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An image of ecumenism

· Elizabeth and Mary, two voices in unison to proclaim salvation ·

“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth” (Lk 1:39-40).

Why did Mary, as soon as the angel had announced to her the unusual and extraordinary event that awaited her, set out to go and see Elizabeth? Was she in need of a motherly or female presence? Did she want to exchange the secrets and experiences that are shared among pregnant women or to offer Elizabeth her help in the final stages of her pregnancy? Or perhaps to verify the truth of the Angel’s declaration that Elizabeth was already in her sixth month?

Far from wishing to embark on female psychology, the author of the Gospel according to Luke highlights a central theological message: it is the encounter of two fulfilments of God’s promises. The meeting of an old woman and a young woman is a meaningful image: the ancient hope of the People of Israel at last saw the fulfilment of their expectation, still in gestation of course but so close as to ensure that the ancient covenant could touch and embrace the new covenant. The Old Testament saw itself embraced by the New, and the two “fruits” of the promise, the two sons, represented at the same time the profound unity of this covenant completed in which God continued his work. John the Baptist, the last of the prophets of the People of Israel, exhorts his people to conversion in order to prepare the way of “the One who is coming”. Jesus brings salvation from Jerusalem “to the ends of the earth”, according to Luke’s words.

Between the two women (and between their two sons in the womb), between the two periods of the history with God there is no rivalry, no debasement, but simply a development, a history, a chronology: first Elizabeth, mother of the last prophet, then Mary, Mother of Jesus.

Elizabeth, like her husband, is “just”, an epithet used willingly in the Hebrew tradition for the believing faithful. Luke’s account presented in symmetry the announcement of the Angel Gabriel to Zechariah and then the announcement to Mary, a good method for emphasizing the parallel destiny of the two sons. They were to recognize each other, their messages were to correspond, and they were both to die as political martyrs, although their tasks had been different.

Mary is “full of grace” and it is she who takes the initiative to go to her kinswoman.

: Zilda, “Visitation” (mural, Naples)

The first mother will be the revealing voice, realizing that the second mother is already bearing the one who will change the world’s destiny. The same distribution of roles will soon affect the two sons. The Baptist, from a priestly family, a just man, represents the lucidity and radicalism of a proclaimer of a work of which Jesus, who comes from ordinary life, will be the fulfilment. Without him there is no salvation; but without John the Baptist there is no interpreter.

Elizabeth recognizes that the promises made to her people were about to be fulfilled. It is she who is full of “charisma”. However the true protagonist is the Holy Spirit, who fills Elizabeth, who makes the one who will be the prophet leap with joy, who enables all – even without understanding – to grasp the incredible event. Without the Spirit Jesus cannot be recognized as Christ.

And she exclaimed in a loud cry: ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears the babe in my womb leaped for joy’” (v. 42-44).

The Holy Spirit permits her to profess that Mary’s Son is Lord! Of course, today historians assert that John the Baptist had his disciples and his message of conversion and that he was not as “small” in comparison with Jesus as the Gospels show him to be. But all the Gospels, from the beginning, emphasize insistently Jesus’ pre-eminent role for salvation. Here Elizabeth plays the same role as her son: she prophesies that Jesus is already Lord!

“And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (v. 45).

Elizabeth passes on a blessing which gives strength and courage to Mary: a fruit of this blessing is the Magnificat! Mary sings and praises, and above all prophesies, as the great prophets did in the past, and thus opens a key to the interpretation of the whole Bible: God looks at the lowly, he raises up humble and ordinary people.

They both offer each other the gift of God, before taking it to all those who surround them. It is with them that the work is carried out, which ultimately is that of God’s visitation, the fullness of the fulfilment of the Trinitarian work for humanity.

This visitation could also be an illustration of the gift of ecumenism, since ecumenism is the movement which sets one Church moving towards the other. Is it the younger woman moving towards the woman with more experience or vice versa? There has always been a first movement in ecumenical history, an initiative of one Church which opened with trust to another, hoping that the latter would accept dialogue. The initiative comes from one side, but acceptance is awaited from the other.

However, there is an even more important asymmetry: the acceptance of difference. In the encounter it is necessarily someone “else” who comes, another life, another thought, another culture, perhaps as foreign as the New Testament might be to the just of the Old Testament.

Will the Holy Spirit make it possible to recognize the different Church as a bearer of the true faith? Will it be possible to accept the fruits of faith of the “other” Church? Without recognition there is no openness to the new. Elizabeth shows how the Spirit recognizes the new event: starting from the promise made to her people, starting from an active memory and from faith in God’s creative power. It is not a question of a break with the old covenant, but rather a repositioning of categories. The One who is coming is not a new prophet, but the “Completely Other”, of the “family” of Israel of course, but at the same time of another origin; of an ordinary human family, of course, but at the same time of another genealogy; the bearer of the traditions and faith of his people, of course, but at the same time the bearer of a new message.

It is the very aim of the “dialogues” to enable one to discern the differences in them that could separate them out from those which are acceptable or which even constitute an enrichment for every Church. In this encounter there could be a divine surprise! As between Elizabeth and Mary, the Churches have experienced in ecumenical dialogue the help offered by the Holy Spirit who makes it possible to recognize the faith that leads to the heart of Jesus as Christ and Lord in the other Church too, a true and just faith, expressed with different words and coherences.

Ecumenism is also an exchange of riches. The complementarity of the two histories that are united in the covenant with God, like the complementary difference between the two women, may also be an image of the complementarity that can enrich Churches of different confessions and histories. Some were in need of finding the centrality of the sovereignty of Jesus Christ; others had to discover the importance of pneumatological reality. However, all of them together arrived at the Father of every truth. The Churches need Christ as their Lord and need the Spirit who enables them to recognize him and to bear witness to him with hope.

Strong in the certainty that Elizabeth has given to her, Mary sings her empowerment! It is the greatest reciprocal gift that the Churches can offer one another: strength of witness. In the ecumenical movement witnessing benefits from the force of being sustained by many people, with different accents, in a unity of faith that professes Jesus Christ Lord. In this manner an exchange of strength is produced: the larger Churches sustain the smaller ones, giving them a voice and listening to them.

Let us imagine that the Visitation had happened in a different way. And what if the reciprocal jealousy of those women had made the dialogue impossible, had charged it with reproaches or criticism, with reactions motivated by rivalry?

If those two women were able to recognize each other so well, and above all to recognize the ones whom they were bearing, namely, the future of the faith of the fathers, it was because they knew they were benefiting from one and the same gift, the most incredible, the most implausible! One was too old, and the other too virginal to be pregnant! Yet the Lord had rendered them capable of bearing life, and better still the future of their people and of humanity.

Would ecumenism perhaps be achieved if the Churches all recognized that they were benefiting from the same incredible and implausible gift: being bearers of the future of the proclamation of salvation? For what precious fruit would it not be worth overcoming fear for ourselves, for our privileges and for our own future? The power of ecumenism is that Churches understand that they can offer one another God’s visitation.

Elisabeth Parmentier

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