Though I’ve heard the story of Mary’s visit from Gabriel and trip to see Elizabeth practically every Christmas of my life, there are at least three major aspects of Mary and Elizabeth’s experiences and interaction that had escaped me entirely. First, the nature of Mary’s journey. Elizabeth’s home in Judaea (the region surrounding Jerusalem) was approximately 85 miles from Mary’s in Nazareth, over extremely mountainous territory varying thousands of feet in elevation. That’s a huge journey on foot for a pregnant woman (not to mention the return journey several months along!)
Being that far from home would have given her an escape from a possibly complicated home situation, and space to process what was happening to her in a safe setting. The single fact that she made such a long, rugged journey, possibly on her own, all while pregnant makes for a far more robust view of Mary than I’d ever had before. She was certainly more than the soft, demure lady generally portrayed!
Second, I had my eyes opened to the state of things in the household (and town) given Zechariah’s vision and muteness and two “oppositely” miraculous conceptions: Mary’s young virgin pregnancy and Elizabeth’s old barren pregnancy. Elizabeth, having recently become miraculously pregnant with John the Baptist, would have been an understanding condfidante. Also, just imagine the situation in that little village. Old Zechariah comes home from his priestly service – perhaps the one time in his life he’d be chosen by lot to burn incense at the Temple – completely mute and writing stories about an angel. Then his wife, despite the fact that she’s both barren and probably post-menopausal, becomes pregnant. Then their young relative – by all accounts a godly virgin, betrothed to a godly young man – visits and starts showing signs of pregnancy too! I still have no idea what the buzz around town would have been, but things must have been buzzing for sure. (And what must life in that household have been like during the months of Mary’s visit? Two pregnant women and a husband who can’t speak. Good times…)
Finally, I’d never really paid attention to the fact that Joseph was likely unaware of the situation. Joseph gets his own angelic visitation, but it’s not until after he’s learned about Mary’s pregnancy and is considering divorce for infidelity. He did not visit Elizabeth with Mary, and chances are that he didn’t even know she was pregnant until her return. (She was 85 miles away, after all, and news traveled mainly on foot back then.)
This leads to a whole new picture of Mary’s inner turmoil as she faces questions of what to do next, how to break the news to Joseph, where to find protection and provision if Joseph divorced her, etc. I tended to imagine Mary and Joseph’s angelic visits as roughly simultaneous, but clearly that, at least, is a mistake. Considering all this greatly re-awakened my awareness of the question of how one faces the mundane daily-life complications brought on by being chosen by God for a magnificent and unorthodox role. When we look closely at the Bible, we see it’s rarely as straightforward as we’d tend to imagine. Just because God told you may not make things simple after all.