Today the Catholic Church celebrates The Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
When Mary says yes to the angel Gabriel, she has to live out the months before Jesus’ birth. In St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation, when the angel appears to Mary, one of the things he tells her is that her cousin Elizabeth, who was thought to be barren, has conceived a child – the child who we know will be John the Baptist. I’m thinking that Mary, confused and a bit frightened, thinks a visit with her older cousin is a good idea.
So Mary goes off to visit Elizabeth. When Mary enters the house and is greeted by Elizabeth, the baby inside Elizabeth leaps in her womb with joy. And Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cries out in a loud voice, “Blessed are you, Mary, among all women, and blest is the fruit of your womb.”
And then Elizabeth says something else, making her the first person to designate Mary in this way: “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me.” And “Blest is she who trusted that the Lord’s words to her would be fulfilled.”
In The Hospitality of God, Brendan Byrne, S.J., writes of this scene that Elizabeth
is the first in a long line of characters in this Gospel who give hospitality to Jesus only to find themselves drawn into the hospitality of God.
Elizabeth singles out Mary’s faith as the instrument of her blessedness: “Blessed is she who has believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was promised by the Lord.” Mary believed in the angel’s message concerning herself and, accepting the further assurance concerning her cousin, had set out in faith on her journey. Now, as the older woman recounts what she has just experienced, Mary knows that what she has hitherto held in faith ahs in fact been realized. The two women and the two stories have come together, and faith overflows in knowledge, testimony and celebration. In the meeting of these two women, in the hospitality they exchange, we see the beginnings of the community that will share and celebrate the blessings of salvation.
But there is something more to hospitality in Elizabeth. Think about this encounter, which could have gone completely differently than it did. Mary might have gotten all puffed up with pride and said, “If Elizabeth and I are going to see each other, it ought to be her who travels to see me. After all, I’m the one carrying the King.” And Elizabeth, the older of the two, might have been filled with jealousy, thinking “Why does Mary gets to birth the #1 child and I only gets the messenger. Surely I’m at least as good as she is.” We’ve all had enough experience of encounters marred by overinflated or bruised egos to imagine the possibilities.
Instead what happens is that the young woman who has just learned that she is to bear the Christ immediately runs off to be of help to her older cousin who is with child. And the older woman herself welcomes with joy the younger cousin who has been chosen to bear the more important of the two children. And although we are told only that Mary remained with Elizabeth for some months, we can imagine what must have transpired between those two women during those months. Mary helping Elizabeth with chores….Elizabeth counseling the younger woman…the two pregnant women working, sitting, talking, planning together. Neither pride in the one nor jeolousy in the other. Just two women each lovingly giving the other what she needs.
The Visitation is an incredibly beautiful model of graced human relationship.