Mary is in blue and Elizabeth usually appears in red. Mary stands with head slightly bowed, while Elizabeth is hunched over, bent from the waist or kneeling at Mary’s feet. Mary looks young and rosy-cheeked; sometimes, her hair is long and loose-flowing. Elizabeth usually appears much older – sometimes looking just more womanly, more voluptuous; sometimes looking downright ancient, wrinkled and weathered. The women stand facing each other, arms around each other, whether wrapped in a warm embrace or clutching each other in fear – it’s difficult to tell. Sometimes they are alone, standing together on a road outside of a home or a staircase or an archway. More often there are others standing in the background – Zechariah hovering in the corner, looking chastened and mute; a random shepherd or neighbor woman; a brood of chubby angels hovering overhead. Rarely are the two women inside a house, even though that’s the setting that Gospel of Luke describes. Perhaps painters just found the idea of Elizabeth running outside to greet her cousin with John running along inside her too delightful to resist; maybe they were just interested in practicing their landscapes.
Artistic renderings of the Visitation aren’t all exactly the same, but they are remarkably similar. Unlike paintings of the Annunciation, where Mary and the angel Gabriel are arranged in all kinds of configurations, almost all of the paintings of the Visitation are marked by a similar shape in the middle – a kind of heart, a circle where the love of Mary flows out into Elizabeth and then is poured back from Elizabeth into her cousin. For all of the other characters who might be lingering in the background, the focus in these paintings is on the singular, intimate moment between these two women, the point of contact where the women’s heads come so close together that their halos clunk and catch.
And in a few paintings, it isn’t just their halos clunking together. Some show Mary and Elizabeth standing belly to belly, baby bump pushing into baby bump as the women struggle to get their arms around each other. And in some of these images, it isn’t just the baby bumps we see; in some, we actually see the babies themselves – a little John nestled inside a circle of light in Elizabeth’s womb; a little Jesus in Mary’s. And what’s stranger still is that in these images, the boys are not simply lying there, growing organs and flexing their fingers for the first time and enjoying whatever their mommies had for lunch. No, the boys are acting out their adult roles in utero – little naked baby John the Baptist kneeling with his arms crossed, while little naked baby Jesus blesses him from the opposite womb. In one painting, John is dressed in camel’s hair, and Jesus is fully clothed and wearing a crown.* I can only imagine the kind of heartburn those outfits must have caused their mothers for 9 months.
Setting aside the strange look of these medieval ultrasounds and the inaccuracies of their gestational timelines, there is something wonderful about the thought of these babies meeting for the first time – these little babes, tiny hopes of the men they would become, who would meet again years later in the wilderness when John would push his cousin down into the watery womb of the Jordan, now pushed up against each other, womb to womb, smiling and saying, Hey! I know you…. The Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth was also the Visitation of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, and what a joyful, leap-inducing visit that must have been.
But to look at the visitation as if it had two separate levels – the mothers visiting and talking up here, and the babies bumping tiny fists down here, is to miss a key point of connection in this story. For Luke tells us that when Mary arrives at the home of Elizabeth, it isn’t the stirrings of the tiny Jesus that cause John to leap in the womb; it is Mary’s voice. It is Mary’s greeting that gets John kicking up his heels with glee. “For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting,” Elizabeth tells her cousin, “the child in my womb leaped for joy.” Mary is the one John responds to; Mary is the one Elizabeth showers with words of blessing and praise. Of course Elizabeth knows what is going on down there; she knows the gift that Mary carries in her womb. But for now, Elizabeth – and John – are drawn to what’s up here – Mary is the focal point, the foreground, the foremost figure in their frame.
And why? Not just because her body houses the Son of God, as if she were some kind of holy incubator with legs, no – because she believed. Mary believed, she believed what Gabriel said. She believed so strongly that all of God’s promises were coming true that she acted on those promises before any of those signs were even showing. She went – with haste, Luke tells us – to her cousin Elizabeth’s to see the good news that she knew would be there, before she had any proof that this miraculous story might be true. Mary believed and acted on her belief in a way never before seen among women or men.
Mary believed, and her great, nearly impossible faith drew out in Elizabeth a sympathetic resonance in the depths of her own soul. Yes, Elizabeth said, in an echo of Mary’s words to the angel Gabriel, yes, be it unto me according to thy word. I will be the mother of this prophet son, who shall be called John, the prophet of the Most High. Yes, Elizabeth said, yes, here is my place, here is my calling, here is how I bear fruit and bring the kingdom of God into the world in my way; and this truth stirred so strongly in her being that even her son felt the tugging of her holy purpose. He leapt, and she shouted with joy, and Mary sang a song for them both: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
You know, Advent is a time when our culture is captivated by Our Lady. Pop stars sing her name on mainstream Christmas radio, her figure pops up on lawns and in lights, and this year, National Geographic Magazine put Mary on the cover with the words “The Most Powerful Woman in the World.” And every year at this time, theologians spill buckets of ink in an attempt to fix our conceptions about Mary, to try to get Mary right. She wasn’t meek and mild at all, they’ll say, she challenged an angel! She wasn’t just a mother, she was also a disciple. Mary was a feminist, a political activist, an adventurer and a radical and a punk. And while I think that many of these attempts at re-characterizing Mary are well-intended and some are even helpful, the truth is that most of the time it’s difficult to tell what’s truth and what’s just our own longing. I don’t know if Mary was an adventurer or if she was a homebody. I don’t know if she was chafing at the bit to get out of the kitchen or if she loved nothing more than baking bread for her husband and son. I don’t know if she was timid or brash, forceful or quietly persuasive. I don’t know. I can guess, but I don’t know, and neither does anyone else.
But I do know that National Geographic is right. She is the most powerful women in the world. Because Mary’s faith not only changed the world for all time thousands of years ago; Mary’s faith continues to change the world right now, because Mary’s faith changes us. Mary stands before us as a woman who believed in God’s divine restoration, as a woman who believed that God was working out a holy purpose, and that God could use ordinary stuff – a peasant girl, a barren old woman, a home, the road, the love of cousins – to change everything. Mary stands before us as a woman who believes deep in her heart that every single one of us – Elizabeth and Zechariah, John and Joseph, you and me – is a part of that purpose. Mary stands before us now with words of joyful greeting, words of assurance that even when the world is dark and our lives are filled with confusion and worry, God is bringing all things to completion in the most wonderful, world-changing way. So hear the voice of Mary’s greeting, feel her pull you into her circle of embrace, and listen for your own heart to leap in response to her greeting, listen for that thing that is your own true calling to sing from a deep place within you, listen for your own yes, your own song – Blessed are you, and blessed are we that the mother of our Lord has come to us to show us who we are, what we are to do, and how our souls can, too, magnify the Lord.
*This painting is by contemporary artist James B. Janknegt.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
Sunday, 20 December 2015
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia