For an introduction to this series, click here.
Gospel Reading: Luke 1:39-56.
I’m Gretchen Hovan, and Scot and I have been worshiping with this community for almost seven years. When I was first contacted about breaking open the Word today, I was a little worried that I was chosen because I am like Elizabeth: the medical community is fond of reminding me, too, of my advanced maternal age.
Reading about these two women, and babies stirring in wombs, while my own baby is growing inside me was a different experience. There is much to wonder about in this story, and much has been written about the symbolism of the two women and their pregnancies—of Elizabeth as fulfillment of the old covenant, of Mary as the promise of the new covenant.
As I read, I was haunted by memories of learning about Mary. Like many Catholic girls, I wanted to be like Mary, the woman who was so central to our faith. I wanted to say yes to God like she did. When I got older, I saw that what many in the Church valued was Mary as empty vessel, as conduit, as pure instrument of God. And it seemed like Mary’s ever-virgin status was the most important part of her. Mary was set up for me both as a model and as something I could never be. More disturbing, she was often portrayed to me as someone who had no will, no say in her life. Any reading that didn’t fit the image of obedient Mary, like the Wedding at Cana, when Mary directs Jesus to help, and Jesus follows her, was glossed over by my childhood priests.
I was pretty frustrated by this image of Mary and angry at what it was saying about women and our role and worth in the Church. I was ready to disregard her, and any message her life and actions may have for me, when I had the good fortune to attend a university run by Marianists. They helped me to see Mary and her life in a new way. There were two lines of the Gospel often present on our campus, in prayers, statues and writings: one from the Wedding at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you,” and one from the gospel of Luke, after Jesus was born: “she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” This stuck with me—Mary was a thinking person, someone who was actively taking part in constructing the meaning of her life.
Our gospel today is about Mary and Elizabeth, two women of faith, who were together in their pregnancies—both of them unusual situations, both of them finding solace in the other. It is easy to get lost in wondering why Mary went to Elizabeth, why she left before the birth of John, who she traveled with, what it was like. But the part of the gospel I want to focus on is the part that kept jumping out at me: Elizabeth’s words. “Blessed is she who trusts that the promise of God will be fulfilled.”
I wasn’t sure what those words meant, or why they were the ones I kept thinking about. Is the promise of God the promise that the prophets, like Micah, spoke of? Is it the promise of a Messiah? Is Mary blessed just for fulfilling that promise by giving birth to the Savior?
I don’t think so. That phrase, “the promise of God,” seems to me to be broader than that. It’s the promise that we will have a kin-dom like the one described in the Magnificat. And Mary shows us how we will get there.
Mary acts because she believes that the kin-dom of God will be in our midst, and because she acts, we have Emmanuel, God-with-us.
I have a friend who’s mother is notorious for serving old food, freezer-burnt food, questionable food. Too many times, her children and their spouses have said yes to food that they regretted, so now the refrain in their house, when the mother offers food, is “Let me see it first.”
I think that’s how I too often am—let me see God’s kin-dom first, let me see evidence of the goodness of God first—and then I will act.
When we are faced with the brutality of the world—when children in the US are killed in schools, when children in other countries are killed in daily bombings and acts of terror, when we see people who are starving, who are not safe in their homes, when we see politicians bickering about small difference—it is easy to lose hope, to be cynical, to wait and say, “Let me see it first.”
But that isn’t how it works, and Mary and Elizabeth are a call to me, to us, to act even if it seems hopeless. Each of them had plenty to fear and plenty to worry about. Yet Mary rushed to be with Elizabeth, and Elizabeth recognizes the joy in what was happening: “Blessed is she who trusts that the promise of God will be fulfilled.”
It is through our acting that we have the metanoia, the change of heart that fulfills God’s promise. Dorothy Day wrote about this: “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us? When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers with that burning love, that passion, which led to the Cross, then we truly say, "Now I have begun.”
Mary, Elizabeth and Dorothy’s lives remind us that we can’t wait to see it first. We can’t wait for someone else to make the kin-dom happen for us. We are the ones who will each do this—for ourselves and for each other. How are we going to act, as they did, to bring hope, to bring the kin-dom of God alive today?
“Blessed is she who trusts that the promise of God will be fulfilled.”