Here in modern Western society, it can be difficult for us to imagine how women in the Middle East in first century Palestine could never do anything alone. They either had to be always in a group of women and children or under the watchful eye of their father, brother, husband or some other responsible male relative.
It is estimated that the journey from Nazareth, where Mary lived, to the village in the hill country of Judea where her cousin Elizabeth lived could take about four days. (Later Christian tradition identified the village as Am Karem, five miles west of Jerusalem.)
Since travel alone was not safe, people commonly joined a caravan or group of people travelling together. This was a possibility for Mary but as St Luke does not mention it we must assume she travelled on her own to see Elizabeth. And if she did travel alone, what does it tell us about her?
She was probably born in Nazareth, a town in Galilee of about 1600 people. She would have spoken Aramaic and have a strong local Galilean accent. She belonged to the peasant class which was about 90/95 per cent of the population. With her family she would have lived in a larger, extended family unit where three or four houses of one or two rooms each were built around an open courtyard. They would have shared a cistern for water and a millstone for grinding grain. Domestic animals lived there as well. And Mary, most likely, would have spent 10 hours a day doing domestic work like drawing water, gathering firewood, cooking meals and washing clothes and utensils.
Like Jewish and Palestinian women today, Mary probably had dark hair, dark eyes and a dark complexion. Women then married at about 14 years of age and this would have been Mary’s age when she became pregnant with Jesus. We meet her in today’s Gospel after walking, pregnant, for days through the hill country of Judah to stay with her cousin, Elizabeth. Later, of course, she gave birth in a stable.
So it would be unfair to this young, full-time working peasant woman – who would have had calloused hands and broken fingernails and who carried her baby to full term – to think of her as pale, fragile and delicate. She was much, much more than how artists have portrayed her down the centuries. She must have been a woman of strong character and robust physique while, at the same time, being a woman ‘full of grace’, as the Angel Gabriel described her.
Mary is revered in Church for two reasons. Both are highlighted in St Luke’s description of her visit to Elizabeth who, like Mary, was also pregnant with her first child.
Firstly, Elizabeth honours Mary for being the Mother of Jesus. She accepts Mary’s explanation for how she has come to be with child: ‘why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord’. Elizabeth acknowledges that there was something special about Mary which led God to choose her to be the mother of Our Saviour. ‘Of all women’, she said, ‘you are the most blessed and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. Fhis reason alone Mary is worthy of being honoured by all disciples of her Son.
The second reason is also highlighted by Elizabeth: ‘Blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled’. Elizabeth is referring to Mary believing and accepting what the Angel Gabriel had told her God wanted.
In short, Mary became the mother of Jesus because she trusted in God and accepted what God asked of her. Throughout his ministry, Jesus highlighted the need for us to do the same – ‘blessed are those who hear the Word of God and act on it’. Thus Mary becomes for us the disciple par excellence – she lived in her life what Jesus asks of us. So we try to follow her example of trusting in God as she did. May God grant us the grace to do so.
Holy Name, Jesmond
23 December 2018