The Gospel today is the story of the Visitation: Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, both women heavy with babes in the womb. As Mary and the unborn Savior approach, “Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’” Elizabeth reports that her infant, whom we will know as John the Baptist, leaped in her womb for joy.
To appreciate all this more fully, we have to go back to how Israel experienced God’s presence most profoundly. Recall that Moses created a moveable temple or tabernacle. Inside the tabernacle was the ark of the covenant, where Yahweh hovered. King David himself was so unnerved by the ark that he hesitated even to bring it into Jerusalem: “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” he asked (2 Sam 6:9).
Now, in Luke, we find the archangel Gabriel announcing to Mary that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you” (Lk 1:35) as it did the tabernacle. And in today’s Gospel, Elizabeth’s response as Mary approaches is virtually David’s, “How does this happen to me, that the mother of the most high should come to me?”
Think of Mary as the new tabernacle, a living ark, whose very presence, carrying the Lord, overwhelms both Elizabeth and her unborn son, John. This ark, however, carries herself in great contrast with the original. For this ark is not carried into war and not sequestered in the temple. Rather, Mary, this ark of the new covenant, appears in ordinariness and even lowliness, as she will bear the Lord in a stable with only humble shepherds to be amazed.
The Second Vatican Council teaches us that in Mary we contemplate the fullness of our truth, the fullness of our mystery, even while still on pilgrimage (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 68). In a very real way, Mary represents us, a vision of true discipleship.
Can this be true? Are we mothers of God, carrying within us the living Christ, bringing forth the Lord to the world? Are we tabernacles, arks of the new covenant? St. Paul certainly thought so, for by baptism we have become temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), recreated “in righteousness and holiness of truth” (Eph 4:24).
“Too much, much too much,” you might reply. Surely, I don’t intend to exaggerate our sanctity. We are a pilgrim people, still on our way. We are in the process of being “transformed into the same image from glory into glory” (2 Cor 3:18), and it is a long process. But the fact that we are still on our way by no means suggests that we do not carry the Lord within or that we cannot share him. And typically we do so like Mary, in our own ordinariness.
Every week I witness a form of Mary, a God-bearing tabernacle, at the Cherry Street Mission, in Toledo, Ohio. Nancy, our cook and guide, daily prepares meals for the homeless and coordinates the volunteers. She loves the guests and openly prays for them and the ministry. She also exhibits the patience of Job. Not only is Christ alive in her; she bears his love and presence to us. She’s not alone. Nancy is not the only Mary there. Just last week, Mike, one of the guests, put his arm over my shoulder and with great love wanted to know how I was and how my day was going. I felt overwhelmed by his presence. I didn’t know how much I needed that, but I did. Did he know? Or was he, in his own lowliness, his own ordinariness, simply being the God-bearer he was?
In these days before Christmas, we should stay close to Mary, God’s tabernacle. Even in the frenetic preparations before Christmas, we should take time to rest with her. Ultimately, she shows us who we are, what we carry and what we ourselves can bear to the world.