured by faith that God’s promises will be fulfilled within them. They are transformed by anticipation of a re-ordering of justice based on trust in the tandem qualities of God’s strength and mercy in both their own lives and in the life of their community.
The victory songs we hear today predict a re-ordering of life from human injustice to God’s justice, the approaching triumphant flourishing of shalom foretold in prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Deborah. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God calls us to serve as handmaids to the causes of justice and peace that was woven into the very fabric of creation itself, yet derailed by humanity’s omnipresent arrogance and willfulness. As the outbursts of joy coming from Elizabeth and Mary at their greeting make clear, the approaching Spirit calls us back to the beginning. As God sang creation into being, so too the response elicited by new life and new creation experienced by Elizabeth and Mary is a powerful exclamation of anticipation, hope, and fulfillment. These are hopes that we ourselves cling to in the times in which we struggle against despair and strife in our own lives, and in our own communities.
How often do we grope and grasp for some reassurance of God’s presence in our lives, and struggle to hold on to hope when the anxieties and pressures of life seem to crush in upon us? The life-giving presence of the Spirit as manifested in the visitation between Mary and Elizabeth reminds us that God’s power breaks loose in the most unexpected times and ways. In response to the in-breaking of God’s Spirit into these women’s lives, they are given a vision of a new triumph of peace; structures of injustice and weapons of war have been shattered; the hungry are satisfied and at peace; the oppressed are lifted up and exalted, while the oppressors are humbled and crumbled. In times of struggle, hopefulness itself is an act of rebellion and resistance. Those who have been empty, without hope, have been, and will be, filled.
As we await the coming of the Pentecost event, when the Holy Spirit looses a thunderbolt to launch the Church out into the world, we are reminded that God’s Spirit is always seeking to be welcomed within our deepest beings, and that when we open ourselves to the Spirit’s mighty power, hope is born anew, and we will sing out with joyful testimonies to the power of God working and creating within the world in each moment.
This essay first was posted at the Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul on May 31, 2017.