The Kindness of Kin and the Friendship of Women

The feast of the Visitation is the only Marian feast to occur during Our Lady’s month of May, but it is one everyone can like, whatever their churchmanship. It has no sickly overlays, no false emphases and is derived directly from the gospel, so there can be no tiresome disputes about whether it is ‘scriptural ‘ or not.

The account Luke gives of the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth may be pure invention as regards detail, but its essential truth is unmistakeable and shows us something beautiful and elusive in literature: the kindness of kin, the friendship of women. They are presented to us from the perspective of a male writer, but one generous enough and sensitive enough to enter into the thoughts and feelings of his protagonists. The humility of Elizabeth, wondering at Mary’s visit, the child in her womb leaping for joy at the nearness of Salvation; the answering humility of Mary, proclaiming the goodness and greatness of God in a tissue of lyrical quotations from the Old Testament: these are things that affect us deeply. Every evening as darkness gathers the whole Church sings the Magnificat and is one again with Mary and Elizabeth, acknowledging the mirabilia Dei, rejoicing in God’s presence and action in our lives.

So far so good. Many a preacher has waxed eloquent on these themes, but I wonder whether in doing so we have lost sight of something we need to recover. Take that kindness of kin element, for example. Mary went to help her kinswoman Elizabeth, regardless of her own pregnancy. It was part of the duty of being ‘family’. Now, when the whole concept of family has been stretched so far it is almost broken, we may ask ourselves where we draw the line: parents, siblings, cousins, second cousins? Do we acknowledge the duty of helping anyone beyond our own immediate family? That journey into the Judean hill country was tough. Would we put ourselves out to such an extent to help a cousin? The answer will tell us (nearly) all we need to know about how we view our family relationships.

Friendships between women often take a slightly different form from friendships between men, but they are just as important for the individuals concerned. I think those of us who are women should be glad that we have in the Visitation the record of a friendship between two women, centred on God and entirely free from any form of competitiveness or exploitation. Neither Mary nor Elizabeth was ‘important’ in political or economic terms; neither was a great scholar or an artist or successful in worldly terms, yet from their unimportance flows the greatest of all mysteries: the motherhood of God, and the motherhood of the Forerunner. If John the Baptist and Jesus attract us through their humility and joyfulness, we must never forget the qualities they inherited. Was Jesus’ gift for friendship and his ease with women learned from Mary? And what of John, that strangely compelling wild man of the desert who fascinated Herod even as he condemned him?

Family and friends: important to us all, whether men or women, and capable of myriad forms. Today’s feast reminds us how grateful we should be for all the people who have played a significant part in our lives, who have helped us, befriended us, just been there for us as family members. They disclose God to us, and what could be more wonderful than that?

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Magnificat

Sometimes the Church’s liturgical year can seem very far removed from the concerns of ordinary people. Today we celebrate St Luke, and some of us will have had thoughts running down predictable channels, e.g. Gospel, Acts, allegedly a physician and an artist, wrote better Greek than his fellow evangelists, seems to have been more friendly to women than they, etc, etc. For others, St Luke is but half-remembered, as in the phrase ‘St Luke’s summer’ (which means that this year he won’t be thought of at all). For the majority, however, I suspect the fact that today is Anti-Slavery Day will have more  impact. The statistics are appalling: 27 million people enslaved world-wide; human trafficking into the UK at its highest-ever level; and Christians are talking about St Luke?

Secular-minded people will never understand how the commemoration of a man who died nearly two thousand years ago can matter today. Of the many aspects of his life and work we could single out, I would like to suggest just this: the canticle we know as the Magnificat. It is a tissue of Old Testament quotations put into the mouth of Our Lady and sung every evening at Vespers. In other words, somewhere in the world, at whatever hour of day or night it may be here in Britain, someone is singing this ancient prayer, proclaiming through the darkness the Church’s trust in her Lord, her belief in his goodness to the poor, his fidelity to his promise. It is the prayer of the poor and the humble, the oppressed and downtrodden; and it is sung by the whole Church, no matter how rich or comfortable an individual part of it may be. It is the song of a people set free and, as such, we Christians should sing it tonight on behalf of those still in chains. St Luke’s Day and Anti-Slavery Day have more in common than you might think.

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