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The bible often describes the journeys of its principal personalities. Luke especially in his Gospel, and in the Acts of the Apostles, serves up many examples of such. But surely the conclusion to today’s Visitation journey is unique: two unborn leaders being carried in their mothers’ wombs meet. The mothers provide the speeches necessary for identification and explanation. The location for the event since the sixth century has been given as Ain Kerem/Karim, five miles west of Jerusalem. The scene is idyllic, set on the sloping hills among the olive and cypress trees- with a lovely valley through which flows a fresh narrow stream, below the Church of the Visitation. There are still some Russian nuns in their convents there adjacent to the Church which is run by the Franciscans. But there are virtually no Palestinian Arabs there now (not since 1948) though the Palestinian Holy Rosary Sisters still have an orphanage there.
The Theological Meaning of the Visitation
St. Luke presents Our Lady as taking the initiative in this encounter. She was probably only 13 years old. Her cousin Elisabeth was in ‘her old age’. Mary made the journey and Elizabeth made the first speech. Zachary and Joseph do not appear. Luke wants the unencumbered account to focus on the two women with their God-given vocation and mission. This was counter-cultural from every point of view in that world then and for many other places in the world still.
The Whole Point
At the centre of the picture is Jesus. In an extraordinary way his mother is a spokesperson for him. And Elizabeth describes her as his faithful disciple. Who then is this Jesus? The mother of my LORD has come to visit me, says Elizabeth.
The Visitation narrative provides the most poignant example of any faith journey ever written. Elizabeth blesses Mary and her faith; she is the first to recognize it and be grateful for it. Zachary’s faith was not at the same level, but despite that, a feast of St.Zachary and Saint Elizabeth is celebrated in Palestine and some other places on Nov.5th! Elizabeth hears the magnificent Magnificat and speaks of Mary in a way not unlike the way her Baptist son will introduce Jesus to his audience later. St Luke presents it rather like an ‘all in the family’ affair. Faith creates family. That family was already being called the Church in New Testament times. Who are my mother and brothers? (Lk 8:21)
Journeys and Encounters
The Visitation may stimulate for us journeys to remember. It is simply true that our lives are punctuated by journeys and encounters- from the time we were able to walk, and began to explore possibilities that stretched the nerve of our parents. Along life’s way we go on meeting people who affect us. Some of these encounters are extremely significant. Some of us were influenced by meeting a person who helped us choose a career, or marriage or the priesthood or religious life. We could have known nothing of life and faith and love had we not met the right people. We may now see the hand of Providence in such encounters. The meeting between Mary and Elizabeth in today’s Gospel invites us to reflect on these things. Memory is so important. How marvellous it is to find someone again whom we had thought lost to us forever. This can happen especially at Christmas time. And Christmas is often that sad time when those we loved are no longer with us, or those we really love have come happily to visit and be with us again.
The Future for Mary and Elizabeth
Today’s major encounter was, according to Luke, a most significant occasion. Mary’s Son will change the world forever. And Elizabeth’s son will usher in the whole process. The two women are joyful, carrying out the tasks of motherhood, and ultimately suffering all the sorrows that go with it in the future. Both of their sons were arrested and publicly discredited, and both were executed. We also know enough historically to appreciate that while later the two men knew each other yet they went their separate ways. John was the first to die, just a little bit older than Jesus- both in their thirties. The faith of their mothers was cruelly tested. Could these women ever have suspected what their own vocation demanded of them? St Luke had Simeon speak of the sword of sorrow that would pierce Mary’s heart, in the Temple at a time of great rejoicing, when the child was circumcised and became a member of the covenant people of God.
Joy and Sorrow
There is always earthly realism in the biblical narratives. And we find it here again in this present episode. We are helped by the experience of those who have gone before us because in so many ways we are like them. If such were not the case then why should these biblical persons be presented to us for our edification and emulation? Their lives were personal and familial, with all their mix of joy and sorrow. They lived according to the standards to be observed, in an exemplary way. Both of these women were mothers of sons totally devoted to loving others and helping them lead lives of unsurpassed quality. The Baptist and the Messiah died for their beliefs, and the beliefs have lived on. This encounter of their mothers in Luke’s description has a many layered significance; it now focuses our approach to the Holy Season. Looking out today- indeed as always- on the immense suffering in the world, we recall that these women belonged to first century Palestine. The Arab world, as we now call it, was their setting. It needs little imagination to realise what life was like for them then- where things could be and were too often simply savage. How frequently across the centuries believers have recited today’s responsorial psalm: O Lord, rouse up your might. O Lord come to our help (Ps 79: 1). It is little different today for some people, but it is hopeful that great efforts are being made to help them, the promise of sympathetic visitation and humane acceptance. Amen.
Rev Richard J. Taylor
Spiritual Advisor, MaterCare International
Boarbank Hall, Cumbria, UK