Published May 24, 2007
Some Gospel stories are like fine jewels you hold in your hand and admire, while watching the sunlight dancing on them.
When you look closer, you discover hidden facets, more lovely than the eye first beheld.
St. Luke’s telling of the Visitation is one of these jewels, which seems like a very simple story on the surface. But when you turn it over in your heart, you glimpse layers of meaning within.
Here’s one facet of the jewel: Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, is married to Zechariah, and the couple is quite advanced in years, but childless.
When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, the older woman has experienced a miracle: The angel Gabriel had visited her husband and told him Elizabeth would conceive a child.
Although the older couple must have been delighted when the angel’s words came true, it wasn’t all roses for them: The old man had been struck dumb and would remain so for the entire pregnancy.
At first glance, Mary is the visitor, and Elizabeth is the hostess, and they seem to be the main characters, but if you look more closely, you discover a hidden dimension.
There are two other, silent characters, as well – and they are both unborn babies.
Mary is newly pregnant when she enters her cousin’s home and calls out a greeting.
And at the moment Elizabeth hears the sound of Mary’s voice, the infant in her womb leaps for joy.
This inspires Elizabeth to utter the immortal words: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”
Jesus is the hidden visitor, still the tiniest bud in Mary’s womb, when this encounter takes place. And the one who is first to recognize Jesus’ divinity is a baby in Elizabeth’s womb: He will grow up to be known as John the Baptist.
People sometimes claim that the Gospels never specifically mention protecting tiny lives in the womb, but God teaches in other ways besides words, as this encounter in the Bible shows.
This scene suggests that the smallest, the weakest, and the least powerful among us can recognize God.
After all, what could be a more wondrous celebration of life in the womb than having one unborn baby, six months old, recognize the presence of another baby, newly conceived?
Today, some say that babies in the womb are somehow not human – or are bits of flesh that can be discarded, without moral peril.
But this scene reminds us that Jesus Christ was once an infant in the womb, and His divine essence was present from the first instant of conception.
St. Luke doesn’t tell us why Mary, newly pregnant, ran to visit her cousin Elizabeth, but it is possible that Mary was moved to make the journey because the angel told her that her cousin was six months pregnant.
Elizabeth was older, and the final months of pregnancy might have been difficult for her. It is clear from the story that she was delighted to have Mary visit her, and we can imagine that Mary brought the older woman comfort.
Another jewel in the story is this: Mary lights the way for each of us, who, in our own ways, can bring Jesus to others.
She becomes the model for the priests, nuns and lay people who faithfully visit those in need: shut-ins; cancer patients; new mothers; and people like Zechariah, stricken with a sudden disability.
Mary’s visit also reveals the joy that comes from ministering to others. After the two cousins exchange greetings, Mary opens her heart to Elizabeth and proclaims that her spirit rejoices in God, her savior, and that the “Mighty One has done great things for me.”
The Visitation story shows there truly is more to life than meets the eye. It reminds us that the Christian journey begins with things that are unseen: an angel’s visit, a woman’s faith and a spark of divinity in the womb.
In this story featuring two women—and two unborn babies—we glimpse the dazzling truth of our faith, which is the most precious gem of all. And we can delight again in the angel’s message to Mary: “Nothing shall be impossible for God.”
Artwork featured in print version is by Jef Murray (www.jefmurray.com). Lorraine V. Murray is the author of “Grace Notes: Embracing the Joy of Christ in a Broken World.” Readers may e-mail her at email@example.com.