What motivated Mary to walk 80 miles for days to visit her relative in the hill country of Judah? Why is this story important for us?
Luke 1:11-20: “Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him he was startled and gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of their fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’
Zechariah asked the angel, ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.
The angel answered, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.’
Luke 1: 24-25: After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. ‘In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.’
Luke 1: 39-45: At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!’
The Visitation, 1640 by Rembrandt van Rijn
This story is the dramatic and happy reunion of two cousins – the Virgin Mary and her older cousin, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Both women are pregnant because of a miracle. In the background we see Joseph, the man Mary is engaged to and Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth who is speechless. We also see two servants and the family pet!
This is one of Rembrandt’s best paintings because of the way he uses light to show the purity and youthful face of Mary. The light is also said to illustrate Rembrandt’s understanding of the redemption that comes with Jesus Christ! Rembrandt knows how to tell a story by intimately engaging the viewer with a scene in the darkness of the night.
For Luther, Mary in this visit with her cousin is an excellent pattern for praising God in signing her song of thanks (the Magnificent). Mary expresses thanks through her words and experiences of how to know, love, and praise God despite that she is a teenager, uneducated, and poor. She follows the words of King David in Psalm 44:7-8, ‘that God’s saints should praise God.’ (Robert Kolb, Luther and the Stories of God, 136)
Luther loved this story because it demonstrates a faithful relationship between human beings. He emphasized Mary’s faithfulness to her family and God in his in his 1532 sermon. In this sermon he describes Mary’s journey to visit her cousin singing the Magnificat along the way while she is walking over rugged terrain and mountainous hills. He views her making this trip like a faithful servant, heading straight to her destination to help her cousin, Elizabeth. Without question, the lesson of this story for Luther is one of serving others willingly and humbly, even should one consider themselves are more important or entitled than the person in need. (Robert Kolb, Luther and the Stories of God, 165)