Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord?
Mary set out and went as quickly as she could to a town in the hill country of Judah. She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. Now as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She gave a loud cry and said, ‘Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord? For the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.’
The gospels of the past three weeks have had a male cast, reflecting the male-dominated world of the middle-eastern culture into which the long-awaited Jesus would be born. This gospel shifts completely to the world of women and two expectant women who have learned Advent – to wait, to pray and to have their minds changed.
St Luke is, for his time, unusually, maybe uniquely attuned to women, the poor and marginal and children – all those in the world of their time who were habitually overlooked or devalued. His attention to them reflects the good news of Jesus that seen in the light of God there simply are no marginal, no second-class, no disposable groups. Our contemporary concern – in what is left of liberal democracy – for minorities, equal rights for women and economic justice can also, even if at less depth of understanding, reflect this wisdom of universal equality. So, even if nature is not fair in the way it hands out its gifts, humans can be just in the way they protect and respect the least fortunate.
Despite cultural differences, justice is an inborn instinct arising from the essential goodness of human nature. This goodness is God. It reveals the capacity of the human to be divinised just as the child that leapt in Elizabeth’s womb in the presence of the embryo in Mary’s testifies to the divine capacity to become flesh. In Advent, we may not be sure whether we are coming to God or God is coming to us and the conclusion must be both movements are inseparable.
Centuries of paintings of the Visitation show the girl Mary and the older woman Elizabeth embracing each other. When John, Elizabeth’s child leapt, Mary her kinswoman heard another declaration of the meaning of her own baby. Again she says nothing, barely understanding anything of the mystery she has been engulfed in.
At the Annunciation Mary only said yes. In the stories of the birth, the exile and the return to Nazareth, she is silent. She rebukes the boy Jesus for causing her anxiety when he disappears in the Temple and she speaks to him at the wedding feast. Otherwise her luminous presence in the gospels is silent, conscious, concerned, committed even at the foot of the Cross, to the one she and the world had waited for. Her silence in the presence of mystery is the model of contemplation for our own time that often veers between reductionism and superstition.
Of course we know little or nothing of the historic origins of symbolic stories like these and we never will. But we are no less capable of being awakened and moved by the reality they expose. The Advent mind is holistic, open to profound and beautiful, evocative symbols that convey truth intuitively and directly. We feel something leap in us but we can’t yet see it fully.
Advent after all is about gestation, the experience of an unseen presence in the womb of our spirit. This is powerful in itself – as is our quiet meditation in which the process of growth is largely known only through its fruits. Birth is another stage of reality’s self-revelation proving what we knew without knowing. But even birth doesn’t settle the matter because it opens the mystery even wider.
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