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Mary Visits Her Relative Elizabeth
Last week, at our Wednesday morning communion service, we read the story of Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. To remind you, Zechariah was a priest in the Temple and it became by chance his turn (the honour was decided by drawing lots) to go alone into the holy of holies, the sanctuary of the temple to offer incense. While he was there, the Angel Gabriel appeared by his side. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah,” the Angel said and then went on to announce that his wife Elizabeth, although well past childbearing age, was to bear a son who would be named John.
There are many clear parallels between this annunciation and the one that we have been thinking about and which appear on the face of many Christmas cards.
In both cases, there is an impediment to conception; the first Elizabeth’s old age and in the second case Mary’s virginity. Gabriel is the messenger in each case. Zechariah and Mary are both doubtful of the Angel’s message; both are afraid and in each case the Angel’s message includes the name of the child.
From Nazareth, to the place where Elizabeth lived, is thought to be around eighty miles, a journey for a woman alone (no donkey this time) that over the narrow tracks in the foothills would take between three and four days. However, we can see why Mary was anxious to make the trip. After all, the Angel Gabriel in convincing Mary of the truth of his message said to her:
“And now your relative Elizabeth, in her old age has also conceived a son and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Mary had probably heard of the mysterious event in the Temple when Zechariah had emerged from the sanctuary of the Temple struck mute only able to gesticulate. And now this Angel, who had come with such incredible (and disturbing) news for her, had pointed to a sign: that her relative Elizabeth was with child. Of course, you would want to go and see the confirmation of all the Angel had said.
This meeting though was wrapped in the miraculous. At Mary’s appearance, Elizabeth’s unborn child, John, leaped inside her, taken by Elizabeth as a sign and she, filled with the Holy Spirit is able to recognize Mary as the future mother of our Lord Jesus. This visitation tightly locks together and entwines the two conceptions and births preparing us for John the Baptist’s special role in Jesus’ life while emphasising and affirming the relationship between them of Jesus’ superiority to John. Elizabeth’s humility and wonder that Mary should come to her will be echoed by John when Jesus comes to be baptised: “I am not worthy to unite the thong of his sandals.”
Elizabeth is the first outside the holy family to sense the mystery and the power of what is about to happen and so it is good that on this the fourth Sunday of Advent now, only a few days before Christmas Eve, that we ponder all this try to capture the excitement of the revelation and so join in Elizabeth’s exultation for she “exclaimed with a loud cry”
“Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”