I found reflection on this Gospel reading a little intimidating. It is the snippet between Mary’s fiat and that beautiful poem, the Magnificat, so I have neither of these to use as content in this reflection.
What is there, however, does reveal two strong women, insightful and compassionate women. Mary and Elizabeth would both have benefited from time together reflecting on their astonishing circumstances.
As short as this Gospel segment is, it also leaves mysteries. It mentions that Elizabeth was in seclusion in the early months of her pregnancy. Was this her first pregnancy or was she barren because previous pregnancies ended in miscarriage? In any case Mary would have helped Elizabeth who, because of her age, would not have had an easy time late in pregnancy with the many household chores expected of women. Mary would have had questions about pregnancy that Elizabeth might have answered.
If Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy and Mary stayed about three months with her, was Mary there for the birth of John? The Gospel story has Mary leaving about the time Elizabeth would have given birth to John and so she would not have been there. Tradition has John’s birthplace as Ein Karem, a village near Jerusalem, a considerable distance from Nazareth. There is a belief that Elizabeth and Zachary were too old to raise John. At that time a child could be dedicated to God and left in the temple and that is what tradition indicates happened with John.
When I visited Qumran the visitor’s center showed a video indicating that John the Baptist was an Essene. Tradition also suggests he was raised by the Essene community there.
Was the urgency of Mary’s trip because of the desire to be a support to Elizabeth or to have someone trustworthy with whom to ponder her own astonishing pregnancy? Elizabeth’s response to Mary’s greeting shows that she was a woman open to the Spirit. Elizabeth is named but she has been a relatively overlooked part of the story of the Incarnation in spite of being the first person the Gospel describes as recognizing the treasure within Mary’s body.
A few weeks ago I finished reading a book by Sally Cunneen entitled In Search of Mary: the Woman and the Symbol. The book followed the history of the way Mary was perceived by Christians over the centuries, including the way in which exalting her virtues reduced her credibility as a real woman. Mary was no wimp. Even though the glimpses of her that we are given in the Gospels do not provide a full picture, she was the woman who sustained the sword that pierced her own soul just as Simeon prophesied.
All saints are important to me though there are many I cannot imagine as models for my own life. I do however think of many of them as mentors. Mary, however, is in a different category. If Jesus is our brother because of the Incarnation, Mary is truly our mother, a strong mother. Mary is also rich in metaphor. We have the song “Mary the Dawn” to remind us of a number of them.
I think one of the great tributes given to her was given by Sojourner Truth, a woman of profound faith, a woman born into slavery, and a self-appointed preacher. She knew the Scripture mostly by heart. She was a supporter of women’s rights and when a man in the audience spoke patronizingly of women’s need to be subordinate to men because of their frailty, she responded with the following speech:
I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns and no man could head me –and ain’t I a woman?
I have born’d five childrun and seen ‘em mos’ all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a
mother’s grief – none but Jesus heard – and ain’t I a woman? . . . Den dat little man in black dar, he
say women can’t have as much rights as man, cause Christ warn’t a woman. Whar did your Christ
come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with him!
—Sister Donna Schroeder