For many years I wore a necklace with a holy medal that depicted “The Visitation” of Mary and Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45). I bought the medal at the Church of the Visitation on a pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine in the mid-1980s. Tradition says the church is built on the site of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home. A natural spring bubbles up in “Mary’s grotto” and brightly colored tiles, with a translation of the Magnificat in more than 40 languages, line the courtyard. The view of the Judean hills and valleys is magnificent. Sadly, the Palestinian population of the town largely has been displaced.
Sitting in the shade of that courtyard brought the story of Mary and Elizabeth alive in a way I’d never known before. It’s a story that has provoked me and encouraged me ever since.
Mary is a variant of Miriam. Miriam was one of the three primary leaders of the exodus, along with Aaron and her brother Moses. She was a prophet. Both Mary and Miriam’s names carry the echoes of the word “bitter” (see Ruth 1:20) for the bitterness that was pressed down on the people in the time of Pharaoh and in the time of the Roman occupation of Israel and destruction of the Temple. In some translations Mary or Maryam’s name is “sea of bitterness.”
The story of Maryam, in Luke’s narrative, mirrors the crisis that caused Moses to flee Egypt. In Exodus 2:12, Moses murders an Egyptian soldier. It’s premeditated, and it’s an act of treason against Pharaoh. He “flees” (2:15) from his death sentence to the land of Midian.
Maryam also “flees” (Luke 1:39). Not because she has committed murder but because she is “untimely pregnant,” as Richard W. Swanson notes in his excellent article “Magnificat and Crucifixion.” Not only is she pregnant outside the clan arrangement, but it’s very possible that she belongs to a priestly family. This pregnancy, an affront to the social and religious order, is a crime that may be punished by death—either by stoning, strangling, or burning (according to the ancient legal tractates).
Maryam doesn’t wait to be dragged into the streets as part of an honor killing, as Swanson frames it. Instead, she heads for the hills of Judah—perhaps to the “castles and towers” (2 Chronicles 27:4) built there by King Jotham—where her kinswoman Elizabeth (or “Elisheva”) would offer her protection. Elisheva was a descendant of Aaron (Luke 1:5) and thus a powerful priestly leader in her own right, as well as with her husband, Zechariah.
What happens when Maryam approaches Elisheva’s gates? The baby in Elisheva’s womb leaps and dances in response to Maryam’s greeting—as David did before the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:16). And Elisheva leads the gathered community in a loud song of rejoicing. She pours out her blessing on Maryam and on her baby—a sign of Maryam’s bravery and radical prophetic hope. Who am I, asks Elisheva—she of the priestly lineage whose family business it was to study the prophecies of God and believe they would be fulfilled—that I should welcome the one who truly believed that the promises of God would be kept?
Maryam, like her foremothers Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10) and Judith (13:18), sings the responsive canticle: With all my heart I make great the faithfulness of God. My whole soul claps with gladness that our Rescuer-God has come. Why? Because God has “taken note” (Exodus 3:16) of us in our oppression and desolation. And not just us, but generations to come will receive this blessing, for God has made me great with possibility and posterity. The Mighty Deliverer has liberated us. The God of Israel is God alone and has chosen me, though I have done nothing to deserve it but lifted my eyes and acknowledged God’s name. God’s strength has winnowed out the ones who will not lift up their heads and will not say God’s perfect name. Instead, God has fouled their perfect plans. Power-mongers are yanked off their high horses and the put-upon are raised up. The hungry, God will overflow with goodness. The stuffed, God sends out to the road to beg. The suffering servant Israel, God takes up in her arms to remind us how much we are cherished. Just as God promised to our forebears, and Abraham, and the children of Abraham and Sarah, for all time.
The rabbis tell us that “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as having personally gone out from Egypt.” Using our sanctified imagination, can we—as disciples of the coming Christ Child—see ourselves also as Maryam, the one who bears God to the world through a “sea of bitterness”? How will we sing her canticle today?
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.