Mary set out
and traveled to the hill country in haste
to a town of Judah,
where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting,
the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,
cried out in a loud voice and said,
“Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.”Luke 1:39-45
The Gospel reading for this Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Advent, shares the beginning of the Visitation: Mary’s journey “in haste” to her cousin, Elizabeth. Her visit took place during the early months of Mary’s pregnancy and the final months of Elizabeth’s. We can see in the Gospel the joy the two women experienced in becoming mothers and in celebrating together the arrival of Jesus.
Both Mary’s and Elizabeth’s pregnancies were unplanned—at least, by them. Elizabeth’s was a longed-for pregnancy that she and her husband had likely long ago stopped waiting for. After all, when the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that he will become a father, he tells the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). Mary was betrothed to St. Joseph but with the intention of remaining a virgin and, therefore, never becoming a mother.
God, however, had different plans for both Elizabeth and Mary (and, of course, Zechariah and Joseph). While Elizabeth must have struggled with the difficulties of being an elderly mother, and there’s no doubt Mary experienced great sorrow as a result of being the mother of God, we can see in both women great joy. I believe that this joy is what we, as pro-life advocates and ministry volunteers, must convey to women experiencing difficult pregnancies.
In a recent article for The Catholic Thing, Father Peter Stravinskas writes, “Joy is a state of being in which a person rests comfortable and assured of God’s power and will to save. Thus one can still be joyful after an earthquake, upon learning of one’s diagnosis as terminally ill, or amidst financial ruin.” A mother who is struggling to figure out how she can financially support a child, a couple who has recently received a frightening prenatal diagnosis, a teenager who is unexpectedly pregnant … these are all people our culture says should not be joyful. And they are all people who may struggle to feel joy. But joy can exist for them, and we can help them find that joy.
“Joy enabled Mary (like all the other great women of faith – Sarah, Hannah, Ruth – in the Hebrew Tradition) to see through the darkness of her unplanned pregnancy, beyond the ignominy of Calvary, to the glory of Christ’s resurrection and her own assumption,” continues Father Stravinskas.
So, how do we help expectant mothers and parents in crisis find joy?
Elizabeth’s first reaction to Mary’s pregnancy wasn’t pity. It wasn’t an offer to help her end the pregnancy. It wasn’t to tell her, “You can’t do this.” Her first response was joy.
Every new parent deserves to be told, “Congratulations!”
Alexa Hyman, a mom who supports women who (like she did) face unplanned pregnancies through a community called Back in February, writes on her website that “resounding joy” is what “every woman deserves to hear when she shares this news” that she is pregnant. “Despite imperfect circumstances, there was life beginning (not ending) and that alone was cause for celebration,” she continues. The friend of hers who was the first to respond to her news with joy “dismissed my shame not seeing my pregnancy as a problem but something to be excited about. He pulled the joy buried inside of me.” This conversation gave her the courage to cancel her abortion appointment.
Joy does not mean that pregnancy and parenthood aren’t difficult. It doesn’t discount the challenges that women and couples face. After Elizabeth rejoiced with Mary, I imagine that she gave her much-needed support, encouragement, and assistance.
But first, she rejoiced.