As we enter the home stretch of the Advent season, the focus of our Gospels shifts away from John the Baptist to the Blessed Virgin Mary and events that took place just nine months before Jesus’ birth. St. Luke the evangelist, our patron saint and the writer of this Gospel, shows how Mary is the woman the Scriptures had foretold would bear a son, the Messiah, the One who would save Israel. So he highlights here Mary’s role in God’s plan of salvation, and in doing so shows how Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant.
The Ark of the Covenant, if you remember from the Old Testament, was the sacred repository for the Divine Law, specifically the tablets upon which God had written the Ten Commandments. The Israelites understood that God was present in a mysterious way in the Ark, and they carried it with them when they traveled throughout the desert on their way to the Promised Land, building a tent for it every time they stopped. Eventually, after conquering Jerusalem, they built a Temple there for the Ark. And later, because of Israel’s infidelity, the Ark of the Covenant was lost and has never been recovered.
So in our Gospel we hear the story of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, and Luke includes all kinds of parallels here with the Old Testament to show that Mary is indeed the New Ark of the Covenant – the new dwelling place for God on earth. Elizabeth had never been able to have children but had conceived a child in her old age. When Mary heard this surprising news, given to her by the Angel Gabriel when he visited her and told her she herself would miraculously conceive a child, the Gospel specifically says that Mary “arose and went” in haste to a village in the hill country of Judah near Jerusalem where Elizabeth lived with her husband Zechariah. In the same way, the Old Testament tells how David “arose and went” to a village of Judah to retrieve the Ark.
It could not have been an easy journey for Mary – she had just conceived a child, and she had to travel 90 miles – either riding a donkey or on foot – through very hilly terrain. Yet this did not deter her: she was eager to fulfill God’s will. Mary entered Elizabeth’s house, as the Ark had entered the house of a faithful Israelite named Obed-edom. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice greeting her as she entered the house, the child in her womb – John the Baptist – leaped for joy, just as David leaped and danced for joy before the Ark of the Covenant. And Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months before returning to her home in Nazareth – the same amount of time the Ark remained in the home of Obed-edom.
And Elizabeth’s words to Mary also reveal that she carries in her womb the one God had promised from the very beginning to save his people from sin. Elizabeth says to Mary, “Most blessed are you among women.” Elizabeth treats Mary here as royalty, calling her the most exalted of women. And indeed she is, because she bears the King of Kings in her womb. Normally, Mary would have shown great deference to Elizabeth as her elder, and also as the wife of a high-ranking priest who served in the Temple in Jerusalem. But Elizabeth, having been filled with the Holy Spirit at the sound of Mary’s voice, instead honors Mary.
Elizabeth also refers to Mary as “the mother of my Lord”. In ancient Israel, this was a title for the queen mother. And it was the mother of the king, not his wife, who was second in honor and influence to him. So the practice of showing veneration and honor to the Blessed Virgin Mary begins even in Scripture, of course with the Angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary, and continuing here with Elizabeth’s words to her.
The Gospel concludes with Elizabeth saying to Mary: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” This is why Mary is owed such honor: because she believed the words the Lord had spoken to her through the Angel Gabriel. One would think that it would be difficult for a young woman who was a virgin and clearly intended to remain so to believe that she could ever conceive a child, and furthermore that this child would then become the Savior of the world. Yet Mary did believe. No doubt she did not understand – the Scriptures tells us that she pondered in her heart these words spoken to her. But believing and understanding are two very different things that should not be confused. It’s possible to not know how something will work, how something can be achieved despite incredible odds against it, and yet still believe that with God it is possible.
We are of course very data-driven and science-oriented people, and we are accustomed to having proof before saying something is true or not. But with the faith, although God does give us very good reasons to believe, we lack that 100% incontrovertible evidence that we so desire. But if we did have 100% evidence, faith would not be necessary. God desires our faith – He desires our assent to believe what He tells us – because our faith can then bring about incredible things. God uses our faith, just as He used the faith of the Virgin Mary, to bring about incredible things in this world and in ourselves, to bring about the fulfillment of His will.
So, because Mary believed in God – that through the power of the Holy Spirit she would conceive a child who would be the Redeemer of the world – the Incarnation happened: God became man, and then achieved our salvation, which we were incapable of achieving ourselves. This is why Elizabeth gives such praise to Mary, and it is why we also should give praise to her.
And we should also let Mary’s faith be a source of inspiration and an example to us. God desires us to believe in Him, to believe that He has saved us, that He loves us, that He has the power to forgive all our sins – not just the little ones, but also the big, disgusting ones – and that He will ultimately triumph over evil, sin, pain, suffering, and death. Although sometimes we might find it relatively easy to believe these things, at least in the abstract, I think often it can be very difficult to believe them, especially when things do not go our way, when the world and the people who live in it are not the way we want them to be, when the media keeps shouting bad news at us, and when we are confronted with evil, sin, suffering, and death. Yet if we have faith that God is real and can do what He has promised to do, He will do incredible things in us and in the world.
Let us honor our Blessed Mother, the Mother of Jesus Christ our Savior, and let us have faith in God, that through the birth of His Son which we will soon celebrate, His promises to us will be fulfilled, and He will lead us to a life of eternal peace and joy.