Cambridge, MA. There is hardly a day left before Christmas, little time to stop and ponder the wisdom of the 4th Sunday of Advent, but today's Gospel is too important to let go by without comment: “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.'" (Luke 1: 39-45)
In this passage, we find ourselves in the very first moment of the new age of the Incarnation, Christ already in-flesh and making a difference in our world. Bethlehem, the manger, the work of Joseph, the angels and shepherds, the star and the magi, Herod and the enemies of the child — all of these will play their part in scenes yet to come. The ministries of John and Jesus are farther still in the future, all the words and actions of Jesus, the call and sending forth of apostles and disciples, the founding of the Church as the community to which we still trace back our roots. All we have in this first moment are the two women, Mary and Elizabeth, in the early and middle stages of their pregnancies. Pentecost is years away, but already Mary and Elizabeth sing together, filled with the Spirit.
What does Mary do after the angel tells her that she will be the mother of the Messiah? We might imagine that she would talk about it to her mother, or to Joseph, her husband to be, or to other wise elders nearby. Or she might reflect on scriptural texts that might open up the event for her. Or she might go up to Jerusalem, to pray in the temple. But all that Luke tells us - and wants us to meditate on, as enough for the moment - is that Mary goes up into the hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth. No public statements, no further revelations, no crowds, nothing that anyone else might notice. All we see is Mary going off by herself to visit her cousin, and help her in the last months of her pregnancy. This is the love that gives flesh and blood to the message of the angel and the event of Incarnation: an act of family support, friendship, sensitivity to another in need. If Christ is born again deep within us there year, we might first of all imitate Mary, reaching out to someone, already known to us, who needs a little help, a visit, a kinder word. Thus the Christ comes into the world.
And how does Elizabeth respond? It is most striking that she knows immediately what has happened. She needs no explanations, no advice, and does not run to consult Zechariah, her husband and the high priest that year. She simply knows. In ways figurative but also literal, she finds meaning for the moment deep inside herself, as the baby stirs and dances within her. Her experience is her teacher. If Christ comes to us again this year, we might bring that truth to life also by imitating Elizabeth, trusting our deepest inner instincts, recognizing Christ in this person who suddenly shows up at our door and greets us this day, any day.
Luke has many more things to tell us in his Gospel, including the great story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. But first he wants us to see this prior and primal, fundamental scene of Incarnation lived out in human experience. Two women, pregnant, greet one another, embrace, and recognize the Lord present in their midst. The good news has been preached, the love of Christ manifest in human flesh, the community of the Church has begun to form.
For the past two thousand years, the Church at our best has been catching up with this first encounter of these two women, Mary and Elizabeth.