Nestled in the hills southwest of Jerusalem is the beautiful Church of the Visitation, built on the traditional site of the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Over the altar is a luminous painting of Mary.
In contrast to other paintings of the Visitation, we don’t see her greeting Elizabeth. Rather, we who look on sit in the place of Elizabeth, greeting Mary as she comes up through the hills to the house. She has paused in her approach and stands with her arms out, palms up in a traditional position of prayer. Her elbows are tight by her side, and the effect of her posture – and of all lines in the painting, which point inward – is to draw attention to the focal point of her womb.
“Look, Elizabeth,” she might be saying – “Here he is!” Only there is no sign of what she carries, no sign of what the dove and the angels and the hills and even the shrubs are pointing to. Mary’s stomach is flat. The Lord is hidden within her; yet nature already rejoices.
I sat in that chapel and read Luke’s gospel about the Visitation and put myself in Elizabeth’s place. What did she see? Just her young virgin cousin coming through the hills, at first. But “when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Lk 1:41-42)
Seeing that painting made me wonder: how often does Jesus comes to us like that, in hidden and unexpected ways? It might be hard to see him in our neighbor; but maybe he is just a seed, planted and waiting to grow.
This Advent, I want to look for Jesus in the unlikely; in the poor, the unlovely, the ignored and forgotten. He’s coming soon! Help me, Holy Spirit, to see you when you come.
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Thanks to my friend Kate, I offer two stanzas of a lovely poem by Thomas Merton, who wrote it in 1949. It comes with prayers that you, even if you’re hidden away yourself, like John the Baptist was, will “bound with the echoes of discovery” this Advent:
Excerpt from “The Quickening of John the Baptist”
The day Our Lady, full of Christ,
Entered the dooryard of her relative
Did not her steps, light steps, lay on the paving leaves
Did not her eyes as grey as doves
Alight like the peace of a new world upon that house, upon
Sings in the stone valley like a Charterhouse bell:
And the unborn saint John
Wakes in his mother’s body,
Bounds with the echoes of discovery.