31 May [Visitation]
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
When the Roman emperor Nero saw his immense palace, the domus aurea, finally completed, he said, “Ah, at last a house fit for a man!” Many who are less extreme than he (there have been very few who were more) would still think of human life as consisting in some degree of success, power, recognition….
By every standard of the day, Mary was only barely human. She was not only female in a world ruled by men, she was unmarried (though betrothed); she was young in a world that valued age; she was poor in a world that saw poverty as God's curse; she was a peasant remote from the centres of power. Yet the Liturgy calls her “the greatest honour of our race.” (Incidentally, did the person who composed that line forget about Jesus at that point?) ‘Human’ must mean something deeper than power, recognition, and the rest.
Was she powerless then? “I am the servant of the Lord,” she said, “let it be done to me according to your word.” Does this confirm her in her identity as a powerless woman, passive and dependent? If so, then it confirms all women in that identity. But more: it confirms all disciples, all Christians – for Mary is seen as the perfect disciple, the model for all disciples, men as well as women.
As she crossed the hill country to visit her elderly cousin, she was not bearing a child for her husband, as other women did. She was in the role of a prophet. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” as later the Spirit would later overshadow Jesus at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:34), and the group of disciples in the upper room (Acts 1:8). In her, God is doing a new thing. She does not model conventionality and social compliance; she is in the line of Old Testament valiant women, as her Magnificat makes clear. In her the spiritual paradox of power and powerlessness is plain to see.
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