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Mary meets Elizabeth Luke 1:39-45

Dear Theophilus,
I am writing to you so that you will be more fully informed about the followers of Jesus Christ. I know that you are already aware of much to do with our beliefs and practices, and that you are sympathetic towards us, even though we appear sometimes to be in the centre of unrest. We are not trouble-makers even though we do not worship the emperor as divine. I would like you to hear my story of Jesus and his followers. I have been careful to make sure what I am writing down is thoroughly researched and based on speaking to people who witnessed these things themselves.

As you know, Jewish people lay great store by their family connections and this is the best place to start telling the story of Jesus of Nazareth. This is also the point where we have to tackle misunderstandings about his origins. He was not a troublemaker himself, even though you know that he was executed as a criminal. Let me give you some background.

You may remember that when Caesar Augustus was emperor it was the turn of the province of Syria to hold a census. Quirinius was governor of that province which included the Jewish territories of Galilee and Judaea. The Jews are particularly conscious of their clans and tribes and Jesus’ parents were of the tribe of Judah which originated in a village called Bethlehem, just to the south west of Jerusalem, the now-ruined former capital of Judaea. Although we are sad about the fate of Jerusalem and its great temple, we do not feel our religion has been destroyed, for we seek to be good citizens and devout people wherever we live in this empire.

The tribe of Judah had special significance for the Jewish people because one of their greatest kings called David came from that tribe. So Jesus’ parents were of royal descent, even though by their time, they were simple village folk. Jesus’ mother was Mary, a virtuous and wise lady whom I met in Ephesus shortly before she died. What I write next is based on her experiences which she shared with me. It includes some very personal details and that seems to make it all the more genuine. These precious moments of childbearing are never forgotten by women, however many years pass, and whatever happens in between. The time of pregnancy is unique and Mary’s was especially so.

Mary told me that she had an elderly relative called Elizabeth. In the days after Mary was engaged to a man called Joseph, she went to pay a visit to Elizabeth. This visit lasted for three months, but her clearest memories are about her arrival. This visit was very important to both women, because they were both pregnant. Not only did they have a special experience to share in that they were both expecting their first babies, but they had also conceived in unusual circumstances.

Elizabeth was past the age of child-bearing, so she, her husband Zechariah and all their relatives thought. Zechariah was a priest and he had an awe-inspiring experience one day when he was offering the incense sacrifice in the temple. An angel brought him a message from God that his wife would conceive and that their child, a son, whom he should call John, was to be a great prophet. Elizabeth was sixth months pregnant when Mary went to visit her.

When a woman becomes pregnant the first signs are known only to her. At first, of course, the mother may not realise for a few weeks, not until she misses the time of the month. Then it may be some many days more before she feels movement in her womb. Only in time will it become more obvious. Then the mother-to-be frequently puts her hands on her belly. It is as if she is always reaching out to touch the baby, feeling it deep inside, getting to know its every movement, occasionally jumping if she is kicked from within.

But when Mary visited Elizabeth something extraordinary
happened. As soon as Elizabeth heard the sound of Mary’s greeting, hailing her from the door, the baby inside the older mother gave a great leap. It was not just a vigorous kick, it seemed the baby was about to leap right out of her womb! After Mary had been given water to wash, and some food and drink had been set before her, the two women withdrew into Elizabeth’s place of confinement. It was then, Mary recalled, that the heavily pregnant mother told her what a great leap the baby had made within her when she heard Mary’s voice. The two women talked constantly during the three month visit. Whilst the baby within Mary’s womb gradually made its presence more plain for all to see, Mary began to realise the significance of her own experiences of an unusual pregnancy.

Elizabeth, though the elder relative by far, spoke to Mary in such deeply respectful ways that she remembered into her old age the words spoken to her. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. How amazing that the mother of my Lord should come to visit me and my child! Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord!

Mary was always a thoughtful woman and she pondered these words as she lay awake at night, or as she helped Elizabeth with the daily round of domestic tasks. She realised that the moment of her own conception had been when the same angel had visited her. He had spoken to her in ways that she could hardly grasp at the time, but gradually it dawned on her what it all might mean. And now, here was Elizabeth speaking with deep respect, even devotion about her and her baby. Eventually Mary, too, spoke deeply inspired words. She remembered the song of Hannah who gave birth to the prophet Samuel, the same prophet who anointed David the king I mentioned earlier on. Mary began to realise that her deeply intimate experiences were going to have meaning not only for her own tribe and people, but for the whole world as she knew it.
The Almighty has done great things for me! are the words she used to describe her feelings. Her song of hope, her own version of Hannah’s song, has become a hymn we recite in our worship. We believe that Mary’s son, whom we have come to call the Christ, is the hope of the world. Although many thought that Joseph was the father of Jesus, we have come to accept Mary’s opinion that her husband was, in fact, a step-father. Joseph was a humble man, and accepted Mary even though many were suspicious that she had become pregnant before her proper time. Mary realised that her baby had been conceived in a unique way. She used the words of the angel, “the power of the Most High will overshadow you”. That is why, your Excellency, we decline to worship the Emperor in Rome, but whilst remaining loyal citizens, we worship a heavenly ruler, from whom all earthly rulers derive their power.

Mary’s song of hope lies at the heart of what the followers of Jesus believe. She was a humble, village girl. But God chose her as a virtuous and worthy mother, to bear the one whom we follow and worship as a sign of hope for the world. In her song she celebrated the role of ordinary people, of poor people. The followers of Jesus are sometimes in trouble because they upset rich people. Those who have much stand to lose much, and when they have much wealth or power they do not like it to be threatened by others who are honest and care about justice or the poor. That is why Christians are often accused of being trouble-makers and seem to be at the centre of unrest in our peaceful Roman Empire.

I will write more on another day, but I hope you are beginning to understand that the followers of Jesus are ordinary people, who like Mary, believe that there is hope for our world because of her son. I hope that you will help Christians to be understood and accepted more widely and that you will defend them when falsely accused. But most of all, I hope and pray that you, too, will come to see that Jesus is the hope of the world and you will not be afraid to join us!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




Heavenly Father,
who chose the Blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of the promised saviour:
fill us your servants with your grace,
that in all things we may embrace your holy will
and with her rejoice in your salvation;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.