What We Learn From Mary and Elizabeth

I’m at my “happy place,” the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh,, where I’m one of the directors on a directed retreat.  Today, on this feast of the Visitation, I had the privilege of offering a reflection at our afternoon Mass.

I began my reflection by talking about the graced encounter between Mary and Elizabeth recorded in Luke’s Gospel.  We take for granted that description, and don’t tend to imagine how differently it might have transpired if the enemy spirit had taken hold.

Mary had just been told by the angel that she will bear the Son of God.  Had pride arisen Mary might have thought to herself, “If Elizabeth and I are going to see each other, it ought to be she who travels to see me, not me who undertakes the arduous journey. After all, I’m the one carrying the King, and he is way more important than her baby.”

And Elizabeth, might have been filled with envy and jealousy, thinking “I’m the older one and I’m married to a priest. Why does Mary (who is betrothed to a carpenter) gets to birth the #1 child and I only gets the messenger.  Surely I’m at least as good as she is.”

There were some smiles and a couple of laughs among the retreatants at that description, but we’ve all had enough experience of human encounters marred by pride, jealousy and envy to be able 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.   We can imagine Mary helping Elizabeth with chores….Elizabeth counseling and reassuring the younger woman…the two pregnant women working, sitting, talking, planning together.  Mary putting her hand on Elizabeth’s belly when the baby in her womb moves.  Elizabeth sharing tips on dealing with morning sickness.  The two women sharing laughs, and perhaps some tears.  Neither pride in the one nor jealousy in the other.   Just two women each lovingly giving the other what she needs.  Two women loving each other “with mutual affection,” as Paul puts today’s first Mass reading.

It is an incredibly beautiful model of graced human relationship.  And it is one worth thinking about because if we are going to be as Christ in our world, it matters how we relate to others.  With pride and superiority?  Or with humility and joy?  With envy and jealousy or with rejoicing in each other’s fortune.

I also spoke about another aspect of today’s Gospel: When Mary arrives, Elizabeth sees what is not yet visible, immediately recognizing the presence of Christ – the promise of Christ in her.  Elizabeths words, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled,” prompt Mary’s proclamation of the Magnificat, which itself points to what is not yet present.  She speaks in present tense of things that are certainly not apparent in the world in which she lived.  “He has thrown down the rulers…he has lifted up the lowly…filled the hungry with good things.”

I referenced Leonard Cohen’s song Everybody Knows (which I call is the anti-Magnificat).  Its lyrics include lines like everybody knows the dice are loaded, everybody knows the good guys lost, everybody knows the fight is fixed, everybody knows the poor stay poor and the rich stay rich., everybody knows the deal is rotten, everybody knows the plague is coming.  The refrain that keeps being repeated over and over again in between such lines is: That’s how it goes, everybody knows.

As songs go, it is a pretty accurate appraisal of how things look in our world.  The poor stay poor and the rich stay rich.  The deal is pretty rotten.  And climate change may result in something much worse than the plague.

What we as Christians say is that may be how it is, but it is not how it has to be.  Not how it will be.  One of our significant roles is to be beacons of hope in our troubled world.  We are called precisely to see what is not yet visible and to point to that, to share it with our world.

That is not always easy.  There are times when I get deeply depressed about the state of our church, our country, our world, and I’m guessing I am not alone in that.  And in those moments the enemy spirit whispers “That’s just how it goes.  Everybody knows.  Give up hoping otherwise.  Just sink into the despair.”

And in those moments, we want to remember Mary and Elizabeth.  To see with the eyes of faith what is not yet present but which we know will be.  And to take our place in working with God to make it so.

I ended my reflection by sharing  a poem by Linda Jones, titled Dare to Hope. The words are:

We dare to imagine a world where hunger has no chance to show its face.
We dare to dream of a world where wars and terror are afraid to leave their mark.
We long to believe in a world of hope unchained and lives unfettered.
We dare to work for the creation of a world where your people are free from poverty.  Your Kingdom come, O Lord, Your will be done. Amen.

That is what we do: like Mary and Elizabeth, we dare to hope. And we dare to share that hope with the world.

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