Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as she could into the hill country in a town in Judah. She went to Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. Now it happened that as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She gave a loud cry and said, ‘Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord. Look, the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.
And Mary said:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
because he has looked upon the humiliation of his servant.
Yes, from now onwards all generations will call me blessed,
for the Almighty has done great things for me.
Holy is his name. (Luke 1:39-49, NJB)
Yesterday, 30 May, was the Feast of the Visitation, but because it conflicted with Trinity Sunday, most churches, if they celebrate it at all, will do so today. We make much more of Mary than we do of Elizabeth, which is probably right–but Elizabeth was the first to voice recognition that Mary was about to bring the divine presence in the form of flesh and blood. Which sounds a lot like making theargument that Mary was the prototype of Christian priest, which in turn leads to the assertion that women as priests was always part of God’s intention for the church, and therefore it is male priesthood which presents the real problems and raises the important objections.
But that is an old argument that I’ve made many times. My real question today is what does this cycle of annunciation/visitation/nativity tell us about what real Christian family values are?
Most of the time, when preachers and politicians and even most sincerely believing lay Christians talk about “Christian family values”, I find myself needing some Benadryl. Because what I mainly hear is words about “sanctity of marriage”, “sexual purity” (mostly enforced on women by their fathers in anticipation of delivering “undamaged goods” to a future husband), children needing or having a “right” to be raised by a two-parent heterosexual couple where one (usually the mother) stays home to dote on the children and get supper on the table sharply at six for her hard working man.
Then, we look at the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, and we have to think, maybe that isn’t really Christian family values. Because what we see in the stories of Mary, Elizabeth, and Joseph is the following:
- An unmarried teenage girl who is pregnant, and cannot even tell you the Father’s name.
- An older female relative willing to harbor a fugitive from the law in order to help her sort out this difficult situation (remember, sexual intercourse outside marriage was a capital offense, and what better evidence than unwed pregnancy?)
- This older relative was in the midst of her own difficult, unexpected pregnancy.
- A religious leader was a silent partner in helping a young mother in her time of need.
- A man who chooses to raise a child he knows isn’t his, when he could have shamed his supposedly-pure betrothed wife.
The Visitation is a good day to remember that Christians worship a bastard raised by a cuckold. We worship what should have, by the religious standards of the place and time, been a source of shame and proof of guilt. We worship a bad joke, a dirty secret.
Which means we have no right to be prissy about “traditional” family values. The family Jesus was born into was far from the standards his time, place, and religious tradition would consider respectable. Today we’d call Mary a slut or a welfare queen; we’d call Elizabeth an “enabler”.
And yet, this is the Holy Family.
It’s a good day to remember those people who have nurtured families under less-than-ideal social and economic circumstances, even at great inconvenience to themselves. It’s a great time to give thanks for religious leaders who shut up and helped rather than judged. (Of course, Zechariah didn’t have a lot of choice in that matter, but still.)
Let’s rethink real Christian family values. Pulling together when things look insurmountably difficult. Helping each other figure out difficult situations, without judgment or prissiness. Making sure innocent children don’t suffer for the supposed mistakes or sins of their parents. Giving thanks for those who want to dedicate themselves to fostering, adopting, and raising children who desperately need homes–whether as single parents, or as couples of any combination of genders.
That way, maybe our souls, and our lives, can proclaim the greatness of the Lord.