Our reading at Mass yesterday was from Luke 1:39-45. It’s a wonderful and too little appreciated part of the Christmas story. If you were asked “Who was the first person, besides Mary herself, to welcome Jesus and announce His coming?” how would you answer? This reading tells us the suprising answer and its richness is more than mere trivia.
This part of Jesus’ story is where Mary, just after hearing that she, a humble young virgin from no where, would give birth to the very Son of God. At this striking news, she “arose and went with haste” to go see her cherished relative Elizabeth, some 90 miles away. Elizabeth was in the 6th month of her own miraculous pregnancy, her womb having closed for business long ago. Of course, her baby was Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist.
The beauty of this part of the Christmas story is the miracle that happens at the very moment Mary enters Elizabeth’s home. But Mary and Elizabeth are not the only ones involved in the divine drama here.
And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb.
And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
This is a MAJOR event in Jesus’ story and thus the Christian Church, but we seldom appreciate it as such. It is the first time the Son of God is worshiped! And He is worshiped by two people. One very old, one super young.
First to Proclaim Jesus’ Lordship
Elizabeth proclaims the blessedness of Jesus and his mother. Elizabeth is the first one to recognize and proclaim Jesus as her Lord. This confesssion, “Jesus is Lord,” was the first and most basic way that Christians began to proclaim their faith and greet one another. It was the first Christian creed and Elizabeth was the first to proclaim it, even before Christmas morning. Think on that for a moment.
The second greeting is even more incredible and speaks to a very intimate relationship in the Savior’s life. Baby John leaps for joy, literally, at the coming of the Savior. He does so as a child in the darkness of his mother’s womb. (Yes, Christianity has extremely strong words for the humanity of the unborn child in John and Jesus’ remarkable in utero contribution to the Gospel.) John did not start serving as the forerunner of Christ when preaching about His coming in the desert. It was here. It was two mothers, Elizabeth and Mary who were the only ones able to experience this remarkable event. It happened in distincly womanly interiors of their hearts and wombs in the humbleness of Elizabeth’s home.
It is this glorious scene that serves as the first time Christ is received and welcomed, apart from Mary’s own welcoming reception when the angel Gabriel tells her what the rest of her life will be about. It is the first time the baby Jesus’ divinity and Lordship is proclaimed.
To be sure, the Christian Church, which is often incorrectly charged with being sexist by people who know little of it’s actual story, is founded upon two women being the first to welcome and praise the Savior. (Remember as well, it was a small group of women who announced the “second birth” of the Savior, if you will, at His resurrection.) What other major faith or philosophy has women playing such a signficant role in it’s founding? I cannot think of one.
I’d like now to move to looking at two pieces of art that illustrate as well as any both of these wonderous events, the Annunciation and the Visitation. They are both painted by the first African-American painter to achieve signficant critical acclaim: Henry Ossawa Tanner. He is a remarkable man and one of my fav painters.
One of the things I like best in Tanner’s two works here is that he shows us the simple humanness of Mary and Elizabeth. They are not super-natural, other-worldly saintly subjects in the typical sense. Tanner’s images show us the regular everyday women they were.
He will not allow us to miss the youth, innocence and commoness of our Mary. Tanner doesn’t give her a facial expression that communicates anything obvious. Is she scared? Stunned? Joyful? Solemn? His Mary is more complex than many artists’ as is certainly more true to that actual event. Tanner has her communicating all of these at once. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary with this most startling news, he found a young teenage girl living a typical young teenage girl’s life. The greatest royal announcment in all of the history of the universe takes place in this teen girl’s humble bedroom, illuminated by the majesty of God’s oracle. That is precisely what Tanner is giving us and it’s just stunning.
As wonderful as Tanner’s Annuciation is, his Visitation is even more striking.
Just look at it and consider what’s happending here.
“When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Tanner allows us to personally witness this very event. Elizabeth certainly did not have any notice that Mary was coming or the grand news that prompted the visit. She is sitting at table having her breakfast just like any other morning when she hears Mary utter what any of us likely would as she comes to the door, “Liz, you home?”
Elizabeth’s divine suprise and wonder is dramatically communicated simply in her uplifted hands. It’s a powerful devise Tanner employs here. Are they hands of praise or surprise? Certainly both. This simple scene of a surprise family vistaiton and domesticity is the first scene of Jesus being worshiped. Reflect on this a moment. The event we are witnessing right here in this kitchen is the initiation of what the rest of history and etermity will be about, the worship of the second person of the Divine Trinity, Jesus, the Father’s beloved Son. It is commenced here in this moment.
The interchange between these two women in this domestic setting is unspeakably profound. And we typically move over it too easily, wanting to get onto what we see as the center of the Christmas story, the manger. This one is just as important because it is the first revelation of Christ beyond Mary’s own heart and womb.
Sidenote: I knew that Mr. Tanner lived in Philadephia for some time, so on a biz trip there many years ago I looked to see if his house was noted. It was and I found it, right around the corner from John Coltrane’s home. How cool is that?