Why is the Visitation more than a visit? Mary knows!

εὐαγγελίζω (euaggelizo)
“to announce the Good News of victory in battle”

“Mary set out (Ἀναστᾶσα, Anastasa)
and traveled (ἐπορεύθη, eporeuthe) to the hill country
in haste (μετὰ σπουδῆς, meta spoudes)
to a town of Judah,
where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth.”

θεωρέω (theoreo)
(“to perceive, discover, ponder a deeper meaning”)

On Advent’s final Sunday, God’s Word narrates Mary’s trek from her home town of Nazareth to a “town of Judah” in the “hill country.” The Gospel does not state why Mary went to Elizabeth. We know the town of Judah in the hill country to be Ein Kerem (sometimes spelled Ein Karem), situated in very rugged area west of Jerusalem and home to Elizabeth and Zechariah, relatives of Mary. We know that Galileans by and large were relatively poor people, suggesting that the pregnant Virgin Mary most probably walked most if not all of the journey on foot, which could take anywhere from 10 to 16 days. What we do NOT know is the reason for the trip. Of all the possible actions to take after the Archangel Gabriel's visit, why does the Evangelist Luke record a rather difficult trip at a somewhat inconvenient time? Why not, for example, narrate a conversation between Mary and her Mother? Why not capture some of Mary’s own thoughts on these events? While these are but two questions we might reasonably proffer along with others, our questing must begin with the Sacred Text.

To the listener, events appear to move quickly and abruptly. Mary declares her response to Gabriel in Luke 1:38, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” which is followed at the end of that same verse by Gabriel's departure and Mary’s setting out in verse 39, the beginning of the episode proclaimed this Sunday. Here, as in every Gospel episode where Mary is present, she acts as a teacher, catechizing the listener in what it means to be a disciple of her Son.

The English translation we listen to this Sunday has Mary ‘traveling in haste.’ Fair enough — after all, Mary has to journey from point A to point B, from Nazareth to Ein Kerem. Throughout this Gospel, the Evangelist Luke couches the Good News using a journey motif. For Luke, no travel is meaningless. All journeys in Luke are ripe with meaning and depth, with Jesus’ own journey to Jerusalem being the most prominent, vital and salvific. Mary ‘traveling to the hill country’ is more than a statement of locomotion. πορεύομαι (poreuomai) translated properly as “to travel” or “to make a journey” also expresses a deeper meaning. In the Greco-Roman world of the Biblical era, πορεύομαι conveyed a sense of a ‘plan being put into motion,’ a type of unfolding. Far from being a spur-of-the-moment road trip south, Mary’s journey is part of a much larger plan and is, in fact, a mission. Her mission to travel to Elizabeth’s house is an essential element in the unfolding of a plan - the plan of salvation - that already is in motion, eventually bringing healing and wholeness to humanity in the very Person of her Son, Jesus.

This is a point to consider when it comes to asking why the trip of pregnant Mary to visit pregnant Elizabeth. Earlier in Luke, we learned that Elizabeth is a descendant of Aaron (in fact, Aaron’s wife is Elisheba [the Hebrew form of Elizabeth] Exodus 6:23). This situates Elizabeth within the world and life of the Old Testament that knew of many couples struggling with fertility and the resulting legal questions of a first-born son. God’s covenantal promise of descendants seemed humanly impossible in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Manoah and his unnamed wife, and Elkanah and Hannah. In all of these families, including Zechariah and Elizabeth, a work of God reversed the couple's situation and the child born had a significant role to play in economy of salvation. Throughout Israel's history, generation after generation sang the Lord's praises for His presence and action in the world. These great and mighty deeds, often enshrined in the melodic verses of the Psalms, became the collective memory for the Israelites reminding them of God's presence with them. Humanly hopeless situations were reversed often by the whispering, thundering or prophetic sounding of God's effective Word.

But is Mary’s pregnancy a divine reversal? Is Mary herself facing a dire, immediately hopeless situation for which there is no human way out? Is Mary’s pregnancy another in a series of divine acts begun in the Old Testament and now continuing in the New? To quote a wise mentor, “Yes in the sense of No; No in the sense of Yes.” Mary's Visitation to Elizabeth is the celebration of divine reversal. Mary celebrates with Elizabeth the life of John the Baptist, the last of the prophets who speak God's Word to prepare the way for THE Word. Humanity, hopelessly numbed by and addicted to sin, will have the opportunity to have that situation reversed through the preaching of John the Baptist (last week's Gospel). Heeding the prophetic word and permitting that word to soak deeply into the heart, humanity has received power to move away from sin and embrace a path of life and peace. But Mary’s Pregnancy is beyond the confines of divine reversal. Mary’s pregnancy is beyond any great and mighty work of the Lord God. This is a wholly new creation - God-in-the-flesh: Emmanuel. As awesome as the reversal of barren to life is, all comparisons are muted in the reality of fruitful virginity and the resulting birth of Jesus: Emmanuel - God-with-us not in the sense of recall or memory but in-the-flesh. This is Mary’s lesson. In the visit to Elizabeth, Mary reminds all of God's great and mighty deeds - AND - God is at work in way unlike any other moment in time.

As these final days of this preparatory Season draw to a close, there is still time to allow body, mind and heart to be attuned to the transforming intervention of Jesus, God-in-the-flesh. There is still time to permit body, mind and heart to see “the plan” already at work in life, especially in those dark and difficult moments of life. There is still time for body, mind and heart to cry out to the Holy Spirit for a zealous and determined connection with the Person Jesus pours His abundant joy into every aspect of our lives.