Our Gospel today features two women who are pregnant for the first time. The younger of the two, Mary, goes to visit the older, Elizabeth, who has been pregnant for about six months.
What must it have been like then to be carrying a baby with none of the pre-natal and other medical support that is available for mothers today? No doubt, when they got together the two women would have shared not just each other’s joy but also their experiences of pregnancy. And, perhaps, the older Elizabeth may have been able to offer some reassurance and advice to the younger woman who would have been no older than 13 or 14 years of age.
It’s worth noting that in spite of her own baby on the way, Mary still makes a long and arduous journey into hill country to visit the older woman. There is no mention of her being accompanied by anyone so the journey for a lone young woman would have been a dangerous one as well.
St Luke’s is the only Gospel to describe this visit. He was a doctor so I think it’s noteworthy that of all the details he could have provided, he mentions Elizabeth’s baby kicking inside her womb when the two women meet. If it was the first time Elizabeth felt her baby moving, what an emotional and exciting experience it must have been for her – especially as she had been childless and was considered too old to have a baby.
Luke gives this ‘kicking’ an added, theological meaning. The child Elizabeth is carrying – John the Baptist – will go on as an adult to point to Jesus, whom Mary is carrying, as the Christ or Messiah. Baby John is dancing in his mother’s womb, Luke is saying, not just because he is sufficiently formed to do so but because he is aware that he is in the presence of the future Messiah in the other woman’s womb.
When they meet, Elizabeth says to Mary “the moment your greeting reached my ears the child in my womb leapt for joy.” She then follows this with a declaration about Mary that encapsulates why we honour Mary in the Church: “Blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord (God) would be fulfilled”.
So Mary is honoured and celebrated for two reasons – first because she is the mother of Our Saviour; and, second, because of her belief and trust in God. She thus becomes for all Christians the perfect model and example, to quote Jesus, of ‘hearing the word of God and keeping it’ (St Luke 11:28)
Referring to Mary as the model for our faith, Pope Francis said this in Rome in 2015: Throughout her life Mary did everything the Church is asked to do in perennial memory of Christ. With her faith we learn to open our hearts to God; in her self-denial we see her importance of tending to the needs of others; in her tears, we find the strength to console those experiencing pain.
In today’s feast we celebrate Mary’s Assumption into Heaven. There is no account in the Bible of the death of Mary but since the fifth century the Church has been celebrating her being ‘lifted up’ to heaven as Jesus was in his Ascension. The Eastern Church calls this event the Dormition or Sleeping of Mary, indicating that she was ‘taken up’ to heaven as if asleep.
Thus in observing today’s feast we are celebrating Mary going where Christ went before her, but also her going to where we hope to follow. May God help us, in the words of Pope Francis, to follow her example of trust, tending to the needs of others, and consoling those experiencing sorrow and pain.
Holy Name, Jesmond
16 August 2020