A couple of years ago, I had the occasion to take a long walk with a mentor and friend. I do not really remember what we talked about, except that our conversation was mostly about life, family, and vocation. I remember she said something to me that was so profound, her words took my breath away and I stuttered in my steps. But the funny thing was, she did not say anything new. In fact, her words started with that classic line, “So what I hear you saying is…” She simply reflected my own words back to me in a way I couldn’t hear them myself. She held up a mirror to me and in that mirror I saw my truth in a way I could not have seen alone.
Although much of this day liturgically is about Mary, I find myself strangely drawn to Elizabeth this year. We know a few things about Elizabeth. She was a descendent of Aaron, which means her lineage is part of the priestly line in Judaism. Her husband, Zechariah, is also a priest, but more of an ordinary village priest, not one of the priests based in Jerusalem.[i] Elizabeth is a part of Aaron’s priestly line in her own right. We also know when Elizabeth’s husband is told she will bear a child, he does not initially believe – and because of that is struck mute for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. On the other hand, Elizabeth responds to her pregnancy with a profession of God’s favor for her. And because Zechariah is mute, Elizabeth does the blessing and prophesying when Mary shows up. As scholars Levine and Witherington tell us, “Elizabeth’s cry is both exultation and prophecy: ‘Blessed are you among women.’”[ii]
Sometimes I think we get lost in the reality of these two pregnancies and do not hear all of what is being said. There have been countless artistic renderings of these two pregnant women. And of course, the identity of who is in these wombs is important to the message of the Luke’s gospel. But sometimes I think the presence of pregnant bellies is distraction to the other thing Elizabeth is preaching. Pregnant bellies are at times a source of grief for those who long to carry a child but cannot; are at times a source of lost identity – because all people and artists see are the growing bellies and not the person carrying the child; and are at times a source of oppression and loss of power – especially for those, like Elizabeth who have been barren, and those like Mary who are pregnant way before societal expectations dictate.
But here’s what we miss when our minds only see pregnant bellies. As scholars point out, “Mary is blessed not simply because she is pregnant with an extraordinary child; Mary herself is blessed, and so she is more than simply a womb…Mary is blessed not simply because she conceived, but because she ‘believed’ – she trusted – that the ancient prophesies would be fulfilled.”[iii] Elizabeth does what my mentor did so many years ago, and holds up a mirror to Mary. Sure, Elizabeth confirms the words of the Angel Gabriel[iv], and prophesies Mary’s child will be, but she also looks deeply at Mary and says, “Look. Look what you did. You said yes. You believed this tremendously impossible thing God told you and you said yes. Blessed are you for your willingness to believe and say yes.”
What I love about The Visitation is the way we have access to Elizabeth’s here at Hickory Neck every Sunday. I think one of the things we missed when we shut down churches during the pandemic was that reality – having access to an Elizabeth each week who somehow could see you, could reflect back what you shared in time after church over coffee or breakfast, or who had the ability to name faith in you – those times when you believed and trusted in God, even if in the moment, you had very little trust. That is the gift of church every week – gathering with a group of people who you may not otherwise encounter in the world out there, getting to know their stories, and sharing the truth of God’s sacred activity in each other’s lives. That is what Mary and Elizabeth give to each other: “…community and connection.” As one scholar explains, “God removes their isolation and helps them to understand themselves more fully as part of something larger than their individual destinies. Together they are known more fully, and begin to see more clearly, than they do as individuals.”[v] Certainly we can experience faith alone – yes, even on the golf course occasionally. And we can definitely experience church online, sharing our comments, prayers, and praises in the comments (something we do not even always even do in church). But we also distinctly experience the incarnate God through other incarnate people – those people made in the image of God, whom the Holy Spirit uses to speak truth, and through whose bodies we witness truth, grace, and love. May we all know Elizabeth’s this week as we walk toward the manger in awe and wonder and trust. Amen.
[i] Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington, III, The Gospel of Luke: New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 26.
[ii] Levine and Witherington, 38.
[iii] Levine and Witherington, 38-39.
[iv] Stephen A. Cooper, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 93.
[v] Michael S. Bennett, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 94.