Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth
Luke 1: 39-45
Here we have a story that really confronts us with our difference from the world of the New Testament. At first sight it can be a simple story of two cousins meeting to spend time together as they await the birth of their babes. To have such a story, however simple, in the New Testament is rather lovely, a rare glimpse into the real life of women, affirming not confrontative. We could leave it there and enjoy it but clearly, that is not Luke’s intention. Elizabeth is post-menopausal; Mary is probably in her early teens, (do those facts startle you?) There are apparently no witnesses to the encounter yet the author gives it prominence at the start of his gospel account. What is he doing? What’s the point?
He expected his audience to know their Bible, Old Testament and the books we call ‘the Intertestamental Literature’ (all scripture for them). Everything about the account of this meeting and the hymn we call The Magnificat, have echoes and resonances with the sacred texts, pointing to the One who was to come. The purpose, therefore, of this story is to prepare the reader for what is to follow. Reading these words, informed by their back references, the reader gets clued in to the story that is to unfold. In other words, these early stories are verbal icons, in the true meaning of the word, that at which we gaze and through the visible become aware of the invisible, through the temporal and material we connect to the imperishable and eternal. Today, we do not know the back story, do not have access (without scholarly aid) to all that lies behind and so we are constrained to take the event at face value, and thereby are immeasurably deprived of the richness that lies within.
Not having this literary foundation, we can only apply our familiar criteria for truth and this is where the difference I mentioned at the start becomes apparent. When someone recounts an event to us, in detail, unless they have signaled that it is ‘a story’ or ‘a joke’ we expect them to be telling the truth, by which we mean that the events, the words, the acts all actually, in real time, happened. We would be uncomfortable if the story was told, in order to convey an overwhelming truth, by means of recognised motifs, echoes of earlier times, emblems and symbols which carried great meaning for the listeners. At the end we would still be saying, “Yes, but is it true?” That would have been a non- question for Luke and his converts, for whom what mattered was that people accepted the gift of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, rejoiced in the Resurrection to new life and awaited His return with joy.
Two thousand and more years on we are struggling to make sense of texts that were not written for such distant generations of Christians, nevertheless, until fairly recent times, the question of truth would have been blasphemous. Even today there are some who are uncomfortable with its implications. That’s fine. Belief in the literal, historic truth of the gospel stories has this long history, it is only in the last hundred or so years that different questions have been asked. Some will say those questions cast doubt on the faith, others will say they immeasurably enrich it, our stand point will depend on many, mostly non-rational, cues. Our early training, our emotional commitments, needs, desires and especially our sense of safety all play a part in how we express our soul’s needs. For all the people who remain faithful to the church and to the literal truth there are many who find the stories unlikely, improbable, mythic in the worst sense, comparable to fairy stories and totally irrelevant to life today. To be able to offer these people a perfectly valid, historically authentic interpretation which does not do violence to their intellect seems to me to be a worthwhile quest. Maybe the real question is: Does one’s faith rest in the verbal accounts of events that happened in another world many, many years ago, or does it rest in relationship to Ever-Present Divinity, though founded in and informed by those far off events?
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