“Are you a Martha or a Mary?” This Martha-Mary juxtaposition from the Gospel of Luke is quite well-known. Martha is the archetype for the active life: busy about the work of service. Meanwhile, Mary is the archetype for the contemplative life: sitting at the feet of Jesus. Though Jesus tells Martha that “Mary has chosen the better part,” we all have our “Martha” moments and “Mary” moments in the course of everyday life. Truth be told, we all have moments where we are engaging in active works of charity and other moments spent attentively in prayer. In all of these, however, we do it out of service to and love of Christ.
Consider, however, another female juxtaposition that is equally important for the Christian life: Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. In the scene of the Visitation (Luke 1:39-56), a pregnant Mary travels in haste to Judah to visit her cousin Elizabeth, also pregnant. As the women meet, John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb and Elizabeth praises Mary’’s faith. Mary in return speaks the great canticle proclaiming the greatness of God. Much commentary has been made about John the Baptist’s recognition of Christ, though both are in utero. The focus of this article is, instead, on Elizabeth and Mary. In the Visitation, Elizabeth and Mary remind us that we are called to both recognize the presence of Christ in others and to bring Christ to others.
Elizabeth: Seeing Christ in the Other
From familiarity with the story of the Visitation, we can take Elizabeth for granted. Let us pause and consider the words she speaks to Mary upon hearing Mary’s greeting:
“Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
– Luke 1:42-43
How strange it is that Elizabeth should know that Mary bore the Savior in her womb! There is no Scriptural evidence that Elizabeth was told about what had happened at the Annunciation. Certainly that would not be most people’s first guess upon seeing their pregnant cousin. How, then, did she know this?
Elizabeth could perceive because, as Luke tells us, she was filled with the Holy Spirit. It was faith which allowed her to see the presence of Christ in Mary. Elizabeth was not self-absorbed for she had the ability to recognize the presence of the Lord in her midst. Instead, her heart and mind were attuned to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to recognize the presence of Christ in Mary. The same Spirit fills her with joy and amazement upon encountering Christ and the fulfillment of the plan for salvation that had been foretold by the prophets.
Elizabeth is a powerful model for us, reminding us to look for Christ in others. It is so easy in life to take other people for granted or to see them merely as tools to help accomplish a goal. We often lose sight not only of the presence of Christ in them, but sometimes, even of their very humanity. We would do well to follow the example of Elizabeth and be aware of how the Holy Spirit may be directing us to see beyond the surface of those we encounter. How is Christ hidden in the other? Are we prepared to find Christ in unexpected ways, like Elizabeth found the Christ Child in Mary’s womb?
Once we recognize Christ in the other, we should be filled with joy and amazement as Elizabeth was. We should find joy in the presence of Christ, even when the other person isn’t aware of His presence. Elizabeth’s joy causes her to proclaim the truth of what she knows: she is before the presence of the Lord. We should also be amazed at our interactions with others for each of us have a role to play in bringing about the Kingdom of God, a role which may be less clear at times. However each of us is here on this earth at this point in time of history for some purpose and to be encountering those we live, work, and play with for a reason. Somehow, in the messiness and confusion of life, God’s salvific plan is still in action here, today, through you and me.
Mary: Bringing Christ to Others
In the Visitation, Mary literally carries the Christ Child to visit Elizabeth. She is a model to us of being Christ-bearers to all that we meet.
We read in the Gospel of Luke that, upon learning from the angel Gabriel that Elizabeth was pregnant, Mary hastens to be with her cousin. Certainly there must have been an immense joy within Mary: her cousin who had been barren for so long, and likely longed for a child of her own for many years, had her desire granted. There was also likely a practical reason for her haste: she likely was needed to help with the birth of John the Baptist! At the Annunciation, Elizabeth is already sixth months pregnant and we are told that Mary stayed another three months after the visitation, meaning she was present for John the Baptist’s birth. Though Mary’s journey to Judah was probably a very necessary one for the time, her natural duty to her cousin brings something even greater than her assistance: she bring to Elizabeth the Son of God.
Through even our menial or pedantic tasks of life, we are called to model Mary in bringing Christ to others. Even if our faith is never explicitly spoken as we go about our daily errands, everything about our being should be so filled with Christ that even strangers can appreciate something different about us. The joyful presence of Christ cannot be contained as Mary discovered in the visitation: before Mary even spoke a word, Elizabeth not only knew that Mary was pregnant, but that Mary was to be the mother of the Lord!
In the Canticle of Mary, we see too that, even in accepting the words of Elizabeth, Mary’s words point back to God. Mary does not take credit for any good work or even for her faithful “yes” to God’s will in response to her cousin’s praise. Instead, Mary points back to God; it is the greatness of the Lord that has allowed her to bring the Son of God to visit Elizabeth. The only thing she is able to claim is her lowliness in comparison to the greatness of God’s love and mercy. Indeed, in the Magnificat, we see perfectly summed up who we are as human beings in relationship to our Creator.
The Visitation: Called to Be Both Elizabeth and Mary
The beauty of the Catholic faith is that it is a “both-and,” meaning that we are oftentimes called to do seemingly opposing things. Yet in Christ, these opposites are united in harmony.
So, too, in our lives we are called to be both Elizabeth and Mary, that is, to recognize and proclaim the presence of Christ in others and to bring Christ to others. May we be inspired by the mystery of the Visitation to imitate Elizabeth and Mary.