Today we revisit a famous visit: Mary, the mother of our Lord, goes to see her cousin Elizabeth. Both women are pregnant, Elizabeth much further along. We see an encounter between two women of faith; one represents the impending birth of new hope – Elizabeth who will deliver John, the herald of our Lord – he precedes Christ and raises the spirit of those longing for the saviour; and of course, Mary, who will give birth to love incarnate, the agent of our salvation.
There is something very remarkable about this little community of faith, that as a microcosm expresses all we are to be as the Church, formed in faith, and called to bring hope and incarnate divine love in this world; and to do so in the face of material and spiritual forces who discourage us.
Faith, Hope and Love are met here, in a moment literally pregnant with possibility – indeed, amazing potential that will be realized, and so begin to transform this world that lives under the pall of power, violence and despair.
The story of the visitation prompts a fond memory from my first days of married life. Honeymooning in Croatia, B. and I were visiting the ancient seaside town of Trogir, and one day we visited the local museum.
Trogir is famous for its nearby quarry that has provided stone for thousands of years to constructions ancient, medieval and modern – the Canadian War Memorial on Vimy Ridge in France is built from limestone quarried there. You’ll find a lot of it in the town’s museum, bits of ancient sculpture and monuments going back thousands of years. However, what I remember of our visit was stopping to admire a late medieval/early renaissance painting. We were approached by this charming, diminutive religious sister, a Croatian nun with a huge smile. She greeted us, and correctly guessed we were newly married; and then she began to talk about this picture; did we know what it was of?
Well, it was of the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth – and when we correctly identified it to her, she was thrilled that we knew, but that didn’t stop her from continuing to tell its story, even singing little bits of the Magnificat.
I thought about that intrusion in light of much of what has been going on lately in our society. For that was a welcomed intrusion, indeed, a welcoming intrusion that was filled with warmth and joy, and this religious sister, in a matter of a few minutes, celebrated our marriage and expressed great hope in it; shared her faith, and blessed us – an act of love. A beautiful encounter with a stranger.
I contrast that with the cultural phenomenon of the “Karen” – a character of our day who is the person who invades your space, either physically, or virtually on the internet, to scold, shame, insult, all with a smug sense of righteousness. I feel so badly for the many good and kind Karens I actually know.
These other “Karens” of our dysfunctional civilization attack with little care for the person they are addressing: they do what Jesus expressly forbade – they judge others, find them guilty of whatever sin against what they regard as absolute truth, correctness in opinion and behaviour.
What lies at the heart of it, I believe, is they forget that behind whatever it is that they find offensive is a person. A person is to be encountered not as an avatar of an opinion that is disliked, a representation of a behaviour one condemns, but is to be met as a human being with whom one has much in common. And the greatest of the common ground of our mutual being is that we are all fallen, all sinners who fall short of the glory of God.
We confess to know God as a person; as three persons, but persons nonetheless, and not as an impersonal set of propositions about the truth of existence.
The personhood of God constitutes the ground of all being, it is the basis upon which all that is exists. And it is this three-fold person of Father, Son and Holy Spirit who facilitates our encounters with each other by creating this world in which we may meet. And we meet properly when it is not in anticipation of conflict, of argument, of combat, but in expectation of exchange, seeking understanding, extending sympathy and mutual care. Then, even as we disagree on many things, we form a community in imperfect imitation of the harmonious community of the Trinity.
Think about the virtual world that big tech creates for us. Twitter, Facebook, Tik Tok. These may all advertise themselves as creating a space for community, a place of encounter, but the motive of these worldly creators is really to take advantage of us, to invade our privacy, pry open our minds to discover our passions, fears, desires, so that they can sell to us, influence us, monitor us, and to a disturbing degree as we are lately learning, to control us by shaping our perceptions of the world, by policing our speech, by setting us against each other.
When Mary set out for the hill country of Judea, she ventured out into a world fraught with danger. She risked falling victim to bandits, or being accosted by soldiers, Herod’s or those of the Roman army who might use their authority to do a “shakedown” for money; or to do something worse just to show who was in charge.
I don’t think her bravery in setting out is the most commendable thing about what Mary does. Yes, it was dangerous to travel. However, we must be mindful of something of I’ve spoken of before: the general mood of people at that time. There was this longing for release from their circumstances, to be free of the Romans; but also, to be free of their own corrupt native leadership as exemplified by the vile Herod. And then there was the politics of the Temple, the internal religious struggle among the factions for dominance.
The dynamic among all these political actors and factions is not dissimilar to what we have today: people are reduced to being either useful to one’s ambitions, or a problem; they are not persons so much as a mob to be manipulated by fear, greed, envy, or some other vice toward realizing someone else’s political designs.
So, you’ve a people living in these conditions of great uncertainty, unable to find the comfort they thought to find in their religion, not knowing to whom they might turn as a leader who really is concerned for them and their modest lives of family and work and local community; and they are seeking some kind of sign from heaven that maybe God had not forgotten them, not forsaken them as they carried on in their daily lives as best they could.
Mary acts in defiance of this temperament of the times, she acts contrary to its spirit of cynicism and despair: she goes to see Elizabeth, not as a political manoeuvre, not as a “Karen” to tell her what she ought to be doing; she hasn’t gone to pry into just what was going on in the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. She goes to visit, to be present to her cousin, her friend, her sister in faith, her fellow expectant mother, to make community in their shared hopes and worries, to rejoice in the knowledge that God has indeed acted, and has acted through them, has acted to make them partners in the work of salvation.
We Christians are to be a community of visitation, seeking to encounter others as persons in resistance to a world that is being led into division and suspicion. This in no way does not mean being insensible to the harsh realities and the real dangers that have been manifested of late: burning churches, widespread suppression of free speech at our universities, on the internet; the diminishing of God-given rights by those in power, and so on. Yet, we are to go rejoicing, sharing hope.
St. Maximus the Confessor, great theologian and martyr wrote that central to the Church’s identity and self-understanding is that it is the earthly image of heaven; just as we as individuals are made in the image and likeness of God, but are not God; so too the Church is to manifest its likeness to the divine realm so that the world might catch a glimpse of the ultimate reality. And if we are to be “heaven on earth” in an admittedly partial and imperfect way, we are to strive for the unity we have in God, in the common vocation of fulfilling our humanity in our imitation of Christ. To paraphrase his rather elaborate theology of the Church, to have God in our midst is to be present to Him who is our beginning and our end, a circle that he closes around us of truth and love that we must choose to stand within against the world of division and conflict outside that circuit.
In our work of visitation, of carrying Christ within us to others, of receiving others as bearers of hope, God makes that circle all the wider, bringing evermore people into his unifying love.
Blessed are those who believe, as did Elizabeth, that there will be fulfilment of what has been spoken to us. We are as the little clans of Judea, this parish and her many sisters, this family of faith, this gathered flock whose shepherd feeds in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord, living secure with He who is great to the ends of the earth, who is peace itself.