Life, like birth, takes time. It has a long gestation. The bloom appears only after a slow unfolding of the bud, wherein every moment of development finally participates in the glory of the full flower. We never quite grasp the process until it’s over.
Yet, strangely unlike life, we anxious humans are impatient with process. We are restless with our beginnings, our smallness. It is hard to wait, to trust that something good and great will come of all the mute moments in between.
It is the same with a people’s promise. Israel, seemingly condemned to insignificance, was a people called to faith, by the prophet Micah, that God’s guarantee would somehow come true. “Bethlehem, too small to be among the clans of Judah ... from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.” Out of their hidden smallness would rise a mighty and wondrous shepherd whose greatness could span the ends of the earth.
What the infancy narratives are all about is a subject of contention. The most considered and delicate judgments can be found in the commentaries of Raymond E. Brown, SS. Yet no matter what we make of these accounts of Jesus’ origins, they reveal that his “yes” was made possible only by an earlier act of trust. The Virgin believed that greatness would be worked out of her own life, her own womb. She believed the promise of God and, in doing so, gave birth to the promise.
The Gospel story of the Visitation is a wondrous convergence of insignificance and portent. Two cousins greet, one running to assist the other, both pregnant with life and faith. The hidden unborn quickens the triumph of faith in Elizabeth who, despite all appearances, recognizes in Mary the mother of her Lord: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. ... The moment your greeting sounded in my ears, the baby stirred in my womb for joy.”
The secret encounter of these hitherto unknown women announces the future course not only of four lives, but of the world.
When I read this Gospel, I often imagine the women of the Visitation; not those two in the hill country of Judah, but those in our midst. They are a religious community that by worldly measure is not only hidden, but too small and fragile to have a future. Yet in the scope of eternity, greater works may be done in their hearts than in the plans and projects of mayors and managers who deem their own roles strategic. Politicians come and go; smug party operatives assume the throne of pride and prominence. But somehow it is the fragile and silent that live on.
And what could be more fragile and quiet than two unborn children? Surely we in this abortion culture know that much. The child before birth is voiceless and vulnerable. Those who are small and insignificant are simply that: not big and not important. They can easily be expunged from our personal thoughts and our political discourse. But with hope, with trust, with patience—gifts of the pregnant mother—life is born again in every child yessed into life.
Any mother who has ever been with child in faith, who has ever been pregnant in hope, has rushed to the friend, the compatriot, the spouse, the family and announced the good news. The promise is terribly precarious. Anything can happen, suddenly, brusquely, and definitively. But the hope remains, and over time faith’s long labor yields life.
In some ways, I think, God is most appropriately thought of as a mother. What an act of courage it takes to complete the task. What a demand upon the ego, one’s time, one’s plans, one’s privacy. There can never again be a thought of oneself alone. One’s world is now invaded by the invitations and intrusions of the unplanned visitor, the unexpected guest. Pregnancy is the emergence of the other within, an other which is one with oneself, but not oneself. All love is borne this way.
Visitation is not only the paradigm of God in our lives. It is also the way we enter each other.
Our loves and hopes are fragile, growing things. They require nourishment; they take time. Nothing great and enduring happens fast. So we wait; we trust. Could we believe that the promise God wove into our very souls might give birth to something big? Could we hope that something so small and fragile in us could someday walk free and upright and joyous?
The question of every mother who ever birthed a child is the question of our own dear God birthing us, calling us into a precarious existence.
Is it worth it all? “Blessed is the one who believed the promise.” So it was with Mary. So it is with God.