In the Gospel of Luke 1:39-45, 56, we read how Mary reaches out to her older cousin Elizabeth. Mary, young, impoverished, unmarried and pregnant, is not worrying so much about her personal predicament, but rather she is focused on trying to help her elderly cousin cope with her own pregnancy. This is astonishing. Mary, unwed and pregnant, knew the punishment she faced – stoning. She has nothing but the story
of an angel to tell her parents and her Joseph, the man to whom she is betrothed in marriage. Joseph would be well within his rights – even within his duty – to expose her sin and witness her execution. Any one of us in Mary’s situation would be frantic with worry for our own safety. But the Gospel lesson does not tell us this. It simply says that Mary got ready to visit her cousin and that she stayed with her three months. If she were really trying to flee her fate, she would never have gone to her cousin’s place. Given that Elizabeth was married to a well-known priest of the Temple, that would have been one of the first places where the authorities would have looked for Mary. No, this journey was not about escape. It was about caring for a beloved family member.
Why is Mary so concerned about her cousin Elizabeth? Well, for starters, Elizabeth now finds herself with child at an advanced age. At home with an elderly husband who is both deaf and mute, she is now six months pregnant. Because of her age and condition, it is no longer possible for her to go and draw water from the village well. It is no longer possible to go to market to her shopping or to look after the crops in her garden. So, Mary goes to stay with her cousin for the remainder of Elizabeth’s pregnancy because she wants to help her.
Now keep in mind that this was not just a short trip around the block for Mary. No. This was a 125-kilometer trek by foot and donkey by a pregnant 14-year-old. And when she arrives for a three-month stay, there is no mention of any housewarming gifts in tow, no talk of food platters or beautifully wrapped baby gifts. Mary has nothing to give her cousin. Like the song about the little drummer boy who has no gift to bring the baby Jesus, Mary is just a poor peasant girl from the backwater of Nazareth, who also has no gift to share.
That is, she has no material gift to share. But she does have something far more valuable to give Elizabeth: the gift of her presence, the gift of her love and care, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and two strong arms with which to draw water, tend gardens and prepare meals.
This is what Mary’s visit did for Elizabeth. Mary’s visit was gift and grace and comfort to Elizabeth. So, too, the family and friends and neighbours we visit this holiday season give us an opportunity to bring the same gift and face and comfort into their lives. The people we reach out to in the food bank or the shelter or the out of the cold meal, receive the presence of Christ through our presence and are thereby brought closer to God.
You know, it’s so easy to drop by the mall or go online and order a gift; but how much lovelier is it when we make time to be with others and give the gift of ourselves, as Mary gave to Elizabeth. This is the gift that many people long for but do not receive at Christmas or any other time of the year. Why? Why are so many people denied this important gift?
Consider the story of the lawyer who lived over 800 kilometers away from her elderly father. They had not seen each in several months. The father calls her up and asks, “When are you going to visit?” The daughter proceeds to tell him about the demands on her time, her court schedule, meetings, and son on and so on, that prevent her from visiting. So, the father says, “You must tell me something I’ve been wondering about for some time now. When I die, so you intend to come to my funeral?” The lawyer responds, “Dad! I can’t believe you’d ask that. Of course, I’d come to your funeral.” The father replies, “Good. Let’s make a deal. Forget the funeral. I need you more now than I will then.”
What did the lawyer’s father desire? Her presence. He wanted to see her, to talk to her, to spend time with her. What got in the way? Busyness. Busyness is the enemy of so much good we might do for and with others. Busyness robs us of so much valuable time that we might spend with loved ones and friends. It is the source of much loneliness in the world and it robs people of our presence.
Mary might have had many worries on her mind, but her fears did not get in the way of caring for and being present to Elizabeth. She was there for her when she was needed.
Who are the people in your life – the relatives and friends and neighbours – who would receive your presence as a blessing? How can you give them the best gift of all this holiday season? Indeed, as many of us have discerned only upon entering the second half of life, there is one gift that is far superior to any we will ever receive, and it is one that we will never find under our Christmas tree. It is the gift of time, presence, and caring. Dear friends, may you be blessed with many beautiful moments spent with caring friends this Christmas and in the coming New Year.