by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
One of my favorite places in the Holy Land is Ein Karem, the place in the hill country of Judea where the pregnant Mary came to visit her pregnant cousin Elizabeth.
For those who wish to pretend that the Scriptures are silent regarding the dignity of human life in its earliest stages, this meeting of Elizabeth and Mary proves problematic.
St. Luke tells us that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant in her womb leapt for joy. This image of John the Baptist leaping in the womb of Elizabeth is reminiscent of the great King David dancing and leaping for joy as he brought the Ark of the Covenant from a place not far from Ein Karem to Jerusalem. The unborn John the Baptist leaps for joy in the presence of the new Ark of the Covenant, who carries in her womb something even more precious than the tablets upon which God inscribed the Ten Commandments. John in the womb of Elizabeth recognizes Jesus in the womb of Mary as the Word made flesh.
Elizabeth is the first in the Bible to acknowledge Jesus. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, she cried out in a loud voice, in other words, screamed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Elizabeth then names what makes Mary so extraordinary as she says: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
Mary’s greatness was her absolute trust in the promises made to her by God. Even though from a human perspective what Gabriel said to her was impossible, Mary trusted that nothing is impossible with God.
We sometimes trivialize the term “miracle.” We give the title “miracle” to events such as the U.S. hockey team beating Russia in 1980 or the Cubs winning the World Series or KU beating Texas in football. These are certainly improbable events, but they are not miracles.
Mary was asked to believe in the greatest miracle in human history. Mary’s blessedness was that she believed in God’s promise to her. She believed the child being knit together in her womb — who was flesh of her flesh — was not just any child, but the Messiah, the long-awaited one.
Mary trusted, despite what she described as her lowliness, that God was asking her to accept both an incredible dignity and mission, to be the Ark of the New Covenant, the bearer of the Son of God. Mary believed as truly as Jesus was her son, he was also the only begotten Son of God. Mary believed not in her own worthiness, but rather that all things were possible with God.
Mary continued to believe in God’s promise even on Calvary where she witnessed the brutal execution of her son. When from the cross Jesus entrusted John to be her son, Mary embraced this new dimension of her maternal mission to be the mother of the church, the mother of the body of Christ.
In addition to being the mother of Jesus, Mary is also rightly called his first disciple. We are all called to follow her example by trusting that God’s promises to us will also be fulfilled.
At the time of our baptism, we made promises, rejecting evil and professing our faith in the triune God and his church. If we were baptized as infants, then our parents and godparents made these promises on our behalf. At the time of our confirmation, we made these promises our own. Every Easter, we renew our baptismal vows.
At our baptism, God also made some awesome commitments to us. First, God gave us a share in the very life of Jesus, making us his adopted sons and daughters.
Essentially, God made us living tabernacles that carry his life within us. Through baptism and confirmation, we became the anointed of the Lord, sharing in the kingship, the priesthood and the prophecy of Jesus. As our baptismal candle was lit from the Easter candle, the church’s principal liturgical symbol of the risen Jesus, God gave us an eternal destiny to live with him and the saints forever.
Many Israelis from Jerusalem come to Ein Karem, not because of any religious significance, but because of its physical beauty as well as its popular cafes and restaurants. When I was walking out of the church revered as the birth place of John the Baptist, three young adults came up to me and asked me about the meaning of this place.
It turned out they were three off-duty Israeli soldiers who had come to Ein Karem to enjoy the scenery and a good meal. They were intrigued by the steady flow of tour buses bringing pilgrims literally from every corner of the world. They were curious about the meaning of the two beautiful churches — the Basilica of the Visitation and the Church of the Nativity of John the Baptist.
I attempted to share with them the miracle of God’s grace that had taken place there 2,000 years ago. They seemed genuinely interested in learning about Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist, Elizabeth and Zechariah. I wish that I could have spent more time with them.
During the Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas seasons, we will spend time visiting with family and friends. At Ein Karem, Mary and Elizabeth supported and encouraged each other as they embraced God’s will and their unique roles in human salvation.
Despite what can be the hectic pace of these days, may we remember that we, too, are people of the promise. Let us ask Mary to protect us from an unbelieving world that seeks to sow seeds of doubt that the promises God has made to us will be fulfilled.
Instead, may we radiate the joy of someone who carries the life of God and the hope of heaven!
May we encourage all those we encounter during these weeks to embrace God’s will and plan for them.
May we help others to know the greatest miracle in human history and the promise of life and joy it offers to us and to them!