Genesis 17:15-22+Psalm 78:1-7+Romans 8:18-25+Luke 1:39-45
There are many things we have all missed out on in the past 21 months or so. We have, for the most part, not been able to gather as a community. Many of us have lost jobs or income. Our children have had their lives disrupted. Tragically, we have lost more than 777,000 people to COVID-19, many of them known to us.
I know it is not as significant as any of these things I’ve mentioned, and it absolutely comes from a place of privilege, but certainly one of the things I have missed most is the ability to travel freely. We have cancelled a few trips in the last year and a half and are facing the reality that we might have another one to cancel this winter. One of the joys of the time Tim and I spend together is grabbing our passports and exploring the world, so we have had to content ourselves with photos of trips from the past which pop up tauntingly as reminders of what we are now missing.
I was recently going through photos from our 15th anniversary trip to Italy back in 2014 and came across the ones from several days spent in Florence. Everything is captivating about that city, from the Duomo to the Ponte Vecchio (where I burst into song, as I’m sure many geeks like me do). But there was nothing more jaw-dropping than a day spent at the Uffizi Galleries. Everywhere you look, some painting or sculpture from your art history book is right there. DaVinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Titian. It is a feast for the eyes and the senses. As I wandered from room to room, overwhelmed by it all, my eye was drawn to a large painting placed above a series of three smaller paintings on the life of Christ – the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Presentation in the Temple. The larger painting showed two women about to embrace, an arched arcade just behind them. It is Mariotto Albertinelli’s 1503 masterpiece, The Visitation, about which we just read in the first chapter of Luke.
In Albertinelli’s rendering of this scene, the two women lean their heads close to one another as if to share a secret. They are shaking hands, or maybe it is holding hands, and Elizabeth has her left arm out, grasping Mary’s right arm. They are not smiling. Mary looks as any young woman might when learning that she is unexpectedly pregnant, particularly when that news came from a messenger from God. Elizabeth has a comforting, knowing look on her face. These two women have a look that says that they have each been chosen for something beyond their ken, and they need to stick together.
We often read these pregnancy narratives – whether Sarah or Hagar or Hannah or Mary or Elizabeth – as if the women are simply vehicles for childbearing. Most of the action falls to the men. Abraham, Eli, Joseph, Zechariah, a male angel. But as we saw last week, Mary claimed her agency by saying “yes” to Gabriel, to God’s invitation. For Elizabeth, the angel’s visitation came not to her but to her husband, Zechariah, who doubted the angel’s words and was struck mute. But sure enough, Elizabeth became pregnant with the one who came to be known as John the Baptist, and later she would almost defiantly announce his name, shocking those who expected that he would be named after his father.
Why did Mary run off to see her elderly cousin? Was she afraid of the reaction she might receive at home? If she stayed for three months with Elizabeth, it would be very obvious that she was pregnant when she returned. Did her cousin help her prepare for that?
These two women did what women do: they supported and encouraged each other in what were surely troubling times. The angel’s message to Zechariah was that John would be like Elijah, a forerunner, preparing the way for Jesus. Mary was told she would bear God’s son, the one whose way John made straight. They surely had a lot to talk about.
But there, at the beginning of this visit, with Mary tired from her journey and maybe even uncertain at what kind of welcome she would receive, Elizabeth becomes the first one who knew, who believed, the first evangelist, because her response to Mary’s greeting is one of astonishment and yet one certain of who this child Mary carries really is:
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. From where does this visit come to me? That the mother of my Sovereign comes to me? Look! As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting in my ear, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Now blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of those things spoken to her by the Holy One. (Luke 1:42-45, trans. Wil Gafney)
Elizabeth stepped into this role that had been given her, not as a passive vessel for a baby to be born, but as the one given a particular responsibility in this hinge moment of the human story. She proclaims that, indeed, her young cousin was the God-bearer, and her own child was the one who would make straight the path.
In a culture that offered little opportunity for woman to exercise agency, Elizabeth and Mary both played pivotal roles in a salvation narrative that would change the course of history. In our day, when women’s bodily autonomy is not our own but is up for dissection and discussion by the highest court in the land, the status of women and girls is, even now, at the mercy of the patriarchy. Yet it gives me comfort and courage to remember these two with their shared secret and loving support for one another, knowing what they know in those precious days before the rest of the world finds out about John and his cousin, Jesus.
Like Sarah before them, an unexpected pregnancy changed the course of history for the people who inhabited that little corner of the world, sparking a flame that burns still. It is a flame, a light, that is ours to carry into this hurting world.