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 leaped 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 leaped 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)
There are some things you can’t really appreciate in the Scriptures until you’ve visited the Holy Land. I always read this passage from Luke and pictured young Mary leaving Nazareth and traveling for an hour or two until she arrived at Elizabeth’s home. But as I was preparing this book, I traveled to the Holy Land and retraced Mary’s steps from the Annunciation to the birth of Jesus. I was surprised to discover that Mary’s journey to Elizabeth’s home would have taken her eight to ten days. This was no small journey for a thirteen-year-old girl to make without her family.
I understand the Scriptures to be telling us that when Mary made the journey to Ein Karem, she had not yet told her family about her pregnancy. She “went with hast” because she was frightened and uncertain if there was anyone in the world who believe her story. But she had just learned that her older cousin Elizabeth was pregnant despite being beyond childbearing years. Elizabeth was the one woman who might believe her. Then, after telling Elizabeth, she probably went next to Joseph, who lived in Bethlehem, just a few miles away.
The traditional location for Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home is Ein Karem. The town, mentioned several times in the Old Testament, is located on a hill a short distance from Jerusalem and just a few miles from Bethlehem. There are two churches in the hill, marking the traditional locations of Elizabeth’s home and the place of John the Baptist’s birth. The church higher up the hill is the Church of the Visitation, and it celebrates the story from our Scripture today.
As soon as Mary arrived in Ein Karem, Elizabeth immediately prophesied over her. Without being told, Elizabeth knew that Mary was pregnant and that the child would be the messianic king. Elizabeth thrice blesses Mary. Can you imagine what Elizabeth’s words felt like to Mary? For nine days she had been traveling, carrying this secret with her, and wondering if she would be put to death once it became known. For nine days she had imagined what it will be like to live with the shame of conceiving a child outside of wedlock. For nine days she had worried about how Joseph would respond. For nine days she had felt cursed by a burden too heavy for her to bear.
And then, three times in as many sentences, Elizabeth had joyfully pronounced her blessed by God. Elizabeth helped Mary see her situation through the eyes of faith. She helped Mary recognize blessing where others would have only seen a burden. She infused Mary with hope.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to tour the American Stroke Foundation and meet stroke survivors, volunteers, and staff. I learned that most of the people who die after experiencing a severe stroke don’t die from the stroke itself; they die because they lose hope, become depressed, and give up. By contrast, it was amazing to see the hope of the people at the Foundation. The place was filled with Elizabeths-staff, volunteers, and fellow patients-giving stroke survivors hope and willpower to keep pressing on. This was no Pollyanna attitude that minimizes adversity, but a deliberate choice to see the possible, and the blessing, in the midst of adversity.
This type of support and encouragement is precisely what Elizabeth gave Mary in calling her blessed. And it is what we have to opportunity to do when, with compassion and understanding, we help others find blessings and hope in the face of the burdens they bear.
Lord, help me to embody good news and to bless those who are struggling. Use me to offer hope and encouragement to those who are weary and heavy laden. Amen.