Saturday, December 22, 2018


As we get to the end of Advent, the lectionary invites us to reflect on the scene of the young virgin Mary visiting her older cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth is six months pregnant with John the Baptist, while Mary has just been told that she herself is going to have a child. Luke, the great story-teller, narrates the meeting with wonderful emotion:

Mary set out
and traveled to the hill country in haste
to a town of Judah,
where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting,
the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,
cried out in a loud voice and said,
"Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled." (Lk 1:39-45)

The Visitation   - Raphael
In the Prado museum in Madrid there is this large painting of the Visitation. Elizabeth is clearly an older woman, holding the hand of the much younger Mary. Off in the background, to the left, you can see a future event: the tiny figure of John baptizing people in the Jordan River. 

The painting is hung well above eye level, inviting you to look upwards to contemplate the mystery of these two women who are depicted as monumental figures. I remember standing, staring in awe at this masterpiece and marveling at the way the artist has made both women seem larger than life, reflecting their central roles in the story of salvation.

What makes these women such towering figures? Neither of them seems rich, nor do they evoke military might or political power. How is it that these two women are so important in the unfolding story of salvation? The answer is in the masterpiece itself. Look at humility in Mary's expression, and her lowered eyes. Look at Elizabeth's body language, holding young Mary's hand and leaning forward affectionately as if about to embrace her. The scene is filled with things that our world does not seem to value: tenderness, humility, meekness, self-giving love. 

It seems to me that the artist has captured in these emotions the essence of "Emmanuel," "God-with-us:"  By bringing Christ to earth by giving him birth, the humble young virgin is inviting us to make him present every day ourselves. Not by power and might, not by wealth and domination, but by imitating her in her humility and meekness and in her trusting, as Elizabeth puts it, "that what had been promised her by the Lord would be accomplished".

This will be the lesson her divine son will teach as well. But it will turn out to be a hard sell indeed: He will die trying to show is that God is not about power and punishment, not about retribution and domination, but about self-giving love and redemptive suffering. Most religions seem to prefer a God that we can comprehend, that is, a God whose actions reflect our own tendencies toward vengeance, anger, strict unforgiving "justice" and the desire to dominate. But the little child soon to be born of Mary will challenge our presuppositions and preferences by revealing a God who washes our feet, who acts out of humble self-sacrificing, self-emptying love. Just like his mother.

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