The visit of Mary to Elizabeth
by Audrey Novak Riley
MARY SET OUT AND WENT WITH HASTE to Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, she was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women! And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (Luke 1:39–43, abridged)
Every year on May 31, we observe the visit of Mary to Elizabeth. If this lesser feast day falls on a Sunday, you might hear this gospel passage proclaimed in church. But we don’t have to wait for that; we can read it for ourselves any time we want. Let’s pay attention particularly to Mary and Elizabeth—not their miraculous pregnancies or their soon-to-be born sons who will go on to change everything forever. After all, scholars and theologians have written whole libraries on those topics over the centuries.
Here’s how Luke introduces Elizabeth. There was a priest named Zechariah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children (Luke 1:5-7, abridged).
Those few sentences don’t look like much on the page, but they cover a lot of ground. First, let’s talk about Zechariah being a priest. It’s not that he went to seminary and was ordained; this was a hereditary position for men descended from Levi, one of the 12 sons of Jacob. (Joseph of the technicolor dream coat was another.)
The thousands of ordinary priests like Zechariah might not be exalted, but they are respected. On the other hand, Elizabeth claims Levi’s great-great-grandson Aaron as her ancestor. Aaron, the brother of Moses and Miriam, was the first high priest. (Aaron’s story starts in Exodus 4; see Exodus 28 for his divine appointment as priest.) Men descended from Aaron were eligible for much more distinguished places in temple service than Zechariah and his kin were.
The lifelong faith of a couple like Zechariah and Elizabeth would have made them both admired and respected. But there would have been at least a little pity along with that admiration. Why? Because they had no children.
In that time and in that place, people saw having children as a sign of God’s favor. Not having children of one’s own was a source of sorrow. As Elizabeth says when she discovers to her joy that she is pregnant, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people” (Luke 1:25).
So now we can see Elizabeth: A faithful, upright, distinguished woman whom God has chosen to be the mother of the most amazing child. This is what the angel told Zechariah: “Your prayer has been heard.
Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord” (Luke 1:13-15, abridged).
Can you imagine how thrilled she was? A son who will be great in the sight of the Lord!
NOW, WHO IS MARY?
Luke doesn’t give us a lot to go on. The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph. The virgin’s name was Mary (Luke 1:26, abridged).
That’s about it. But we can make some educated guesses about Mary from what little information Luke gives us.
Mary is likely very young when the angel shows up, possibly no more than 13 or 14. She lives with her extended family in the dusty little village of Nazareth, population about 400, off the main road.
Nazareth isn’t much, but at least from there, you can see the beautiful regional capital Sepphoris on its hill about four miles away.
It’s important to the families of Nazareth that their daughters marry as soon as nature allows.
Parents in that time and in that place really want their daughters to add a husband to the extended family circle, and before long, healthy, happy children.
Mary’s people all must know Joseph and his extended family.
In a town as small as Nazareth, everybody knows everybody. And they all must like each other well enough, too. So, the two families propose the match. (The neighbors have probably been expecting this for years.)
As soon as Mary, Joseph and their respective extended families agree that the marriage should go forward, the two are engaged.
Then the families will take whatever time is needed—maybe a year—to negotiate and bargain and dicker over all the financial and business details. Once those are all nailed down, the weeklong wedding will begin and the two will make their final vows.
Then they will move in together and (everybody eagerly hopes) start having babies.
THE IN-BETWEEN TIME
In the time between the agreement and the final vows, Mary and Joseph still live in their respective families’ homes as if nothing had changed, but they’re legally married. An engagement like that, with its legal status, would be hard to call off. It wouldn’t mean simply giving back the ring and canceling the caterer; it would mean a divorce.
It’s in this in-between time that Mary discovers herself to be pregnant.
When I was in high school, getting pregnant—or rather, being known to be pregnant— without a wedding was the worst thing that could happen to a girl.
Pregnancy ruined her reputation, and she could be publicly shamed. A girl in my class who was visibly pregnant was barred from walking at commencement.
That was harsh.
But things were harsher yet in Mary’s time and place. Her pregnancy would be seen as evidence of her betraying Joseph. He could break the engagement—divorce her—and before long, no matter how much they’d want to keep it quiet, everyone in town would know what happened. And that could put her life in danger. The law decreed death for an adulterous woman.
No wonder Mary takes off.
She had listened carefully to the angel and consented to God’s plan. Mary knows she’s innocent, but she’s the only one who does. To anyone else, to anyone who hasn’t seen and heard the angel, Mary’s just another girl who got in trouble, just another disappointment to her family. No wonder she goes “with haste” to the hill country (Luke 1:39).
But why does she choose to run to her famously upstanding older relative? Wouldn’t Elizabeth look down her nose at her? Mary must hope that either family obligation or a tender heart will lead Elizabeth to receive her kindly and take her in.
MARY ON THE DOORSTEP
What happens when Elizabeth hears her at the door? Here’s Elizabeth, not only righteous before God, but also a descendant of Aaron, the first high priest, a woman of distinction in herself and her ancestry.
She’s blessed to be carrying a miracle child, a son who will be great in the sight of the Lord. It’s hard to imagine anyone happier than Elizabeth must be right about now.
And here’s Mary on the doorstep, this tired, travel-stained, poor relative, a hick from the sticks, a small-town girl in deep trouble, hoping against hope for a break.
Mary gets not only a break, she gets a blessing—and more.
Elizabeth calls out, “Blessed are you! And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, doesn’t growl, “Shame on you.” She calls out, “Blessed are you!”
Inspired by the same Spirit that had overshadowed Mary at the Annunciation, Elizabeth recognizes that Mary is carrying the long-awaited Messiah, the son of God, the Lord. Elizabeth is the first person to call Jesus Lord, even before he’s born. Of course, she brings Mary in and offers her the kindest, most tender, most loving hospitality that she and her household can arrange.
And that’s the visit of Mary to Elizabeth. One tired young woman hoping for kindness, and one blissful older woman pouring it out upon her, with the joyful, loving extravagance that’s always a sign of the Holy Spirit at work.
No wonder Mary answers, “My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the God of my heart is great!” (“The Canticle of the Turning,” ELW 723)
Audrey Novak Riley is a former churchwide staff member of Women of the ELCA.
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