Lent (Day 19) — “A Study in Joy — the Visitation”

As he does, from time to time, in his book, Between Heaven and Mirth, James Martin now turns from his disquisition on joy to look at a biblical instance of it.  In this brief chapter, or interlude, he looks at the story of the Visitation (the visit by Mary to her sister, Elizabeth, then pregnant with John the Baptist, who leaps for joy in her womb when Mary visits).  The visitation comes after the annunciation, when Mary has been informed by the angel Gabriel, that she is pregnant with he who will be a savior.  Both stories come from the Gospel of Luke.  The stories leading up to the birth of Jesus are of a type with the “birth of the hero” in pagan mythology — a young woman, beloved of some god (usually Zeus), is made pregnant by the god, and then either departs, or is cast aside by her people.  The story of the annunciation and visitation fit this narrative pattern — 1) the young girl finds out that she is now pregnant through some mysterious circumstances, and 2) she goes away (here to help her sister Elizabeth who is also somewhat mysteriously with child — she’s supposed to be too old).  And for pagan listeners (Luke is mainly aiming at the Gentile audience), that similarity would certainly come to mind.  The counter argument that would be made by devout Christians is that the birth of Jesus is an historical incident.  Well, the historical reality of a Jesus, known as the Christ, is most likely.  But this narrative follows the rules of such miraculous births and is not history.  Even if you accept Jesus as a person who did live in the 1st c. AD (or CE), his condition as divine, and Mary’s condition as a virgin, who gives birth somehow miraculously, is still a matter of faith, or of acceptance in some other way.  

That does not change, as I see it, the value of the story.  This is a story, as Martin describes it, of joy and of joyfully accepting God’s will.  Even if you don’t believe in a personal god, it is possible to say “yes” to life, say “yes” to the universe.  And that’s what the story is all about — Mary, a girl who had a lot to be worried about and frightened of (she was a young girl, after all, and pregnant under mysterious circumstances doesn’t win you any friends in a moralistic society), says yes to life.  It is an act of submission, but also an statement of readiness to play a part in the unfolding universe.  Even if one has no choice — one’s in the game of life whether one likes it or not — saying yes to it, and stepping up, is a brave and wondrous thing.  And her own concern for her sister Elizabeth and the love that the two share (she doesn’t get kicked out of the family, as might very well happen in the “hero’s birth” stories) is something worthy of praise, and does bring joy to this reader, in any event.  

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