After giving her fiat, “let it be to me according to your word,” Mary hurriedly sets out to visit Elizabeth (Luke 1:38-39).
She is eager to confide her fears and confusion as well as her joy and wonder at the angel’s strange message to this kinswoman who she hopes will accept the miraculous. For hadn’t the angel told her that Elizabeth, childless and well past her childbearing years, is now six months pregnant (1:36)?
Though Scripture is silent on this point, most likely Mary did not make this long trip by herself since it was not the custom for women in first-century Palestine to travel alone. Might we imagine that it was her father, or her betrothed, Joseph, who accompanied her? On this journey, Mary carried the Word incarnate within her as she passed through the hill country of Judea. Like her, we are to carry God’s word with us through the mountains and valleys of daily life.
In most cultures, including the Jewish one, a young woman would be the one to greet her elder with respect. However, on this occasion, it is Elizabeth who honors Mary. First, in calling Mary “blessed” (Luke 1:42), the older woman recognizes that the younger has been chosen by God—Mary is not great by any achievement of her own but rather by God’s choice. Second, Elizabeth honors Mary because she is to bear a special child. In societies ruled by kings, honor is accorded to the mothers of kings because they gave birth to them. How much greater honor is due to the mother of the Lord! Finally, Elizabeth lauds her cousin because of her faith: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (1:45).
In this homey scene, Mary and Elizabeth rejoice together in the coming births of their children. But this is not only a happy meeting between two mothers-to-be, but also a meeting between their sons. Something profound is taking place in this scene: the first responses that human beings make to the human presence of God among them.
At Mary’s approach, Elizabeth’s own child leaps in her womb in recognition of this presence. Thus, even before his birth, John the Baptist begins his lifelong mission to proclaim the coming of the Messiah and prepare the way for him. Later the Holy Spirit—whose continual work is to reveal the presence of God in the world—will again point out the Messiah to John (see John 1:33-34).
Seventeenth-century Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle, a friend of St. Francis de Sales, was known as the “Apostle of the Incarnate Word” because of his many writing on the life of Jesus. Reflecting on John’s first encounter with the incarnate Christ, de Bérulle wrote:
God has become a child, and so he wants first to be known and adored by a child . . . God is a child, the world ignores, heaven adores, and a child is the first person in the universe to recognize and adore him, and he does so by the homage and secret operation of God himself, who wants to act upon children. He wants to honor himself as child by giving the first knowledge of himself to a child in the world, making him his prophet in the universe. (Opuscules de pieté)
Then, filled with the Spirit, Elizabeth becomes the first to honor the Lord in his human nature when she calls the fruit of Mary’s womb “blessed” (Luke 1:41-42). Perhaps it was also Elizabeth’s awareness of God’s recent graciousness to her and Zechariah—she is now pregnant after so many years of infertility—that increased her sensitivity to God’s action in others. She recognizes how privileged she is to encounter God so personally: “Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (1:43).
Mary’s beautiful hymn of gratitude to God [the Magnificat] springs from her heart as—perhaps in relief at her warm welcome—she responds to Elizabeth’s greeting. Mary has no illusions about herself or her own worthiness. She does not confuse God’s choice of her with any merit of her own. Rather, as St. Bede the Venerable noted, “She refers all her greatness to the gift of the one whose essence is power and whose nature is greatness, for he fills with greatness and strength the small and the weak who believe in him.” (Homily IV) Mary recognizes that she is unworthy of the honor bestowed on her and takes no glory to herself: “He has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. . . . He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1:48-49).
Mary also “magnifies” the Lord, praising him for his mercy and compassion on the lowly—a mercy she knows to be based on his word and on the covenant love he pledged to Abraham and his people so long ago (Luke 1:54-55). Future generations will call Mary blessed (1:48) because she recognized, cooperated with, and proclaimed the glory of God working in her.
In traveling to her cousin, Mary also generously anticipates the elderly Elizabeth’s need for help during the last months of her pregnancy. Thus, Mary spends the first trimester of her own pregnancy supporting her older cousin (Luke 1:56). Her days of waiting and preparing herself inwardly for the birth of her son are passed in humbly serving Elizabeth.
This is a selection from Jeanne Kun’s best-selling book My Soul Magnifies the Lord: A Scriptural Journey with Mary (The Word Among Us Press, 2003). Available at wau.org/books