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 always be 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. Since travel alone was not safe, people commonly joined a caravan or group of people who would travel 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?
Mary was probably born in Nazareth, a town in Galilee in the north, 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 is 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. There was much, much more to her than how artists have portrayed her down the centuries. She would have been a woman of strong character and robust physique while, at the same time, being ‘full of grace’, as the Angel Gabriel described her.
Down the centuries since Christ’s birth, 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 as the Mother of Jesus. Unlike many others, I’m sure, Elizabeth accepts Mary’s explanation for how she has come to be pregnant: ‘why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord’. Elizabeth acknowledges that there was something special about Mary which has 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’. For this reason alone Mary is worhy 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’. Not only does Elizabeth believe Mary, she also honours Mary believing and accepting what the Angel Gabriel had told her God wanted of her.
Mary became the mother of Jesus because she trusted 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 her Son asks of us. So we try to follow her example of trusting in God as she did.
Elizabeth is also a model for us. At a time when many would not have believed her account of being pregnant – even St Joseph did not at first – Elizabeth was someone to whom this young woman could go to find acceptance and support. How blessed we are when there is someone like an Elizabeth with whom we can share our troubles and find understanding and support. And how blessed others can be when they find us to be an Elizabeth in their lives.
May God grant us the grace to imitate the trust of Mary and the kindness of Elizabeth.
Holy Name, Jesmond
19 December 2021