And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. (Luke 1: 56)
On the approach to the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Israel, the hillsides are covered with olive trees. The church itself is built atop an ancient cistern where it is claimed Mary drew water for Elizabeth. The church celebrates the role these two women played in each other’s live. Frescoes, mosaics, paintings, and sculptures abound showing Mary and Elizabeth together. Elizabeth was probably in her late fifties or early sixties when Mary came to visit and was in her sixth month of pregnancy. (She was beyond natural childbearing years, and it is implied in Luke that she only became pregnant by the miraculous intervention of God.) Mary was likely thirteen and was just beginning her first month of pregnancy.
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for the final three months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. One can imagine Mary helping with things around the home, doing all the things Elizabeth may typically have done. Elizabeth undoubtedly found Mary a help both physically and emotionally. The two women shared in common unusual pregnancies that could only be explained as the act of God.
Mary found great joy an comfort in being with her older cousin Elizabeth. Here was a motherly (or grandmotherly) figure who loved Mary, encouraged and mentored her, and helped her through those first three months of pregnancy. Each needed the other. Each was blessed by the other.
The Church of the Visitation is a celebration of women’s friendships, their sisterhood, and the close bonds that are possible when women care for one another. Those themes can be seen in the art adorning the building, such as a bronze sculpture of the two women, one barely showing her pregnancy and the other well along, that sits in the courtyard outside the church. I found it interesting to stand watching the pilgrims and tourists coming to visit. The vast majority were women. I observed a bus full of African women as they arrived, dressed colorfully and filled with laughter. They would look at the statue and then take each other’s hands, or embrace, and you could see the love and friendship they shared. I was asked to come and take their pictures as they stood-smiling, laughing, sharing together-next to the statue of Mary and Elizabeth.
It struck me as I stood there that Elizabeth and Mary’s story points to the importance of having friendships that span generations. The older mentor the younger, and the younger encourage and bring vitality to the older. The older bring wisdom, the younger energy, dreams, and fresh perspectives.
This is not important just to women, but to men as well. I have had several older mentors through the years, men who encouraged me, invested in me, and counseled me. I have had the privilege of seeking to encourage, befriend, and bless them as well. As I moved into my forties, I found myself being approached by younger pastors who were looking for mentors, and I became conscious of the fact that at some point our task is to invest in and encourage a new generation.
Among the women I know who have been amazing Elizabeths is a woman named Marty Mather. Marty is in her early eighties but shows no signs of slowing down. She teaches multiple Bible studies and corresponds with dozens or even hundreds of people. She is constantly pouring wisdom and encouragement into the lives of others.
Among Marty’s gifts is baking the most delicious homemade bread you could ever eat. She invited groups of younger women to join her bread-baking classes. After handing out her recipe and teaching her pupils how to prepare the dough, she has them leave it to rise, and during that time she gathers them in a circle and invites them to share their stories. Then she shares her own story, including the story of her deep Methodist faith.
Marty’s boundless energy comes from these younger women (and men) whom she mentors and encourages. She is blessed by friendships. And those who sit under her tutelage find that they have an amazing treasure in her love, encouragement, and wisdom.
We all need an Elizabeth we can turn to for advice, wisdom, and encouragement. And we’re all called to be an Elizabeth for someone else-to invest in that person and pass on what we’ve learned. Do you have an Elizabeth? And who is the Mary you are mentoring?
Lord, thank you for those older than I am who have invested in my life. Help me to encourage and bless those who are my seniors. But help me too, Lord, to bless and encourage those who are younger than I. Amen.