Today we celebrate the Feast of the Visitation when the Blessed Virgin Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth. It is but one piece of the mosaic of this woman. Today’s gospel passage, the Magnificat is a mosaic of Old Testament quotations and allusions interpreting the coming of Jesus. As a whole the canticle sees these actions of God as part of a longstanding process of overthrowing proud human expectations and exalting the lowly. It is part of the mosaic we have built over the millennia that speaks of how we consider Mary in the role of salvation history – a mosaic that richly, perhaps extravagantly, places Mary above us, on a pedestal, beyond our reach. We think of her as the Queen of Heaven, robed in the royal drapings of the Queen Mother – and so she is. We think of her as the Pieta at the foot of the cross, the Mother of Sorrows – and so she is. Think of all the titles and honorifics that we bestow upon her.
The Episcopal writer, Debi Thomas, laments “we (the Church) have buried Mary under so many layers of theology, piety, and politics, she’s nearly impossible to excavate. Some of us pray to her. Others ignore her on monotheistic principle. Some call her “Theotokos,” the God-bearer. Others champion her as a model of holy femininity — ever sinless, ever virgin, ever mother. To some, she is a child prophet extraordinaire. To others, the victim of divine manipulation.”
That might shock you, but her point is well taken. How is it that the legend of Mary being raised in the Temple as a scholar and scribe took root in some Catholic circles? Was there something we could not imagine – that God would pick an insignificant teenager from the middle of nowhere to be the Mother of Jesus? God has a history of picking all sorts of unlikely folk to unroll another chapter of salvation history. Why not Mary?
Mary who at the dawn of the morning after the Annunciation realizes she is an unwed pregnant woman – at risk of scorn or stoning. She treks the 130 miles from Nazareth to Ein Karem, the village of springs, near Jerusalem. She runs, not in denial of her “Yes” to the divine initiative, but runs to the one person who might understand. “Needless to say, she needs safety, affirmation, empathy, and companionship. She needs someone to recognize, nurture, deepen, and celebrate the work of God in her life. Someone who will receive, not reject. Love, not judge. Nourish, not condemn. Could there possibly be a better job description for the Church? A better prototype for Christian community?” (Debi Thomas).
God picks all sorts of unlikely folk to unroll another chapter of salvation history? On this Feast of the Visitation, our attention is rightly on Mary. We also need to think of Elizabeth, the one to whom Mary ran. The one who models for us what it means to be church.