In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
As powerful as Mary’s story and Mary’s song are, there’s much that I want to know about the events not told in the Gospel story today. Perhaps I should be more comfortable with the mystery of it all and simply receive the passage as it comes to us rather than trying to fill in the spaces. Perhaps my questioning reflects a desire to grasp and control the story instead of allowing it to do its work on me. But I still want to know why Mary would travel to the hill country to see her cousin Elizabeth, why she decided to leave Joseph and her community at this time, and most of all, why she went with haste. Was it her choice to get away for a while, or had the decision been made for her? Was she, in fact, forced to leave town in order to save herself and her family from the shame of an untimely pregnancy?
I can’t finally answer these questions, of course, just as one can never presume what another person might be experiencing in any circumstance. A pregnancy is an especially complicated time, often filled with joy and excitement and worry and wondering. Many women have gone through it, but I doubt that any two women have experienced it in exactly the same way. Mary and Elizabeth would have had very different experiences—Mary being so young, and Elizabeth being so old. Maybe there was shame for both of them, maybe there was great fear, certainly there was similar astonishment over the whole thing.
Whatever the two women might have been feeling about the events taking place in their lives, another astonishing thing happened when Mary approached Elizabeth’s house. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, overflowed with joy and blessing: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” she said. And in response, Mary sang out her song of joy: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Two women, in a precarious position out in the hill country of Judea, blessed one another through their presence and words and singing together. And we, like generations before us, are also blessed.
More than all of my questions about this passage, it is the power of blessing others that has struck me this week of final preparations for Christmas. When peace and joy seem lacking in our world, we would do well to follow the example of Mary and Elizabeth and bless one another. Amazing things can happen when we allow God’s grace to overflow as they did.
Peter Marty wrote about blessing in his column last month The Lutheran magazine. He was prompted to reflect on the topic after an experience at his son’s wedding. He said that thirty minutes before the ceremony, the officiating rabbi invited the whole family into a dining hall outside the chapel. He announced that every person of the wedding party, each family member and friend, was going to whisper a private blessing the two getting married. And that’s what happened. Each person followed in turn, whispering words of love to the couple before giving them a kiss on the cheek—one after another. What a gift that must have been.
I have to confess that if I were an attendant in the wedding, I would feel at least a little uncomfortable being asked to bless on the spot. Even with some time to prepare, giving a blessing to another person is not something most of us are particularly accustomed to doing. But maybe we need a little more practice.
Several years ago, I visited St. Meinrad Benedictine Monastery in southern Indiana. It’s a beautiful site, founded nearly 200 years ago, and it’s now home to a theological school and a community of about 100 monks. One of those brothers, one who lived and prayed at that place for decades, gave me a tour that day. He knew the campus better than anyone, I imagine, and he didn’t just tell me about the various rooms but as he slowly shuffled through the halls he also shared personal stories about the artists who had worked there and whom he had known. “See that sculpture,” he asked? “That face was modeled after one of my friends who died a couple of years ago.” Along the way, he talked about trips he had taken all around the world and even a visit he had with Mother Teresa.
Then at the end of the tour, standing in the great worship space before evening prayer, he said to me, “Before I go, would you give me a blessing?” I must have looked puzzled, so he said, “I don’t think we bless one another enough, so if you don’t mind, I’d like you to bless me.” Then he bowed his bald head in front of me. I wasn’t sure what to do. I thought of reminding him that I wasn’t Catholic and explaining that we Lutherans don’t do this sort of thing. I also didn’t feel qualified to offer him a blessing; he seemed like a sort of spiritual superhero to me at the time. What did I have to give him? After pausing a second, I reached out my hand and made the sign of the cross on his head. I think I said, “Almighty God bless you now and forever.” He smiled and said thank you. But still, I couldn’t help but think that he was looking for something else.
I’ve thought about that moment from time to time over the past dozen years. I’ve decided that if I had it to do over, I would give a different blessing. I would say something like, “I give thanks to God for you…for your wise, courageous, and gentle spirit. Your dedication to a life of prayer inspires me, and the time you have spent with me has blessed me. May you know just how delighted God is with you, now and always.”
Well, I don’t have it to do over. I don’t remember the monk’s name, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is no longer living. But I do have plenty of opportunity each day to bless others—family, friends, and even new acquaintances.
Peter Marty writes:
To bless another person involves more than communicating some vague expression of goodwill, though we often do that when someone sneezes. The act of blessing actually transfers a portion of our soul’s energy and vitality into the soul of another. This is what happens when parents lean over their child’s crib to sing a lullaby or pray their little one to sleep. This speaking a word of grace and power is what occurs during a Christian healing service when participants discover, through the anointing grace of a friend or pastor, that the Lord’s grasp on their life is stronger than the grip of any personal affliction besieging them.
Mary’s beautiful and powerful song, which we know as the magnificat, is a song of praise and joy even in the midst of what I can only assume was an overwhelming, fearful time. She expresses the greatness of God and gratitude for her own blessedness. God has chosen her and blessed her with astounding grace. And God’s grace is for the whole world.
In a poem about Mary, Pastor Michael Coffey writes:
You magnify us with your round looking glass
and see our microscopic lives as large
and our greatness you smoke out with focused light
These lines give me another definition of blessing: to magnify the greatness in other people, to hold up a magnifying glass so that they and others can see the gifts of God that they bear and uniquely give birth to in the world.
As a church, we can bless one another. In fact, we do bless in this way whenever we celebrate a baptism. We say to the children of God at the font that they are blessed, that each one has a unique light for shining in the world. But our blessing shouldn’t end when the water has dried. Each of us needs to hear this promise of grace repeatedly. Each of us needs blessing.
Blessing, Mary reminds us, is both for us and for the whole world. After being blessed by Elizabeth, Mary describes God’s wonderful intentions for the world, where value is not associated only with power and might, where goodness is present in places of poverty, too, and where the weak are treasured. It’s a world where blessing is discovered and publically called out even in the most surprising places. There may be fear and worry and injustice and a lack of peace in our world, but the world, Mary proclaims, is about to turn.
Mary, the mother of God, the prophet of salvation, blesses us. She helps to see the greatness of our own lives and the world around us. In the face of fear and despair, she leads us to sing with defiant hope our songs of joy. And it all began with a blessing.