For liturgical churches, such as my own, May 31st celebrates The Visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth. It is not a celebration we normally think about, except maybe as a forerunner to the Magnificat as the Gospel of the day includes Mary’s exultant song. Obviously, thoughts and reflections normally reside here. And why shouldn’t they. The song is beautiful, powerful, and triumphant.
But is there anything in the visitation itself that can be of aid in our spiritual lives? After all, I’m willing to bet that we will never come across a pregnant young woman carrying the Christ child? And, speaking personally, I’m pretty sure that no baby will leap within my non-existent womb. So what might this passage say to us as today? Does this visitation have something to teach us about what it means to be a community of faith?
Luke records the visit in Chapter 1, verses 39-45. When we boil this interaction down to its basic premise you see a meeting between individuals: Mary visits Elizabeth. In this moment, however, the Holy Spirit descends upon Elizabeth empowering her to both bless the person before her, and rejoice in the magnitude of God. It is not just her child the responds to the presence of Jesus, but through the power of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth herself respond to Christ in her midst. Well. . . it’s more than that isn’t it? The Holy Spirit prompts Elizabeth to respond to the presence of Christ within Mary.
Could we see, in this interaction between Mary and Elizabeth, a model for what it means to be a church community? There are two lessons we may learn:
Firstly: We recognise the presence of Christ in the other.
As a community of baptised people we recognize certain truths about who we are as human beings. For one, we recognize that each person, regardless of who they are, are made in the image of God. This is fundamental to our identity as people, created in God’s image. For those within our community we add to this the understanding that each person bears the presence of Jesus. There are many different ways that we can talk about this; having Jesus in our hearts through faith, receiving Jesus in baptism, being ‘alive’ in Christ Jesus. But whatever language we use, we are called to recognize that those within our community of faith are themselves Christ bearers. They have the presence of Jesus within them. This is what St. Paul claims in his letter to Colossians when he states that the mystery of the gospel is ‘Christ in you.’ This may not mean we agree with everyone, or even like everyone, but it does mean that we boldly and faithfully affirm the presence of Jesus within that person, and thus within our midst.
What would happen if we allowed that to be the basis by which we interacted with others in our church community? Would some of the petty disagreements end? Would fellowship be enhanced? Would our witness become more effective? How do you think we would feel internally, if we chose to see each other as Elizabeth viewed Mary on that day of visitation?
Secondly: Elizabeth rejoices in God and blesses Mary.
What a fabulous visit! This visitation is not seem as just happenstance, a meeting of the minds, or a polite gathering of individuals. Elizabeth sees the visit as a profound moment of God acting in the world. The visit testifies that God is active and doing something. Elizabeth’s exuberant exultation is a song of praise itself. Yet intermingled with this song of praise, testifying to her reception of God’s work in her midst, Elizabeth also recognizes the activity of God within Mary, and so she pronounces a blessing over her. Simply put, Elizabeth reinforces God’s work within Mary thus encouraging her in her faithful acceptance of God’s word over her.
Of course, Elizabeth’s response to Mary wasn’t simply drawn out of her own effort. She was empowered by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth and she responds to the visitation (this instance of community) in a two-fold of act of rejoicing and blessing.
Being Elizabeth: A model of Community
While we may find such a descent of the Spirit prior to Pentecost a unique instance within scripture, we live our lives on the other side of Pentecost. Scriptures continually testifies to our assurance of the Spirit’s activity and leading in our lives. Our baptismal liturgy links the rite of baptism with the reception of the Holy Spirit, and thus, as a community of baptized people, we assume we are a community of ‘Spirit-filled’ people.
So what if we acted like Elizabeth and chose to see each ‘random’ instance of community as a divinely appointed action? How might the Holy Spirit within us call us to respond to the presence of Jesus within the other? How might we go about blessing each other, and affirming the work of God deep within them? How might the community be affected, or formed, if we actively lived our lives in such a manner?
This demands that we live our lives with a sense of openness and submission to the spirit of God, yet there is to be a beautiful complementarity in this way of community. While we respond to the presence of Jesus in the other person – through blessing, rejoicing, and encouraging – they too would be acting in similar fashion towards us. The Holy Spirit in the other person would cause the other to rejoice in God’s work in our lives, and thereby bless and encourage us.
This almost sounds if we would all be in one accord. Behaving like Elizabeth in this way will only lend itself to the strength of the community of faith, and the effectiveness in our witness and mission. Christ would be glorified, not as a distant theological abstraction, but as a tangible manifestation of our common life. If we could just choose this pathway, as a community, than who can tell what beautiful, powerful, and triumphant songs may be sung in our communities.