Crossing the Threshold: Mary Encountering Elizabeth

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The Visitation, by Michael O’Neill McGrath

(This homily was preached for St. Hildegard Catholic Community on the fourth week of Advent. For those of you who are careful readers, you may notice that in it, I expanded some themes I first developed in my first homily on the Visitation. Readings for the homily can be found here.)

I’ve always found it interesting that the Gospel of Luke doesn’t say why Mary came all the way out to that small town in Judea. All it says is that after the angel Gabriel told Mary that she and Elizabeth would both give birth to these world-changing babies, she set out with haste to see her cousin.

Some scholars have argued that Mary rushed to see Elizabeth because she wanted proof that what the angel said was true. Others say that she went to celebrate these miracles with her cousin.

There might be a little bit of truth in both of those statements, but when I hear that story the first thing that comes to mind for me is that Mary is scared.

This pregnancy must have been terrifying for an unwed, teenage girl who was engaged to be married to a man that believed she was a virgin. She had everything to lose. When the angel Gabriel told Mary she would bear a child, she responded with “let it be done according to God’s will.” She said yes, but she didn’t exactly say “What fantastic news!”

And so, in her fear and uncertainty, Mary runs to her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth, who, like Mary, is facing her own surprise pregnancy—but in very different circumstances. Married and older, Elizabeth’s pregnancy seems like something to celebrate to her friends and family—a long awaited gift—while Mary’s pregnancy could be looked at as a source of shame and gossip. Young and unmarried, with an unlikely story of an angel and a miraculous conception, Mary must have been scared to show up on Elizabeth’s door. She must have wondered if her cousin would welcome her in.

A little more than a year ago, I attended my first retreat for RCWP priests, deacons and candidates. I had just become a candidate two weeks earlier, and had over the last few years met a handful of RCWP priests and deacons. But I still entered into that gathering with a great deal of dread. In particular, I was nervous about what it would mean for me to join a movement where the average age of its members was 60—nearly twice my age. How would I be able to enter into community with these women in such different life stages than me?

Like Mary, I crossed that threshold hoping to be seen, welcomed and valued for who I am. I wanted to encounter sisters who would hear my story, who would make room for my needs and ideas. I prayed that the things we had in common as women who had been called to the priesthood in the Catholic Church would be big enough to bridge all that divides us.

On the last day of our retreat, our group facilitator asked us to pair ourselves up with another woman in the community to share our stories. I ended up getting paired up with a priest, Juanita. Juanita and I come from different generations, different life experiences, and at times have very different ideas of ministry. But as we walked around the retreat center gardens, I felt a connection I’d felt with few other people as she told me the story of how she’d met her husband, a Jesuit Priest, while she was a Catholic sister. She talked about how their love story was so tinged with loss as they were both barred from doing the ministry they were called to do. As I told her about Alex and my struggles to balance our own calls to ministry with financial concerns and our hopes to someday have a family, I felt like she was able to hear me in a way few other people have been able to. In that moment, as we related to each other’s similarities, I think we also both gained new appreciation for our differences, our unique ministries, and the different ways God had called us.

It took courage for Mary to show up on Elizabeth’s threshold, young, unmarried, afraid. But it also took courage for Elizabeth to let her in. To trust that that young, teenage Mary would be able to appreciate everything that she was going through, too.

This elderly woman who had for years prayed for a child, only to get pregnant after she’d given up hope. I’m sure Elizabeth rejoiced in the miracle of her pregnancy, but she couldn’t have been too thrilled with the timing. It almost seems like a cruel joke on God’s part. After all the years Zachariah and Elizabeth spent trying to become parents, once they were at the end of their lives God supplied them with a son. Even while Elizabeth’s community celebrated the “miracle” of her pregnancy, she must have had her own worries about how she and Zachariah would care for this child. I think she was scared, too.

Mary came to Elizabeth’s door in need, only to realize that Elizabeth, too, was in need. She needed someone that could understand her, someone that could accompany her on this journey. Maybe that’s why Mary stayed for three months, waiting for John to be born. Because she saw that Elizabeth needed help, too.

When Mary crossed Elizabeth’s threshold, both of those women were changed forever. As they shared stories, supported each other in times of need, and learned from each other, they were able to build solidarity across generations. They learned that in order to work for justice, we must be able to work for the liberation of all people– not just people who seem like us.

How are we, as a feminist and inclusive Catholic community, able to work for the liberation of all people, while we also work for our own liberation? How can we, like Elizabeth, welcome people who are different from us—people from different cultures, races, genders and religious backgrounds, and allow ourselves to be changed by that experience? Like Mary and Elizabeth, who were able to use their common experience of unexpected pregnancy to help them bridge generational divides, how can we use our own experiences of marginalization to help us empathize with others who experience injustice?

As a young woman working toward ordination, I have found this community to be such a liberating space for me. A place where I can feel safe to bring my whole self. A place where I’ve been able to work toward my own liberation and healing. But in order for St. Hildy’s to really reach its full potential, we can’t only be working toward the liberation of Catholic women who are called to ordination, like me. In order for St. Hildy’s to truly reach its full potential we have to, like Mary, take the risky journey through the hills to reach out to those who are different from us, and to learn from one another.

That means using our commitment to ecological justice as a way to stand in solidarity with poor people who are most impacted by environmental destruction. It means using our feminist theology to reflect on the ways that patriarchy does violence—often deadly violence—to trans folks and those who don’t fit within the gender binary so that we can reflect on how St. Hildy’s can better include all people—including those who don’t easily fall in the categories of “men” and “women.” And while so many Catholic leaders are using the excuse of “religious liberty” to attempt to legalize discrimination of LGBT people and prevent women from accessing health care, it means taking a strong stand for true religious liberty by walking in solidarity with our Muslim friends who are living under constant threat of discrimination and violence.

When Mary shows up on Elizabeth’s door fearing rejection Elizabeth looks at that poor, scared girl and says “blessed are you.”  You are not sinful or wrong. Your pregnancy isn’t a cause for shame. You are blessed, faithful, holy.

And when Mary hears Elizabeth call her blessed, and she responds to that good news by expanding it—by saying that both of them—and all of us– are blessed. By encountering Elizabeth’s blessedness, Mary is more able to appreciate her own blessedness, and to proclaim the blessedness of all people. In the Magnificat, she invites us to join her in proclaiming a Kin-dom where the powerful are brought down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted up. A place where both she and Elizabeth can find the liberation they seek. A place where all of us—all of us—can be called blessed.

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