[“The Visitation,” 1528–30, by Jacopo da Pontormo]
I realize I feel exceptionally underqualified to talk about Mary. I have never been pregnant or given birth. I’m not Catholic. I’m not female.
I already talked a little bit about her in yesterday’s reflection, noting that she had at least a moment during Jesus’ ministry when she appeared to question his actions.
Some scholars will tell you that Mary did not actually say what we now call “The Magnificat,” her response to Elizabeth when she went to visit and revel in their joyous news together.
I believe Mary carried a child in her body and gave birth to that child and she and her husband named him Jesus. I believe she did that without having had sexual intercourse with any man. I have no problem believing that she gave this spontaneous song/prophecy when she’d been traveling for many days to go visit. Mary walked about 100 miles (yes, miles). For all I know, she rehearsed the whole way there.
These are Mary’s words that Luke recorded for us.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Just to recall context, Mary is visiting Elizabeth, her much older relative.* Elizabeth, who thought she was barren and far beyond the age when she could get pregnant, has a priest husband who can’t speak and she is, in fact, pregnant. I try to imagine the game of charades that Elizabeth and Zechariah played when he came home from his encounter with the angel. I love to imagine her reaction when she realized she was pregnant.
Now Elizabeth, who was already having quite a year, gets news that her younger cousin Mary is pregnant. But Mary is only engaged, not yet married. Someone tells Elizabeth the story of what “they are saying” about Mary’s pregnancy.
Stop and imagine how crazy and beautiful is this scene. Elizabeth has stayed in seclusion for five months. She can talk with her husband all she wants about her pregnancy, but he can’t answer verbally. As for Mary, the next words in Luke after “‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her” are “Mary set out and went with haste to…visit Elizabeth.” Does Mary go before word gets around? Does Mary start to hear how her community speaks about her and then goes? And the instant Elizabeth sees Mary, Elizabeth declares her belief in what has happened to Mary–what Mary has experienced–and tells her she is blessed, she and her baby.
Mary bursts forth with this jubilant praise for God who has blessed them both. Then Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months, which almost certainly means Mary stayed for Elizabeth’s delivery–which also likely means she got to hear Zechariah’s prophecy. Remember, she’d just lived in their home and witnessed his silence first-hand for three months.
“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Both Mary and Zechariah rejoice in God’s mercy. This is the image Zechariah has of Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ coming into the world. And don’t forget, Zechariah has no idea how any of this will work. He’s not reading the story from the end backward. But three chapters from now (and about 30ish years), Jesus will read:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And then Jesus will say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, “that’s me.”
“To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Mary carries the baby who will do this when she hears these words from Zechariah.
This is Jesus’ coming–our Advent–that we celebrate and remember, but not only as historical fact or a good story. Who do you know who is sitting in darkness? Or are you sitting in the shadow of death? Perhaps we are, without knowing it?
Jesus comes now to give us us light, to lead us out, to guide our feet into the way of his peace.
Some translations use “cousin” but it’s not clear if this means “first cousin” as we would understand it or simply a more general term for relative.