There are some parts of the Christmas story that easily get overlooked, aren’t there? And Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (Lk 1.39-45), sandwiched as it is between the annunciation to Mary by Gabriel and Mary’s great song of praise, the Magnificat, is one of them. And yet as Luke begins his two-volume work designed to increase Theophilus’s assurance of the things he has been taught (1.4), this is one of the events he thinks is worthy of our attention. Why? What is so significant about this visit?
Why does Mary make the visit in the first place? It’s about a 100 mile journey from Nazareth to Elizabeth’s house – Mary is not just scooting round the block to call in on a relative. Luke tells us that she went ‘with haste’ (1.45). Why the rush? Let me suggest two reasons.
Surely one reason is to strengthen Mary’s faith.She already believes—unlike Zechariah who didn’t believe Gabriel’s news about his miracle baby (1.20) and asked for a sign (1.18), Mary didn’t doubt the amazing message Gabriel brought to her; she didn’t ask for a sign to confirm God’s word. But in his kindness and grace the Lord gives her one anyway: ‘And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.’ (1.36)
Mary believed, but surely after the angel left her she must have started to wonder if she had dreamt the whole thing. Or maybe she misunderstood the meaning of the message? Since God had given her a sign to help her believe, it would be the height of ingratitude and arrogance not to go and see it.
What a shot in the arm this first meeting with Elizabeth must have been to Mary’s faith! Not only is Elizabeth, this barren woman ‘advanced in years’ (1.7) standing there heavily pregnant, just as the angel said, but she knows all about Mary’s secret—not only that Mary is going to have a baby too, but that her baby will be the Lord! How could Elizabeth have known all this unless God had revealed it to her?!
Luke clearly intends this to strengthen Theophilus’s faith, and our faith too as we read these words today.
Surely the main reason for the journey and the haste, however, is to get the help and support that God has provided for her in Elizabeth. Try to put yourself in Mary’s shoes and imagine the burden this young girl is carrying! This 12 or 13 year old girl from Nowheresville is going to miraculously conceive and bear the Messiah. She is the ‘woman’ of Genesis 3.15! She is the virgin of Isaiah 7! An angel from heaven appeared and told her! How lonely must Mary have felt! Her head must have been bursting with questions and her imagination running riot. Who could she talk to? Her parents? Joseph? No-one would believe her or understand. Joseph made plans to divorce her when he found out—he didn’t believe the story (Mt 1.19). How could she process it all and begin to come to terms with the enormity of it all?
Surely Mary was feeling overhwhelmed by the privilege and responsibility of her task, vulnerable, isolated and apprehensive about the future. There must have been a hundred emotions coursing through her heart. And at just this moment the Lord in his kindness gives her this lifeline—someone to talk to; not just a random stranger either, but a relative. An older, wiser, godly believer. Someone going through something very similar to Mary. In his kindness the Lord gives Mary three months to spend with Elizabeth, to prepare her for going back to Nazareth to face all that was to come.
Can you imagine the weight that must have rolled off Mary’s shoulders when she heard Elizabeth’s greeting? The deep sigh of relief and tears of joy and thankfulness. She doesn’t have to try to explain everything—Elizabeth already knows. She doesn’t have to convince her—she already believes. Every word Elizabeth speaks, filled by the Spirit, must have brought unspeakable comfort to Mary.
But how typical this is of our heavenly Father! How kind and compassionate, gracious and merciful he is. He remembers that we are dust and gives us the help and support we most need at the moment when we need it most. Isn’t that why he sent his Son to be born of Mary in the first place?